Holly Garrod (pronouns: she/her) is an ornithologist, science communicator and bird bander with a wealth of experience across the Americas. Holly fell in love with birds early on and after banding her first duck at the age of 10, Holly been chasing opportunities to work with them since! Whilst studying and doing the fieldwork circuit for a number of years, Holly built her experience across Central and South America working with birds and communities to build capacity and sustain long-term bird monitoring projects in the neotropics. Holly now works with BirdsCarribean and shares the journey she has taken flying project-to-project to move with the birds as they migrate annually across the Americas. She also shares her transition towards building more financial stability and locational consistency and her advice for sustaining a fun and meaningful career in field research and conservation.
Holly grew up in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA where she first became hooked on wildlife. Holly was first introduced to birds at the age of seven or eight and has been a self-confessed bird nerd ever since! She explains –
One of the most formative points for Holly early on was when she got to band a duck at the age of 10. She recounts the experience –
“And so, the first bird I ever banded was a mallard at 10 years old – and after that I just remember I was completely sold on birds. I absolutely fell in love with wildlife.”
Holly started birding all around Colorado, and got more and more hooked – chasing rarities and vagrants. She enrolled in her undergraduate degree at Humboldt State University (now California State Polytechnic University at Humboldt) in Northern California and after that she started the field work circuit – taking opportunities wherever she could to build her experience. Around the same time, Holly became emersed in the world of songbird banding and trained at Humboldt Bay Bird Observatory.
This opened up Holly’s eyes to bird projects in the tropics and she visited countries like Mexico to be involved in projects there. After bouncing around for a bit, Holly decided to do her Master’s with Dr. Robert Curry at Villanova University, Philadelphia. Her research took place in the Dominican Republic, studying the potential hybridization between Todies, a small and colourful gem of a bird, exclusive to the Caribbean.
Following this, Holly had a taste for the tropics: she ran the Jama-Coaque Bird Observatory in coastal Ecuador for about a year, then ran a bird banding program across Costa Rica with Costa Rica Bird Observatories for a few years, and most recently spent a month teaching bird banding to interns at the Toucan Ridge Bird Observatory in Stann Creek, Belize.
Holly now works as Banding Coordinator for BirdsCaribbean and also part-time with the University of Montana BirdEcology Lab (UMBEL) over the summer and fall. This means that Holly now follows a fairly reliable migration pattern of her own – spending her summers in Montana over the breeding season and then migrating south with the birds once the cooler weather of October hits.
HOW TO START OUT IN BIRD BANDING
Holly speaks extensively about bird banding and the incredible journeys made by most of North America’s migratory birds on the podcast. And bird banding is an incredible tool that can be used to understand these movements and how they fit into the lives of our fascinating feathered friends.
While Holly loves bird banding, when she reflects on her career, she is not a professional bird bander, paid only to band birds. She explains –
“I consider bird banding to be a really valuable tool – and a really valuable skillset we can use to catch birds and monitor their populations and better understand them, but there’s no career in it.”
But finding a mentor under whom you can build your experience is a great place to explore your passion for bird banding and start or continue your journey in this space. Holly warns against pigeon holing yourself or counting on bird banding as a career pathway –
“I think sometimes bird banders get a little pigeonholed because seeing wild birds in the hand is just amazing, right? But there’s so much more that goes on with that – and so some of my biggest advice is to build a ton of different skills and see where it takes you.”
Holly learnt Spanish whilst completing her Masters in the Dominican Republic and has always been motivated to work cross-culturally in her ornithological work. She explains –
“When I was doing my Master’s research, one thing I really noticed is that within the Caribbean, there’s a lot of birds that are understudied. Coming from North America which has more resources for biological research and is more privileged in that respect, I wanted to get more local biology students involved in my work to share knowledge and get more people interested.”
Holly hired several Dominican field assistants and this experience helped her to learn Spanish in order to communicate. She says –
“It was a really cool and I really pushed myself to learn Spanish because I realised that if I want to be doing this and if I want to connect with local biologists, I need to be talking to them in a way that they’ll understand.”
One of the most fascinating things for Holly has been the way local bird names change depending on where you are in the Caribbean – even though everyone is speaking Spanish! She explains –
“For example, the Smooth-billed Anis – in the Dominican Republic, they’re called Judio, which is thought to be because of the sound they make, then in Ecuador and other places in South America, they’re called garrapateroo, which means tick-eaters and then in Costa Rica, I believe they’re called Tijo , again based off their sound.”
“So, it’s really cool, right? The same bird changes name depending on where you’re at.”
Once she was comfortable in the basics of speaking Spanish, Holly continued to push herself and now she delivers workshops, trainings and other engagement and networking events across the Caribbean, translating between multiple languages.
“I’ve noticed that if you want any monitoring projects to be sustainable, you need local knowledge and local engagement by training people on the ground who can take that work over and also have a passion for it too, you know.”
Holly has felt for a long time that we need more science communicators to bridge the gap between scientific manuscripts and general knowledge throughout the community. She says –
Science communication is all about teaching the facts to change hearts and minds through information and connection. While Holly teaches all about birds generally with fun bird facts for a broader audience, she also has more specialised posts for fellow bird banders where she dives into more complex topics like molt.
“I’m a passionate molt nerd and through weekly posts on #moltmonday, hopefully I can pass some information onto people who are starting to get interested or want to learn more about bird banding.”
SUSTAINING YOURSELF ON THE FIELDWORK CIRCUIT
Holly has been on the fieldwork circuit for a number of years, jumping from contract to contract and chasing experiences and seasonal opportunities in all different countries. We asked Holly how she balances the other aspects of life, and keeps this lifestyle sustainable through the years –
One thing Holly has found to help with the turbulence is finding a good home base – somewhere to return to between contracts where friends, family and partners live. Another important part of finding more continuity between contracts has been finding more consistent remote work with BirdsCaribbean – giving her more financial stability and locational flexibility between short-term field contracts.
“Now I have found some semblance of a home base where I have summer work I enjoy and where my partner lives – and now I think I’m trying to find that balance of which contracts I take and which I don’t?”
CAREER ADVICE FOR ASPIRING ORNITHOLOGISTS
Holly remembers being that 12-year-old kid telling everyone she was going to be an ornithologist when she grew up – but with no idea of what that pathway looked like. Holly loves the opportunity to speak to her past self and people looking to pursue a similar pathway. She reflects –
“Something I really recommend is definitely finding opportunities – unfortunately, I think with wildlife work it takes a bit of volunteering and while I hope this will change, you should be on the lookout for small research projects [especially talking to professors at local universities] to be hands on and build your experience.”
“I think volunteering is a huge one – and then just sticking with it. Take a bunch of different field jobs because once you’re in – it gets easier.”
Holly’s first field jobs was doing point counts for birds around her home state, living out of a car. She says –
“I can remember just waking up in my car and rolling around doing point counts. It definitely doesn’t sound like a glamorous job, but it took me hiking on some beautiful areas I never would have gone otherwise.”
Holly has friends who did work with desert tortoise and kangaroo rat in Arizona, and grizzly bears in Alaska so she feels there is no need to limit yourself!
“There’s so many different aspects of wildlife work, you don’t have to pigeonhole yourself. And the more variety of research experiences you can get, the better!”
KEEP IN TOUCH
Want to hear more from Holly? Tune into our conversation on the podcast of follow her adventures on Instagram @orn.ecology. You can also check out some of the projects that Holly works on –
- BirdsCaribbean on Instagram @birdscaribbean,
- Osa Birds in Costa Rica on Instagram @osabirds,
- Toucan Ridge Ecological and Education Society in Belize on Instagram @birdsoftoucanridge, and,
- University of Montana Bird Ecology Lab on Instagram @umbirdecologylab.
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