24 Oct 2017

Abby McBride is a sketch biologist

9:51 am on 24 October 2017

She's a kind of 21st century Victorian naturalist.

The white faced storm petrel

The white faced storm petrel Photo: Abby McBride

Abby McBride is a sketch biologist. 

The 33-year-old from Maine, in the northeastern corner of the United States, made up the profession and ahe ways she describes it sounds pretty darn cool: 

“It involves exploring different landscapes around the world, observing and drawing wildlife, writing about the science and conservation issues involved, and publishing stories using a variety of digital media," McBride says. 

”I think of it as a sort of 21st century version of what the Victorian naturalists used to do.” 

McBride arrived in New Zealand last month, on a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship - a nine-month project during which she will explore seabird conservation in Aotearoa and produce stories published by National Geographic


Why seabirds? 

Seabirds are are declining precipitously all across the globe. I'm exploring this issue in New Zealand because it's the “seabird capital of world”—it has the world's most diverse and most endangered seabirds, and it has a remarkable community of people here working hard to save them. I hope my art and stories will draw attention to those efforts and inspire seabird conservation elsewhere.
You’ve visited some pretty cool places here so far - what’s been the best, or what are you most looking forward to?

I've already been able to visit quite a few mainland and island sites in the Auckland region and the Hauraki Gulf, with the help of my project host (Dr Matt Rayner of Auckland Museum) and other local seabird scientists who have allowed me to join their research expeditions. I spent a couple of days following a seabird-detection dog around the cliffs of Muriwai and Piha, while he sniffed out penguin and petrel burrows. I also got to spend time on the remote Mokohinau Islands, getting acquainted with seabirds as they flew into their burrows at night (the subject of my first National Geographic story). 

One of many things I'm looking forward to is retracing the 2013 discovery of the New Zealand storm petrel breeding grounds on Hauturu-ō-Toi Little Barrier Island, where this tiny seabird was found nesting after more than a century of being presumed extinct. I have other expeditions lined up all around the country, including to some of the islands far offshore. I'm excited about them all.

Burgess tubenoses

Burgess tubenoses Photo: Abby McBride

What are some things about New Zealand you think are wonderful, that people might not know about?

This country is known for its unique terrestrial wildlife, but even more impressive are its seabirds! A quarter of the world's seabirds breed in New Zealand, and a tenth breed only in New Zealand. These are incredible birds, ranging from huge albatrosses to tiny storm petrels to penguins, shags, gulls, and a lot of other species that spend their lives on the ocean. Many come to land only to nest on islands and remote corners of the coast, so they go unnoticed by the average person. But it's important to start paying attention, because these birds are essential members of the marine ecosystem, and a whopping ninety percent of New Zealand's seabirds are at risk of extinction. There are all sorts of organizations like the Northern New Zealand Seabird Trust that can connect you with information and opportunities to get involved.
You have a biology degree from Williams College and a science writing degree from MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] - how did you end up traveling the world drawing birds? Is this your day job?  

It was a circuitous path, but writing and illustrating nature stories has become more or less my day job. I spent a while experimenting with ways to combine science, art, and various other interests, and eventually decided to get a graduate degree in science writing. I worked as a communications professional for a university and later for the American Ornithological Society, a part-time job I could do remotely while traveling. Meanwhile I started investing time in independent and freelance projects, and recently switched over to doing those full time. To name some recent projects, earlier this year I was in Iceland writing and illustrating a magazine story about a geoscience expedition, in Borneo doing communications with a bird research crew in the forest of Mount Kinabalu, and in eastern Europe creating a nature art series called Adventures of Zee.
You’ve done some other pretty cool stuff too: farming in Spain, working on a lobster boat, bird-blogging across the western United States… You’ve also worked as an ecology researcher, a piano teacher and a pastry-chef in western Massachusetts. How did you fit this all in?!

Those particular escapades were all in the five years between university and grad school. I've taken an experimental approach toward my career and life in general, I think because I wanted to leave no stone unturned in finding the right pursuit (also, sometimes I just needed a job). This method sometimes feels unfocused but it has yielded some unexpected and gratifying results. Over the course of a decade I've managed to pull together some unifying threads while retaining a lot of flexibility to keep trying new things, so I'm pretty happy about that.
You studied siblicidal boobies on an uninhabited Galápagos island - sounds amazing! Tell me more.

I spent two seasons as a field biologist on Isla Española in the Galápagos, collecting data on the breeding biology of Nazca boobies (a position I applied for after seeing it advertised on an ornithology list serv [Ed’s note: I think this is American for an email subscription]). The siblicide aspect is a grim reality of survival for this species: if more than one chick hatches in a nest, the bigger one pushes the smaller one out, reducing its own risk of starvation. But these tough, goose-sized birds are interesting for a variety of reasons, and they live alongside swallow-tailed gulls, marine iguanas, and all sorts of other crazy Galápagos wildlife. My colleagues and I got to camp on the beach with Galápagos sea lions who sometimes tried to get into our tents, eat canned food for weeks on end, wear seawater-encrusted clothes, go swimming to take a bath, and work seven-day weeks in the equatorial sun, and it was the best time ever. Certainly one of the reasons for my current focus on seabirds.

Nazca boobies and Galapagos shearwaters

Nazca boobies and Galapagos shearwaters Photo: Abby McBride

Do you have a favourite seabird? 

When you spend a lot of time around birds you start appreciating how each species has its own form of beauty and its own endearing quirks. One species I particularly enjoyed in the Galápagos was the waved albatross; these critically endangered birds would wander in and out of our camp and plop right down next to us while we were eating breakfast. In Maine I've had fun hanging out with black guillemots and Atlantic puffins. Here in New Zealand I'm excited about getting to know some of the petrels, penguins, and other seabirds I've never encountered up north. I'm also a big fan of gulls.