Aly McKnight is all about the birds. “I fell in love with birds when I took ornithology at UMass,” says McKnight, who lives in Winterport. Little did the 44-year-old know back in 1999 that her passion would lead to valuable research about our planet’s ecosystem.
“While marine birds are interesting and valuable in and of themselves, they are even more valuable as the proverbial ‘canaries in a coal mine,’” says McKnight, whose studies have spanned the Americas. Birds just “kinda happened” for McKnight. “I actually worked with green crabs for my master’s degree, but I had a chance to volunteer for a seabird project in Alaska stemming from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.” That’s when McKnight fell in love with the lifestyle of a seabird field biologist, living and working on boats all the time in remote field camps, which McKnight calls “jaw-droppingly beautiful locales.”
In addition, McKnight says she was lucky to stumble into a discipline where women are generally perceived as equals. “Field biology involves a lot of manual labor, and I’ve always said that working from a remote field camp is 60 percent working to survive and 40 percent science. From my earliest experiences, there’s never been an expectation that women didn’t have to do just as much of that labor as the men, especially since we’d often outnumber them.”
She has lugged around 30-horsepower motors and shared equally in the joy of rolling hundreds of 55-gallon drums of gasoline up beaches to stock fuel caches for field work, along with other physically demanding chores. “I’ve also captained boats and ordered field crews around, and I’ve found in the course of training and leading field crews that if we never establish any gender-based expectations to start with, the crew tends to function as a team of equals.”
The lifestyle of a seabird biologist also includes struggles between science and politics. “It’s very hard to get funding for just the kind of long-term monitoring essential to tracking and planning for ecosystem changes. Science seems to be valued less and less in the current political atmosphere, but it’s really our best hope in climbing out of the brewing environmental disasters we are facing,” she says.
“I think we are fast approaching the stage where climate problems are immediate and in our faces, and at that point, our options for mitigating them or adapting to them will be much more limited than they were just decades ago.”
What keeps McKnight hooked is the uncharted territory regarding fish and bird interactions. She says birds are like barometers and, based on their feeding habits, we can learn more about struggles on the horizon for the commercial fishing industry. “Birds also respond to large-scale shifts in climate patterns, so they’re not just indicators of fish stocks. If we know how to interpret their trends, they can actually tell us a lot about what’s going on ‘under the surface’ in our oceans and atmosphere.”
McKnight, who has a PhD in ecology and environmental science, brings this hands-on knowledge back to the classroom at Unity College where she is a visiting assistant professor and a researcher with the Gulf of Maine Coastal Ecosystem Survey. Her work has been shared in National Geographic along with numerous agency reports and peer-reviewed publications. “I’m really just getting started,” she says.
Anne Gabbianelli is a veteran journalist and educator. She teaches at the University of Maine Augusta and Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor. Aside from sharing her passion for writing and communication with her students, she enjoys telling people’s stories.