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Traveling the world with a purpose: An interview with Rudy Badia

Updated: Mar 13

12 March, 2024

By Alexander Trifunovic

Rudy Badia with a Polynesian Wattled-Honeyeater (Foulehaio carunculata) on Tutuila Island, American Samoa, that was banded and released as part of a tropical bird monitoring program. Photo by Daniel Lipp.

 

1. How did you first get interested in birds?

RB: It started as a general interest in nature when I was six or seven. I would watch nature shows with my grandmother, and she would ask me to translate them into Spanish. When I was in high school, I did an afterschool ecology program for kids in the inner city of New York. We did things like water quality testing, monarch butterfly tagging, breeding bird surveys in the parks. And I also would go in the summer to a camp in the Adirondacks near Saranac Lake. 

Central Park, an urban greenspace surrounded by the concrete jungle of New York City. Photo by Anthony Quintano from Hillsborough, NJ, United States, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

2. Do you have a favorite bird or group of birds?

RB: Everybody always asks me, but I just enjoy being out in nature. I don’t really have a favorite. Nature is relaxing and it takes you away from all the chaos, even in a park in the concrete jungle of New York City. It’s my yoga. 

Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) nest in the Badlands of South Dakota, in the earliest nesting record for the state. Photo by Rudy Badia.

 

3. Can you briefly describe the journey you took to get to where you are now?

RB: I did many projects and volunteer work all over the world. I went all over North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific. I was exploring places and the people of these different areas. I made it traveling with a purpose doing volunteer work and different projects.


Beach on Ta’u Island, American Samoa. Photo by Emily Jeffreys.

 

In American Samoa, I was banding bird bandings and taking measurements as part of the Institute for Bird Population’s TMAPS program to learn more about the populations of Polynesian island birds. We investigated the breeding and molting dynamics of birds, which has rarely been possible in remote Pacific islands and the data we gathered has contributed to several publications. I continued working in the Samoan islands with the American Samoa Government Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources doing surveys for the Spotless Crake and other birds on Ta’u.

Spotless Crake in New South Wales, Australia. Photo by JJ Harrison, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

The Spotless Crake is very elusive, especially in Samoa, but we made 44 observations of this species in six months of intensive surveys. Previously, there were only five other detections for Spotless Crake on Ta’u from 1900 to 2010. The island is a half caldera, and the rainforest is very muddy and dense. The sites were very remote at the top of the island, so I would hire locals to help me bushwhack since they were very good with a machete. I ended up using the data I collected on Ta’u to do my master’s in Norway. I never thought getting my master’s degree would be achievable for an inner-city kid, but I applied and got into the program.

A Spotless Crake peers through the dense undergrowth on Ta’u, American Samoa. This is possibly the only photo of this species from Ta’u, a remote and rugged island paradise. Photo by Rudy Badia.

 

4. What were some of your favorite places you traveled? 

RB: I like Mexico a lot. It’s a huge country and a very diverse biota. I’ve been all over Mexico; it’s a fun place to bird but it can be sketchy at times. I also like Brazil and Malaysia. Each place has its own flair. I also liked the Bahamas, even though I only went to the beach twice. The Bahamas have some of the most pristine beaches, but I was mentoring and doing mist netting of forest birds most of the time I was there. 

Tufted Jay (Cyanocorax dickeyi), one of Mexico’s many endemic bird species. Photo by terathopius, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

5. What are some of your favorite memories from your fieldwork over the years?

RB: I went to southern Venezuela for an undergraduate research experience. Also, Hardangervidda National Park, Norway where there was a lightning strike kill of over three hundred reindeer. It was like a natural laboratory where we could study and monitor ecological succession with carcasses.

Bryophytes taking up nutrients from reindeer bone, four years after a lightning strike killed 324 reindeer in Hardangervidda National Park, Norway. Photo by Rudy Badia.


At first the decay killed all the plant life in the area, but after two years, there was an explosion of grasses, shrubs, and larvae that drew in insectivorous birds. A lot of these birds are solitary, but this site created a pull that drew them in to a small area. Working with colleagues, I published several papers on this that are among few studies looking at the use of carcasses by insectivorous birds.

Banded male Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii) in the Bahamas. Photo by Rudy Badia.

 

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

RB: The one in the Bahamas is where I learned the most; it was a different type of mist netting with long lines, and we were doing telemetry, bleeding birds looking at metabolites, and working with goat farmers. Goat farms ended up being a good conservation strategy in the Bahamas, because the goats would eat invasive plants and leave the fruiting shrubs. So, by having the farmers rotate the goats to prevent overgrazing, it let the local ecology recover. This project put farmers at the forefront of conservation, and bird species that really benefited was the Kirtland’s Warbler, one of the first bird species listed under the U. S. Endangered Species Act, which was finally removed from the list in 2019. Combined with the rotational burning in Michigan, we’ve seen about a tenfold increase in their population in the past few decades.

Kirtland’s Warbler benefitted from management both on their breeding grounds in the Great Lakes region and on their nonbreeding grounds in the Bahamas. Photo by Joel Trick of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

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

RB: Growing up I would try to do Christmas Bird Counts In New York City. Local parks in the city provide a lot of enjoyment, and as I said earlier, an escape from the chaos. 

 

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

RB: The most research has been done in northern countries in North America and Europe, so the future research should focus on tropical areas. Those places have the most diverse biota and a lot of species we don’t know a lot about. The oceans as well, looking at seabirds. They are understudied and hard to access. As for what we can do individually, eating less meat. I try to eat less meat, but I still eat chicken and try to eat a lot less beef. Also producing less monocultures of crops. There are a lot of parts, many of them political. But if we each do some good, it will have a big impact. 

Rudy Badia on Ofu Island, American Samoa. Photo by Bensy Benjamin.

 

9. What would be your advice to other young people looking to pursue a career in ornithology?

RB: Try to volunteer in local Audubon chapters. Be involved at local wildlife refuges, like if they need help putting up fences or doing habitat management. Get to know people and network and ask people how you can help in your local area. Also, find a mentor that resembles you if you can. There weren’t many people that looked like me in the field when I was younger, but it would be helpful to have a mentor. It’s about putting all the pieces together. 

Rudy Badia in Parque Nacional Los Paramos del Batallon y La Negra Paramo del Zumbrador in the Venezuelan Andes. Photo courtesy of Rudy Badia.


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