A Bird in the Hand & A Mentor in the Jungle

Field Notes From the Amazon

Submitted by Christa Dillabaugh, Director of The Morpho Institute

Have you ever had one of those moments that stopped you in your tracks? An unexpected reminder of a truth you know but may have forgotten? I have.

A Bird in the Hand

Last summer I decided to join Miami University’s Avian & Tropical Ecology Earth Expedition in southern Peru – an area of the Amazon I had always wanted to explore.  As the director of the Morpho Institute and the Educator Academy in the Amazon I get to work with some pretty amazing field researchers, but rarely as a student.  My goal for this field experience was to savor the opportunity to work alongside field ornithologists as they conducted bird surveys, deepen my knowledge about neotropical birds and their ecology, and realize my childhood dream of being a be a field ecologist – even for just a few weeks.  

Under the watchful eye of Dr. Ursula Valdez, an ornithologist from the University of Washington, we learned how to set up and monitor mist nets; watched as she painstakingly and gently extracted birds from the fine filaments feather by feather; and assisted with recording critical data on size, weight, sex, plumage, fat reserves, and more.  Before gently releasing the birds back to the forest, we attached tiny ankle bands and took a brief moment to marvel at the beauty resting in our hands.  

Photo Credits: J. Egerer & S. Fischer, 2019

But these were not the moments that made me pause, as magical as they were. No, the big take away was the power and importance of mentoring.  As an educator, of course I know this to be true in the classroom, but Ursula reminded me of just how critically important it is for biodiversity conservation. 

A Mentor in the Jungle

As part of her work as a university professor and as the co-founder and director of research at CECCOT, a Peruvian conservation NGO, Ursula is seeking out and mentoring young Peruvian women field biologists.  It is well known that women are a traditionally underrepresented group in STEM fields[1] and tropical ecology[2] [3] is no exception.  Formalized mentoring programs, like the one Ursula is developing have a proven track record of increasing recruitment and retention in conservation fields, particularly when it comes to minorities and women[4].   To watch these young women claim their conservation identity as they worked alongside Ursula was truly one of those moments that I will remember forever – an unexpected gift from the Amazon. 

Photo Credit: C. Dillabaugh, 2019

Mentoring the Future of Conservation, Today

But it doesn’t stop there.  Ursula has a way of seeing the big picture and her work as a mentor begins with raising up even younger next-generation conservationists.  She’s developing programs to engage young Peruvian children, especially girls, in nature play and nature study.  This is particularly important for Peruvian girls as there are so few female tropical ecology and conservation role models who share their heritage.  Watching these young girls connect so deeply with Ursula during just one afternoon of environmental education activities was another reminder of how powerful and important mentoring can be.  The research supports this in a multitude of ways and it is clear that all children benefit from guides and mentors who share their love of nature with them. These experieriences, especially with mentors ‘who look like me,’ provide children with experiences that help them see themselves as future conservation researchers or even just environmentally aware citizens.[5] [6]

Photo Credit: C. Dillabaugh, 2019

We All Need Mentors

Here at the Morpho Institute we take the concept of Conservation Through Education to heart and apply it to everything we do.  We are continually asking ourselves how we can harness the power of education to cultivate tomorrow’s conservation leaders – in the Amazon and here in the US.  We are always on the lookout for inspiration and ideas, and yes, even mentors. I am grateful that a new mentor entered my world this summer in the form of a brilliant tropical ornithologist, committed conservationist, and truly inspiring human.

Thank you Dr. Ursula Valdez for stopping me in my tracks this summer. I’ll be taking these moments with me and applying them to the work we do!

(Now can we get back to what I came for – the birds?? I won’t ever get enough of that!)


[1] “S&E Indicators 2018 | NSF – National Science Foundation.” Accessed September 25, 2019. https://nsf.gov/statistics/2018/nsb20181/.

[2] McGuire, Krista L., Richard B. Primack, and Elizabeth C. Losos. “Dramatic Improvements and Persistent Challenges for Women Ecologists.” BioScience 62, no. 2 (February 2012): 189–96.

[3]  “Implicit Gender, Racial Biases May Hinder Effectiveness of Conservation Science, Experts Warn.” Mongabay Environmental News, July 4, 2018. https://news.mongabay.com/2018/07/implicit-gender-racial-biases-may-hinder-effectiveness-of-conservation-science-experts-warn/.

[4] Wells, Kimberly M. Suedkamp, Mark R. Ryan, and Karl A. Smith. “Mentoring Guidelines for Wildlife Professionals.” Wildlife Society Bulletin 33, no. 2 (2005): 565–73.

[5]Chawla, L. (2007). Childhood Experiences Associated with Care for the Natural World: A Theoretical Framework for Empirical Results. Children, Youth and Environments, 17(4), 144–170.

[6] Dietz, J. M., Aviram, R., Bickford, S., Douthwaite, K., Goodstine, A., Izursa, J.-L., … Parker, K. (2004). Defining Leadership in Conservation: A View from the Top. Conservation Biology, 18(1), 274–278. Retrieved from JSTOR.

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