NEW Coasts

Biology Undergrads Chase Birds, Dreams at Audubon Sanctuary

The Donal C. O'Brien, Jr. Sanctuary at Pine Island serves as a living laboratory for aspiring biologists.

As the wind whistled through the trees of Kitty Hawk Woods and dragonflies buzzed in the distance, Kelsy Jefferson, a biology student at Chowan University, stood still. She was patiently waiting for the sound of a bird to break the silence and reveal its location.

As one of her many field assignments, Jefferson and her fellow students had been tasked with checking a dozen bird boxes lining a densely forested area and identifying the species nesting inside. The boxes were put up to attract Prothonotary Warblers—a small, bright yellow songbird— but it's not uncommon for other birds to swoop in and call one home.

Along with seven other students from Chowan University, Jefferson spent the week in and around Audubon's Donal C. O’Brien, Jr. Sanctuary at Pine Island studying coastal habitats in a course taught by professors Bo Dame and Heather McGuire. The 2,600-acre sanctuary sits on the Currituck Sound and provides a home base for students getting their first taste of biology fieldwork, including the many first-generation college students from Chowan University.

Plans for the future of the sanctuary include infrastructure upgrades to adapt the facilities to climate change, expanded investments in scientific research, enhanced strategic partnerships, and science-based habitat restoration in Currituck Sound. But the sanctuary has already been acting as a launching pad for many young nature-lovers and aspiring biologists.

Kelsy Jefferson and her classmates at Chowan University pose with some of their research subjects at the Donal C. O'Brien, Jr. Sanctuary at Pine Island. Photo: Bo Dame

"Heather and I have been planning a class like this since 1990,” said Dame, who has been bringing students to the sanctuary for five years. “Working together at Chowan University in the same department, and luckily connecting with [sanctuary Director] Robbie [Fearn] at Pine Island, has allowed us to teach this course. Without either of those two things, then the class would not be a reality.”

The class puts students through the rigors of fieldwork. While waking up each morning scratching mosquito bites and ending each night with a full body tick check isn't ideal, Jefferson gladly accepts all the discomforts that nature has to offer in exchange for much-needed data. "I hate the mosquitoes," she said.

From the beginning, Jefferson knew the road to her dream of a career in science would be paved with obstacles. Women of color are "not really represented or shown,” Jefferson said, and often face discrimination when trying to carve out a career in the field.

It can be intimidating walking into a room full of people who don't look like you. The urge to blend into the background can be overwhelming. However, Jefferson understands that for things to change, she has to ensure that her voice is being heard.

Kelsy Jefferson checks aquatic traps at Audubon's Donal C. O'Brien, Jr. Sanctuary at Pine Island. Photo: Bo Dame

Jefferson was born and raised in Annapolis, Maryland and comes from a long line of animal lovers. When she was a young girl, her grandmother brought home a baby bird and cared for it until it was strong enough to return to the wild. During the experience, Jefferson fell in love with the idea of helping animals in need. “Working with animals is my dream. I don't care how, but I know that I'm going to be working with animals,” she said.

Initially, college wasn't the route she was going to take. Neither of her parents went to college, so she didn't see much of a purpose in doing so, especially since she could become an animal trainer without a degree. But after doing some research, she realized that a college degree would provide her with a more stable future and prove to be beneficial in her career.

But for now, Jefferson is happy to be tromping around the marshes of the Outer Banks, setting up camera traps at Audubon’s sanctuary, conducting nocturnal wildlife surveys and checking nest boxes.

Back in the Kitty Hawk Woods, Jefferson peered into a nest box hoping to find a Prothonotary Warbler. Instead, a nesting pair of Carolina Chickadees had left a small clutch of eggs. Swatting away a mosquito, Jefferson nodded and scribbled in her notebook. If there's one thing she's learned from her fieldwork, it's to take the unexpected in stride.

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