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A Sense of Place: Thoughts from the 2017 Audubon Convention

by Wendy Walker, Community Engagement Manager

Camilla Cerea/Audubon

 

I’ve lived in Seattle for over twenty years. It’s as much my home as my native Ohio, and in many ways more a part of this adult me. I’m steeped in the changeable skies over Puget Sound, the welcome local phrase “the mountain is out today”, the burst of green spring that still surprises me a bit, coming so much earlier than my childhood memories of lilac bloom. When I began working for Seattle Audubon six months ago, I thought I knew all about Audubon. I’ve been a member of National Audubon for decades (thanks initially to a wise mother, who knew my loves better than I knew them myself), and more recently, a local member, as I began to appreciate the critical ground level work. Attending the 2017 Audubon Convention last month in Park City, Utah, broadened my perspective, and helped me place the local urban work we do in Seattle in a national context. I’d like to share just a few of the many things I brought back.

Range Maps

I met several birding heroes in Utah. I never expected to be able to say I’ve seen both Western and Eastern Kingbirds with Kenn Kaufman, author of the classic Big Year book Kingbird Highway, but it happened. New to me was Ella Sorensen, manager of the Gillmor Audubon Sanctuary on the Great Salt Lake, and one of our local hosts for the conference. Ella has been actively managing the sanctuary’s water flow for decades, ensuring that birds like Snowy Plovers have the right breeding habitat, and that water-hogging invasive weeds called phragmites are kept in check. Ella’s rich knowledge of the landscape and the complicated geologic history that shaped the Great Salt Lake basin, and her commitment to this special place, was inspiring. Plus, she led a fantastic morning of birdwatching at the Sanctuary. I hope to someday understand Puget Sound as well as Ella understands the Great Salt Lake.  

Camilla Cerea/Audubon

 

Multiple sessions at this year’s conference aimed to help chapters move commitments of diversity, equity, and inclusion from intention into practice across the Audubon network. I most looked forward to hearing Dr. J. Drew Lanham, poet, writer, wanderer, ornithologist, and professor of wildlife at Clemson University. You may have seen the short video, Rules for the Black Birdwatcher, which Dr. Lanham made in partnership with BirdNote. In his poetic keynote, Dr. Lanham speaks about wandering for his studies, but always returning back home to South Carolina. His talk took us on a journey of imagining ourselves as a single warbler — a tiny creature weighing less than a single paperclip — and factors that limit our range. Each person picked whether to envision the journey of a generalist bird found many places (Yellow Warbler), or a specialist that can only thrive within limited conditions, or an endangered bird that has evolved to be completely dependent on a specific habitat (Kirtland’s Warbler). Dr. Lanham draws parallels to how people take their own journeys, and what factors limit where home can be — asking us to imagine our own range map. One question that stood out: “Are your habitat requirements determined by a red line in a realtor’s book? If so, then habitat selection is being made for you.” His talk makes us think of place as an active choice — and how our choices limit others, whether birds or people — from having the same choice. As Seattle Audubon sharpens our focus on urban habitats, we’ll run into and need to answer these same questions. Watch an edited version of his keynote here.   

Climate Watch

Camilla Cerea/Audubon

 

Audubon piloted Climate Watch, a new citizen science program, following the 2014 publication of the Birds and Climate Change Report. As Seattle Audubon continues to think about our place in the flyway, this program may give us another way to observe and document changes. The study is currently collecting data on two groups of species: bluebirds and nuthatches. Per Audubon’s website, “Climate Watch aims to document species’ responses to climate change by having volunteers in the field look for birds where Audubon’s climate models project they should be in the 2020s.” I was able to attend an informative workshop on getting started with this project, and heard great things from the chapters and centers that have already been involved. We’ll be evaluating when and how our science program could join in this effort as a chapter.   

Lessons from Golden Eagle Audubon Society

As do many Audubon chapters, we think a lot about how to connect with young people and how to be welcoming and relevant to their interests. In Seattle, some of these young people are also new to the city and are finding how they fit in to their new country as immigrants or refugees. Golden Eagle Audubon Society in southwestern Idaho started the New Roots program specifically to introduce children in the refugee committee to some of the special places near Boise. I agree with the idea that connecting children deeply to the land and animals around can also connect them to their new home, and give them reasons to care about it. In the coming year, as Seattle Audubon continues to make new connections across the city, this program, and its founders may be a great resource.

Camilla Cerea/Audubon

There were so many other great stories from Park City, but for me the lasting impression is of how deeply every Audubon volunteer, staff member, and partner I met is committed to their own place. Whether protecting shorebird nesting sites in Morro Bay, CA, or creating urban nest box habitat for Brown-headed Nuthatches in Atlanta and for Chimney Swifts in Birmingham, Audubon members everywhere know that our flyways are only as strong as each stop along the way.   

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