Kelly Dempsey [pictured left] and Kiah Williams [pictured right] are Audubon Louisiana’s coastal bird technicians that reside in Grand Isle during the summer to band, observe and protect nesting shorebirds. They also lead guided beach bird walks to educate beach goers and visitors about shorebirds and ways to keep them safe while enjoying the beach. Photo: Harmony Hamilton, Audubon Louisiana

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Meet the Audubon Louisiana Technicians Making Beaches Safe for the Birds

Kiah Williams, Audubon Louisiana Coastal Bird Technician “I want to continue to study endangered species that do not really have a voice in the public eye as much as other birds.” Photo: Harmony Hamilton, Audubon Louisiana

Q: What did you study while you were an undergrad at Louisiana State University?

A: “I graduated from LSU in 2011. At LSU, I studied Natural Resources Ecology and Management with a concentration in Wildlife Ecology.  We mainly studied the common birds and other wildlife in Louisiana. We also studied all the things that go into protecting a habitat for different animals like techniques for how to manage habitat, food, water and plant resources.” 

Q: Why were you interested in Audubon?

A: “I was interested in Audubon because I know that they do a lot for bird habitats and different bird species that need stewards and that need a voice. There are a lot of birds in Louisiana and in other parts of the country that need help whether it’s because of beach habitat being eroded or over-development. I know that they did a lot of work conserving habitat and studying birds that do not always receive significant attention.”

Q: How did you find out about this position with Audubon?

A: “I’ve been applying for Audubon jobs since I graduated, but I applied for this job and Erik Johnson, [Director of Bird Conservation], contacted me. We actually both went to LSU around the same time even though he was a grad student. He was like, “I see you’ve been applying for a while. I’m glad that you’re still doing it.” So I ended up getting this job [in 2015] and could not take it, so this year I was like, “Hey I’m available now,” so that’s how I ended up here.”

Q: What is your favorite part of the job?

A: “Probably everything to do with the chicks. Monitoring nests and finding chicks when you’re not expecting to is fun. Also, searching for chicks, being able to band the chicks and re-sighting bands is also very rewarding.”

Q: How do you plan on using what you learn through this position in your future endeavors?

A: “I am really interested in working with threatened and endangered species. This experience helps with that goal, as does performing outreach and educating the public on a broad set of topics. I want to continue to study endangered species that do not really have as much visibility in the public eye as much as other birds. I’m hoping to go to grad school and [focus] on one species and study it more to become an expert.” 

Q: From your experiences, what impact are you seeing Audubon Louisiana, its staff and volunteers having on birds?

A: “I think our presence is really impacting people […] instead of there just being a sign saying “don’t do this,” you can walk up to us and we can point out things to people. Once they see that the birds are here, they begin to notice the cute chicks, especially on the bird walk. I think it hits closer to home when they can see how delicate the chicks and the birds in general are. They get to see what we do, and it gives them more respect for us and the birds. Once they talk to us, they are more aware of what’s happening out here.” 

Kelly Dempsey, Audubon Louisiana Coastal Bird Technician “…once we spout out awesome and cool facts and show them a chick, all of a sudden they see why these birds are important and that they need to give them their space.” Photo: Harmony Hamilton, Audubon Louisiana

Q: What did you study while you were an undergrad at NCSU?

A: “I went to North Carolina State and graduated in 2010. I studied Fisheries Wildlife and Conservation Biology with a wildlife concentration. It was mostly focused on habitat management. I was in the south so a lot of it was focused on game management. We were the minority but we tried to make our voices heard. A lot of it was habitat management but we did do some identification—like the ornithology for bird identification—but I think [North Carolina State] is trying to get away from that. They are now focused more on habitat management and the more holistic approach which is better than worrying about a specific species.”

Q: Why were you interested in Audubon?

A: “I was interested in working for Audubon because all of my prior positions had been with the government. I wanted to see the non-profit approach, and it has been really interesting. I like how they focus on some of the shorebirds, since it’s not something that you hunt and it’s not something that has a monetary value. I like how Audubon tries to focus on other species that otherwise would not get the attention or funding.”

Q: How did you find out about this position with Audubon?

A: “I actually found out about this job through a friend that goes to Nicholls. We met doing seasonal shorebird work at another refuge, so she knew what kind of positions I was looking for. She was joking about finding me a job that was near her so we could visit, and then this turned up! Once I read more and saw this would be a really great opportunity, I definitely had to apply, and luckily Erik decided to hire me.”

Q: How do you plan on using what you learn through this position in your future endeavors?

A: “The biggest thing that I’ve learned was how to communicate with other people about these important issues. When you work with the government, you either have someone higher up that you “hide behind” or you are just working on the specific site. So here, since we are working at a state park, we have to work with the park employees and interact with the public and visitors. Being able to improve my interpersonal skills will allow me to will allow me to – in future positions – help as Kiah said, “Give a voice to the birds.”

Q: What is your favorite part of the job?

A: “There are so many different things; I kind of like the variety of it. Some days we are hiking for miles and getting to watch beautiful sunrises, and some days it’s fun to run around and pick up chicks. Interacting with all types of different people has been fun. We’ve had people come and say, “We’ve been coming here for 10 years and we never knew these birds were here.” I think giving that wow moment to a lot of the visitors may be the best part.” 

Q: From your experiences, what impact are you seeing Audubon Louisiana and its staff and volunteers have on birds?

A: “Just informing people. They see these birds and they are just like, “Oh, they’re…seagulls.” But, once we spout out awesome and cool facts and show them a chick, all of a sudden they see why these birds are important and that they need to give them their space. Just seeing that moment click in their brain when they realize why it’s important – It is pretty cool to see that.”

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