Miranda in Nature
How I became a wildlife biologist
Welcome Back to Nova Conservation’s Blog!
This month’s Field Friday Spotlight is an interview with Miranda Wilkinson who works at The Jones Center at Ichauway in Newton, GA. Learn how this field biologist found her passion in wildlife conservation and carved her path into her Master’s Degree at UF through her past and current field position
Miranda Wilkinson holding a belted kingfisher that was banded during a project with the Tennessee River Gorge Trust to place GPS transmitters on the birds for a home range study.
*All animal handling done under proper permits
Loving wildlife conservation at an early age
From a young age, I have been extremely passionate about animals and the outdoors. Before I discovered wildlife conservation, I thought the only career option for me would be to become a veterinarian. Around my junior and senior year of high school, I began looking into other career paths involving animals besides veterinarians. Plus, I knew I wanted a job working outdoors.
Eventually, I stumbled upon a few fascinating articles about wildlife biology, specifically the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone and how it changed the entire ecosystem. It was like a lightbulb went off: I knew that was exactly the work I wanted to do.
College application time rolled around, and I found a small wildlife natural resource school in South Georgia called Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College (ABAC). After visiting, I immediately fell in love with the program and the campus.
As I began my college career and started working with wildlife, I discovered how extremely rewarding the field is. The work we do to protect nature makes me feel like I am actually making a difference.
Miranda taking a “snake selfie” with a Prairie rattlesnake (which was then carefully moved out of the road)
After graduating with my Bachelor’s in Wildlife Natural Resource Management, I immediately began working in the field. However, this is not a typical experience for most folks. I acknowledge that I was extremely lucky, but I also worked insanely hard, always keeping my dream of becoming a biologist on the horizon.
My first job was a non-game technician with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR). It was an hourly technician position that focused primarily on Henslow’s sparrows and other non-game wildlife.
This one job gave me so many amazing field work experiences: I got to net and band Henslow’s sparrows, do helicopter surveys for bald eagles and sandhill cranes, cannon-net shorebirds, dip-net for endangered frosted flatwoods salamanders, get certified as a wildland firefighter, and participate in a variety of other small non-game projects.
Miranda with a Henslow’s sparrow for a study looking at their distribution and ecology.
Five months into this role, I managed to get a summer field technician working on a yellow-billed cuckoo project with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, which is where I met Laura Marsh, the founder, and CEO of Nova Conservation. Laura and I worked together on a three-woman field team catching and tagging yellow-billed cuckoos with satellite transmitters. This position allowed me to travel across the country and gain awesome experience in the avian ecology field.
The “Cuckoo Crew” of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, summer 2019 after catching our last YBCU in TX. From left to right: Callie Stanley, Laura Marsh, and Miranda Wilkinson.
Miranda measuring the bill length of a yellow-billed cuckoo.
*All animal handling done with proper permits
After my summer with cuckoos, I luckily got back my job with Georgia DNR and was — again — a non-game technician. This time, I worked with prescribed burning and with citizen science data from eBird to create ArcMap GIS maps of imperiled bird species sightings for Georgia’s biotics database. I left at the end of 2019 when I received a position as a Conservation Fellow at the Jones Center at Ichauway, where I currently work and reside.
My current role
The Jones Center at Ichauway is a 29,000-acre Longleaf pine preserve and research center located in southwest Georgia. This position is an 18–24-month position where I work full-time as a conservation staff member while pursuing my Master’s degree with University of Florida.
My role has allowed me to get so much experience in so many different facets of conservation. From experience with land management using heavy machinery like tractors and skid-steers, to prescribed fire experience (we burn roughly 12,000 acres/year!), I have been able to gain exposure to new skills and techniques. Recently, I was even able to work with an endangered species of woodpecker endemic to the southeast, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker — which was an amazing opportunity.
Miranda on a Swedish ladder using a chainsaw to replace a red-cockaded woodpecker artificial cavity at the Jones Center at Ichauway.
Oh, I forgot to mention I have also gotten to try my hand at welding and mechanical maintenance in my position. I’m glad that even if a position in wildlife biology didn’t work out, I have a diverse enough resume that I hope to at least find an outdoor career.
Miranda holding a female Northern Bobwhite quail during a study using radio telemetry at private land reintroduction sites to examine survival and movement of bobwhite quail.
Fellowships are a great way to enter conservation
My position with the Jones Center has diversified my skillset and has given me many new experiences that I otherwise would have never had. I feel so lucky to have all of this under my belt at such a young age. I am now in the second year of this position, and one of the biggest perks of this job is the amount of networking and outreach with other organizations that the Jones Center allows me to do.
The center’s goal is to get Conservation Fellows career positions after they leave the Jones Center, so they connect us with other organizations including the Department of Defense, the U.S. Forest Service, Quail Forever, and other public and private entities in order for us to make connections and network.
I have been extremely fortunate to attain all the experience and positions I have held thus far. Upon graduation and completion of my Fellowship, I will be working as a Wildlife Biologist for South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Specifically, I’ll be working to ensure the survival and protection of endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.
Miranda holding a federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker nestling after banding it in order to identify individual woodpeckers on the Jones Center at Ichauway.
I believe roles like I currently — dynamic positions — are important in conservation. Many times, in the professional wildlife world, research and active applied conservation professionals are divided. You are either a researcher or on the applied land management and conservation side. My goal is to be someone who is somewhere in between.
I love to do research, but I also want to be the person who is actively putting research findings into place to better manage species of conservation concern, especially non-game species. Both sides of conservation are extremely vital to the preservation and conservation of wildlife, and being able to bridge the gap is, in my opinion, the best way we can continually protect and enjoy wildlife for years to come.
Advice to those thinking about a career in conservation
The one piece of advice I give to any young professional is to take any and every opportunity you can. Be willing to say ‘yes’ to work that might be intimidating or out of your comfort zone.
Some of the coolest work and experiences I have gotten has been work that I had no idea about before trying it. I am only 23 years old, and have already had some amazing experiences in wildlife and conservation, but I have also had to tough out some hard field conditions and tasks that were not always fun or glamourous. Continuing to power through tough spots and working hard no matter what position you are in are key things that I think any young professional should keep in mind when pursuing a wildlife career.
Miranda with her partner, Maritza Martinez, and one of their dogs, Chief.
Amazing experiences in field work
My past and current position can make conservation seem like a daunting career. Don’t worry, it’s even more rewarding than the amount of work you do. And some of the experiences you get while ‘on the clock’, are priceless.
During my time with Georgia DNR, I had the opportunity to spend three days surveying and dip-netting for endangered frosted flatwoods salamanders. There are only a couple of locations left in the entire world where this species still exists.
Over three days, a group of 5 biologists, including myself, dip-netted for these salamanders between 7 and 9 hours a day. On the second day, I put my dipnet in and pulled out a larval salamander. I had never seen frosted flatwoods salamander before, so I had no clue what the species was that I had just found.
I called out to the other biologists, and they ran over, and sure enough, it was a frosted flatwoods larva. We were stoked! After hours and hours of dip netting, finding this one individual made it all feel worth it.
A lot of hard, labor intensive work goes into the things we do, sometimes to only find one individual of a species you are looking for. However, those moments you do find them make all that work worth it in the end.
For me, being able to work outdoors and feel like I am making a difference in conservation. This is what inspires me the most to keep pursuing my passion, despite the hard work and long days.
An inspiring conservation community, but change is still needed
A great thing about the conservation field is the support and communication from the community. Whether on social media or in person, other scientists and conservationists all around the world are welcoming, friendly, and usually more than willing to chat.
Many of the experts in our community love letting young professionals come help and get experience, and they are willing to teach anyone who will listen. Meeting these sorts of people has always been inspiring to me. I love helping out with any biological research!
Although we have a welcoming community filled with experts ready to give advice, the biggest thing I would love to change about the conservation industry is the fact that it is inaccessible to people who can’t volunteer or work for little pay. I was personally fortunate and have worked paid positions since being out of school, however a lot of positions posted nowadays pay little to nothing for a lot of hard work. It’s a sad reality that needs to change.
This can make it really hard for young professionals to get their foot in the door if they cannot afford to take an unpaid position. Work should never be free, so we need to work together to ensure employers change their tactics.
Miranda looking to the future of conservation (Just kidding. She’s using a spotting score to resight color bands on adult red-cockaded woodpeckers to study dispersal of the birds.)
I support Nova Conservation because they are doing something innovative that has been missing in this industry for a while. They hold workplaces accountable and provide transparency that is crucial for young professionals to have a good experience in this field.
For those of us early in our careers, the ability to write and read reviews about organizations, connect with others in our stage of life and career development, and easily find wildlife volunteer opportunities all on a singular platform is something that conservationists have never been able to do. It’s great to see Nova Conservation providing such authentic and honest information.
Thank you so much Miranda for sharing your time and story!
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