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The life and times of a sketch biologist

The life and times of a sketch biologist

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Sketch biologist Abby McBride checks in on the Grey-faced Petrel chicks on Burgess Island.

Photo by Edin Whitehead

American sketch biologist Abby McBride is in New Zealand carrying out a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship focused on seabird conservation. Hosted by the Auckland Museum, she is traveling around the country writing and illustrating stories about New Zealanders’ extraordinary efforts to save “the seabird capital of the world."

Why did you decide to focus on telling stories about seabird conservation?

Seabirds are declining faster than any other group of birds. That’s happening all around the world, and it’s a serious problem, not just for the birds but for whole marine ecosystems. It’s also a hard problem to solve. These birds roam around entire oceans and across international borders. They’re suffering from all kinds of threats on land and sea. But in spite of how desperate their situation is, seabirds don’t get much attention. So my aim with this project is to help change that.

Why New Zealand?

New Zealand was far and away the best place for me to tell stories about seabird conservation. It has the most diverse seabirds in the world, and ninety percent of those birds are in danger of extinction. It’s also a world leader in finding innovative ways to save seabirds. New Zealanders have been working hard to control invasive predators, reduce the number of birds caught on fishing lines, and solve all kinds of other challenges. I’ll be traveling around the country to meet the seabirds and the people working to save them. I want to share their stories with an international audience, in hopes of inspiring seabird conservation elsewhere.

Are there any birds that you especially want to clap eyes on in New Zealand?

Any and all New Zealand birds will be amazing to see. One of the most exciting birds I’ve seen so far is the long-lost New Zealand Storm Petrel, a seabird that was thought to be extinct for the whole 20th century but was recently found nesting on Little Barrier Island. Going out into the Hauraki Gulf, I got to watch these little birds flying madly around the boat in pursuit of food, with their breeding island in the background. Pretty surreal.

You’ve got a biology degree from Williams College, and more recently a science writing degree from MIT. How did this help to bring the threads of your career together?

After my biology degree I explored a lot of different ways to be involved with wildlife—doing field biology research in the Galápagos, working on a lobster boat in Maine, guiding nature tours, being a nature illustrator, and others. Then I hit on the idea of science writing as a way to bring together a bunch of my interests. I could observe and research plants and animals, and I could find creative ways to tell stories about them. I could even use my illustrations. Doing a graduate program in science writing was helpful in getting me started on that path.

The thigh-busting climb up some of the cliffs in the Mokohinau islands.

Photo by Abby McBride

How did you become a ‘sketch biologist’?

I’ve been drawing pictures of animals since I was little, and I’ve done a bit of professional wildlife illustration ever since I got my biology degree. But for me the final piece of the puzzle was the science writing. After getting a science writing degree I had a couple jobs doing science communications for institutions. Meanwhile I started working on independent projects, writing and illustrating stories about the animals I encountered in my travels. Recently I moved into full time freelancing as a sketch biologist, which is my own name for what I do! So far in 2017 I’ve done science storytelling projects in eastern Europe, Borneo, Iceland, and now New Zealand.

Why are seabirds important?

Seabirds are unique and valuable in the way they connect the land and sea. They feed on fish and other marine creatures, then deposit guano when they come to the coasts where they nest. So they’re really important in nutrient cycling. They’re also top predators and they don’t have a lot of offspring, so their populations are sensitive to changing food supplies and other shifting conditions in the ocean. That makes them valuable indicators of how the environment is doing, like canaries in a coal mine. They’re really worth paying attention to.

Joanna Sim finds a bird burrow with the help of her dog Rua

Photo by Abby McBride

You’ve been here for about a month; what kind of adventures have you been on so far? 

In my first week I went to the Mokohinau Islands with Dr. Matt Rayner, who is the curator of land vertebrates here at the Museum. He and some other researchers were checking in on the seabirds that nest in burrows there. I’ve been out in the Hauraki Gulf several other times too. I got to swim over from the boat to Maria Island, which is owned by the Neureuter family and was the first island in the world to have rats eradicated. Now it’s full of seabird burrows—you have to be very careful walking around. I’ve also been to Tawharanui and to some sites on the west coast. I even had a chance to follow an official conservation dog around the cliffs while he sniffed out penguin and petrel nests. Only in New Zealand…

Maria island - the first island in the world where rats were eradicated.

Photo by Abby McBride

Do you think New Zealanders realise that NZ is the ‘Seabird Capital of the World’?

I’m pretty sure most New Zealanders aren’t aware of how cool their seabirds are. That might be because seabirds generally spend their lives out of our sight, roaming over the ocean and nesting on remote coastlines. So I hope my art will help attract interest in these really beautiful animals that most people haven’t seen in real life. But another great thing about New Zealand is that there are lots of opportunities to get involved with seabird conservation, through things like open sanctuaries and conservation organizations that welcome volunteers. If you want, you can see some of these birds for yourself! Searching online for the Northern New Zealand Seabird Trust is a good place to start.

Why do you think these conservation stories are important?

I think the conservation projects that are helping New Zealand seabirds can also provide inspiration for the rest of the world. A lot of these projects owe their success to one or two determined people, who are working with little to no funding but are driven by the need to save seabirds. When they run into difficulties they find other ways to make things happen. This attitude and a lot of the techniques themselves can be emulated anywhere else. I hope my stories can help spread the word about that, as well help readers get to know the seabirds themselves and recognize the importance of saving them.

Have you decided to campaign for a bird in Bird of the Year?

It’s hard to choose just one bird when there are so many that need help! But I like the way this competition treats each species sort of like a celebrity or a superhero. It looks like only one seabird has won in previous years, so definitely overdue for another seabird winner.

To follow Abby's blog, see here:


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