Working with Wildlife: Interview with Anna Buckardt

By Sarah Toner March 9, 2016
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   This week’s post is an interview with Anna Buckardt. Anna is pursuing a Master’s Degree at the University of Maine, where she is studying American Woodcocks. She attended the first Cornell Young Birder’s Event in 2009 and graduated from Michigan Technological University with a degree in Wildlife Ecology and Management. Since then, she has worked in a variety of bird-related field jobs, turning her passion into her career.

What made you interested in birds and wildlife?

    I have been a birder for as long as I can remember. My mom is an environmental educator and an avid birder and hiker, and I grew up spending more time outside than in. I was extremely fortunate to grow up surrounded by a 500-acre forest. Exploring and learning in the woods made me interested in the environment and wildlife, as did the many family vacations that we organized to see new birds and habitats. When I was eight, we went to Florida and spent an exciting week in the Everglades, where we got to see fantastic water birds, mangroves, and alligators. When I was twelve, we visited Arizona to see the Grand Canyon. The canyon itself was magical, but I was just as impressed by the California Condors soaring above it. We also spent a day with a private bird guide who was patient and enthusiastic, making sure I saw every bird we found and helping me get over 100 lifers! These birding experiences gave me a greater appreciation for birds, including those in my backyard.

How has your interest influenced your career plan?

     My interest in the environment and birds led me to earn my undergraduate degree in both AEES (Applied Ecology and Environmental Science) and Wildlife Ecology and Management. I also joined Michigan Tech’s student chapter of The Wildlife Society, which exposed me to wildlife research and helped me define my interests. I’m still not 100% sure what I want to do for a career in the long run, but for now I have been very happy and fulfilled doing field work and bird research.

How did you hear about the Young Birders Event? What experiences did you have there?

Anna using recording equipment at the Young Birders Event. Photo by Susan Spear

Anna using recording equipment at the Young Birders Event. Photo by Susan Spear

     My mom heard about the Cornell Young Birders Event and brought home the information. I applied and was thrilled when I was accepted. Those few days in Ithaca opened my eyes to many career opportunities related to ornithology. I had always thought of birding as a hobby, and I wasn’t aware of the wide array of research and the many opportunities available in ornithology. We learned about citizen science and the eBird project that was about to become public. We learned how to sketch birds. We got to try using audio recording and video equipment to capture bird sounds and behaviors. We got to see the collection of birds at the lab and learned a bit about genetics and taxonomy. We watched a taxidermy demonstration. And, of course, we did lots of birding. The Young Birders Event increased my passion for birds even more, and it definitely helped me decide to study wildlife in college.

What sorts of field jobs have you had? How did you find, apply for, and prepare for field jobs?

    My first field job experience was working on an undergraduate research project after hearing about grants for undergraduate research at my school. When I told the ornithology professor that I was interested in undergraduate research related to birds, he was excited by my enthusiasm and happy to advise me. He offered me an opportunity to work on some additional questions related to a current project–in Hawaii! I was thrilled at this opportunity to focus on endangered and endemic birds. After working on a project proposal and being awarded the grant, I spent five weeks on the big island of Hawaii investigating how invasive rats impacted the foraging location of native Hawaiian birds. I then analyzed and presented the findings in several poster presentations. After that, I was hooked on field work and research.

    The next summer, I searched many job boards and our department’s career newsletter for opportunities to do ornithology field work. I found the Texas A and M Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Science Job Board and the OSNA (Ornithological Society of North America) Job Board to be great places to find bird-related work. After a number of rejections and many non-responses, I was eventually invited to a phone interview and then offered a job at the Southern Sierra Research Station in California, where I would be doing Southwestern Willow Flycatcher detection surveys, color band resighting, nest searching, Brown-headed Cowbird management, and Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo detection surveys. I would also be assisting with target mist-netting and banding the two species. I learned later that I was hired not because of my fieldwork experience (which was scant) but because of my enthusiasm and willingness to learn.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Photo by Paul Prappas, ML 20235561.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Photo by Paul Prappas, ML 20235561.

    I spent two great summers at the Southern Sierra Research Station. The second summer, I asked to work on an additional research project and help with more of the data analysis, in addition to doing general data collection field work. This work involved me more in study design and data synthesis and even gave me the opportunity to present our findings at the Western Section Conference of The Wildlife Society this February. It never hurts to ask!

    Last fall, I worked for the Great Basin Bird Observatory in Nevada, conducting avian point counts and mortality surveys at and around a Solar Energy Facility. While it was difficult at times, I was very glad to have had that additional experience to learn more about my interests while building my resume.

Why did you decide to go on to a Master’s program? How did you choose a program that suited your interests?

    I decided to pursue a Master’s degree because I love learning and academics and because I wanted to be involved in research. Field work is great, but research allows me to design studies, perform data analysis, and present findings. I wanted to be able to work on a project that I could call my own from design to publication. In addition, I think I want to work towards a PhD and become an ornithology professor. I was fortunate that the program kind of chose me: an undergraduate professor whom I knew from serving as president of the Tech chapter of The Wildlife Society had recently been hired at the University of Maine, and she contacted me to see if I was interested in a project. Because I had worked closely with other professors she knew, she felt comfortable extending this opportunity to me.

Is there any other advice you’d like to share with young birders about studying or pursuing a career in ornithology?

Here are some suggestions for increasing your opportunities and job offers, ornithological or otherwise:

  1. Be curious, and show it! Teachers like students who are interested in learning. They remember you and reach out when they have cool opportunities.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Someone else in the room besides you is likely wondering the same thing, and your teacher will know you are interested and serious about learning.
  3. Don’t be afraid to approach your professors or professionals in your field. In general they want you to succeed. The worst that can happen is they say no to your request, leaving you back where you started.
  4. Volunteer! Volunteering lets you try new things and build your interests and your resume. Being a dedicated volunteer can sometimes lead to being hired.
  5. Ask for advice–about your resume, how to interview, which job to take, or what to do after you graduate–from as many different people as you can. By seeking advice, you are learning and building valuable connections.
  6. Attend a professional conference in your field. It will be overwhelming and scary, but that’s why it’s important to get comfortable now, early in your career. Conferences also help with networking skills and show you the professional side of things.
  7. Always stay passionate about what you’re doing. If you lose passion, try finding a new perspective or a new path that will bring that passion back, because it is critical to a fulfilling career.

Sarah Toner