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Getting people hooked on birds to make the world better: An interview with Amanda Preece of Monterey Audubon

Updated: Mar 1

28 February, 2024 By Alexander Trifunovic

Amanda Preece, environmental advocate for Monterey Audubon, on a birding expedition in Norway. Photo by Nathan Whittington.

 

1.     How did you first become interested in birds?

AP: I actually ignored birds most of my life. You focus on what other people emphasize, so birds and plants were always just in the background. When I was in college at Humboldt, my roommate was taking an ornithology class, and I was like, sure why not? I took that class, and it zapped my brain and set the course for the rest of my life. I don’t know if my roommate was taking a mammalogy or herpetology class, if I would be a crazy mammalogist or herpetologist, but it was birds and now I am one hundred percent birds. 

Dark-eyed Junco. Photo by Dan Marks.

 

2.     Do you have a favorite bird species or group?

AP: I like that group of birds option. A lot of the time when people ask me, I just say ‘whatever bird I’m looking at right now’. I have some dark-eyed juncos on my deck right now, so I would say dark-eyed juncos are my favorite because they are right here in front of me. As a group of birds, I really like working with seabirds. I have done work with Common Murres at the aquarium and in wildlife rehabilitation, and they are just very polite birds. Part of the appeal of seabirds might also be the mystery surrounding them. A lot of their lives happen far offshore or in remote places. They nest on offshore islands and sea stacks so it’s harder to watch them all the time.

Young Common Murre in Monterey Bay that appears to have oil on its upper chest. Photo by Dan Marks.


3.     What is your favorite place to go birding or experience nature?

AP: I worked at Asilomar State Beach and Conference Grounds, so that’s probably one of my favorite places to hang out. I did a lot of work there with native plants and removing weeds and invasive plants, as well as the nest box project, so I have a real personal connection to that place. There is a lot of plant diversity in a very small area and lots of habitats, so there are a lot of different birds. The trails are all smooth and accessible, which is great for older people or anybody that wants a smooth path to walk on and experience nature. 

California Thrasher singing at Asilomar State Beach. Photo by Dan Marks.


 4.     Can you tell me about the path that led you to your current position?

AP: My path was indirect since I didn’t know this kind of job existed. When I was younger, I thought you were either a doctor or a lawyer, or if you wanted to work with animals, a veterinarian. Through my scholastic career, I was just a general BS in biology. I didn’t know you could get a degree in wildlife management; I just liked animals and knew I wanted to do something with animals. I worked as a zookeeper first and then I moved to the Monterey Bay Area Aquarium doing aviculture, and these jobs have a much more personal connection to the animals you are working with. The goal is to show people the animals they can see in the bay and try to educate them on how amazing and important these birds are. I then moved to working for the California State Parks since the schedule was more flexible while I was looking at graduate school. I worked at Asilomar doing native plant work and I really started to recognize that connection between the plants and the animals.

Red Phalarope at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Photo by Dan Marks.

 

While working at the parks, I also worked part time for the Monterey County SPCA doing wildlife rehabilitation. Especially this time of year, we would get a lot of seabirds at the clinic, so lots of common murres getting stranded and then brought in. I find it helpful to know how to help birds, like if I see an injured bird I can scoop them up and take them where they need to go. I still work for the parks and I started volunteering a few years ago for Monterey Audubon. When I started getting into birds, I didn’t realize Audubon dealt with birds since it’s not in the name. I did some volunteer work with them, and then we started looking at staffing to help grow the organization. They eventually decided on hiring a full-time staff member, and that’s how I got my current position with Monterey Audubon.  

Black Oystercatcher at sunset over Asilomar State Beach. Photo by Dan Marks.


5.     What does being an environmental advocate for Monterey Audubon involve?

AP: It’s tricky to put an exact definition on it. When it was created, the goal was to focus on policy, like monitoring coastal development and enacting ordinances for cities, like installing bird-safe glass on buildings. It now involves running a nonprofit, social media, getting infrastructure in place for more members, donors, and partners, working out logistics, and reaching out to board members. This was unexpected; my prior skill set mostly included feeding baby birds! We do field trips and bird walks for young birders. I also do birdabilitywalks, which are focused on increasing the accessibility of birds and nature for more people. Also, a lot of outreach and social media. I do trainings for a local land trust to help them increase their monitoring and management of habitats for birds. I just taught a group how to use eBird to upload their data and bird sightings. I also teach beginner birding classes, and I have to step back and remember what it was like to be new at birding when I was just starting out. It’s about staying humble and remembering other people aren’t there yet; not everyone has that birder brain yet. I also have a group of volunteers helping with social media and with the projects we do.  

Snowy Plover on Carmel River State Beach. Photo by Dan Marks.


6.     Can you tell me about a project or two that has really meant a lot to you or that you are proud of?

AP: We have a shorebird nesting project focusing on two species: the Snowy Plover which is threatened at the federal level, and the Black Oystercatcher. Both of these birds don’t like people and they are pretty sensitive to disturbances when nesting, so we are doing monitoring and outreach. Not everyone knows that their dog running off leash is romping around near a shorebird nest, so you have to keep your cool and try to explain. A lot of the Snowy Plover nests are on sandy beaches at the parks on state land, so they have more resources to monitor and protect shorebirds. But the Black Oystercatchers nest on rocky shorelines, with a big segment of our monitoring area managed by the city of Pacific Grove, and they don’t have the same resources for monitoring birds as the state parks. We’ve had a ten-year monitoring program for oystercatchers, and we've stayed in close contact with city council and staff. We have to continually advocate for these birds, since their plight might seem unimportant compared to other problems the city has to deal with. Finally in November, we signed a memorandum of understanding with the city of Pacific Grove to put up signs and protections for shorebirds. So everything is now legal and understood since signs on the coast have to go through the coastal commission. Now we can put up signs and barriers to keep people from disturbing the birds, so I am super excited about that!    

Two young Black Oystercatchers that were monitored by Monterey Audubon from egg to fledging at Asilomar State Beach. Photo by Hugo Ceja.


7.     What are some of your favorite memories from your field work?

AP: Bringing it back around to oystercatchers, they are one of the main species we work on. They are often overlooked since they aren’t listed and don’t receive the same protections as the Snowy Plovers. I have monitored an oystercatcher pair, MP1, since 2016. You’ll see the nest, and then two eggs, and then chicks, yippee! This oystercatcher pair usually only nests once per season, so that might be resource driven. One of our other monitored pairs just gave up completely on nesting and left. But this pair that I was monitoring hatched two eggs on the summer solstice in 2018. It was near sunrise, and the female was sitting over the nest like a raptor hunches over prey. I was thinking she had babies under there, and she stood up and there were babies! I called everyone and sent them blurry phone pictures. And they lived to fledging! It was the first time for that pair, a truly momentous occasion, the best year of my life! It was just amazing! It hasn’t happened since of course; maybe this year. We’ve had volunteers get frustrated and disheartened since the babies keep getting eaten. The survival rate for oystercatcher chicks is very low. They are more long-lived than the plovers, so the adults have more chances. Even so, it’s very emotionally charged. It can be devastating when something goes wrong and euphoric when something amazing happens.  

Western Gulls and Sooty Shearwaters feeding around a humpback whale and sea lions in Monterey Bay. Photo by Dan Marks.

 

8.     Can you talk about any priorities or hopes for future bird projects or conservation?

AP: We’re doing a cool project called the Point Pinos Seawatch in Pacific Grove from November 1st to December 15th. It’s like a hawkwatch where you sit and watch for birds, but you're looking for seabirds out on the ocean. We’ve been doing this for seven years, so now we have some graphs and charts with trends to be analyzed more formally by some postdocs and data managers that are helping out. We hope to use this data to inform and advise offshore windmills that will be producing renewable energy. There are lots of volunteers and it’s exciting using all that work to put something together. We won’t have any windmills here in Monterey since we are a marine sanctuary, but Humboldt and Morro Bay already have bids for offshore wind energy. This is the scoping phase even before an environmental impact report, so we are trying to stay in the loop and informed. There is a big dataset for the Pacific from NOAA with offshore marine transects of things like plankton and seabirds. Our surveys are limited by being from land, so we are trying to incorporate the data on offshore movement as well.

Western Sandpipers foraging at the beach in Moss Landing. Photo by Dan Marks.

 

Another thing, we got money to install a Motus tower. We’re installing it at one of the University of California reserves in Marina. The east coast is ahead of us with a more robust Motus network, so when someone contacted me asking if we wanted to partner, I jumped at the opportunity. In the future, we could get some Motus tags on Tricolored Blackbirds. They are very ephemeral in their distribution and nest colonially. They are mostly on private agricultural and ranch land, so it would be good to get a fine scale model of their movements. Also, it would be interesting to get some Motus tags on seabirds to see their offshore movements. A crazy component of the offshore wind farms is bats. Yeah, offshore bat movement! Motus towers on offshore rocks have detected a lot of bat movement, and USGS is doing a lot with the bat tracking.

Tricolored Blackbird. Photo by David Menke.

 

9.     What advice would you have for young people interested in working with birds?

AP: My default answer is to volunteer anywhere you can. Then encourage the groups you are volunteering for to have paid internships if they don’t already. Also seize every opportunity, even ones that are vaguely environmental. Insert birds into every conversation, so even if you are working in outdoor recreation, try to emphasize how birds and being out in nature is good for your health. Most places I worked, I volunteered with them first; it takes time to build connections and relationships. Birds are like the gateway drug to enjoying nature, and they are easy to see and show new people. Try to build community around birds, make it welcoming and joyful, and inspire and motivate others. Finding other angles is good too. For me, I like to see the bird and put it on a list and that’s good enough, but some people like to draw and others like to do poetry. Just find new avenues to connect people with birds. I always am trying to cultivate a spark moment for people to get people hooked and make the world better. That’s my job now, and I am so lucky.

Amanda (far right) and three other Coastal Cleanup Day volunteers at Carmel River State Beach for the annual event. Photo by Yvonne Wright.

 

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