Summer survey led to dream job

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WW Sarah Yates - 20160308 2

After learning to fly through the family business, a passion for the outdoors saw Sarah Yates studying wildlife conservation. When she supported a bird monitoring project, her skills were combined for the perfect career.

Where were you trained?

I was lucky enough to be born into a flying family. My grandfather started a flying business in northern Maine – Folsom’s Air Service – in the 1940s, after he returned from World War II. My father took the business over and taught me to fly as a teenager.

As far as my education and training in biology; I’ve always had a love for the outdoors and natural history. I graduated from the University of Maine, Orono, with a wildlife ecology degree and completed a Master’s in wildlife conservation at Antioch University in Keene, New Hampshire.

Where did your career go from that point?

I started flying scenic flights, charter flights, and fire patrols for the family business. While flying for the air service one summer, I was asked to fly an aerial bird survey for the BioDiversity Research Institute – a company based out of southern Maine. I flew the survey with a biologist and told them I had a degree in wildlife ecology and was looking for employment in the field.

This chance meeting led to a full-time job with the BioDiversity Research Institute as a wildlife technician and pilot. While flying was not my main duty, I did fly all their wildlife aerial surveys, which included common loon and bald eagle surveys. I learned about the biologist-pilots that worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and was hired as temporary contractor to fly (right seat) during one of their larger surveys to learn about the programme.

In the meantime, I finished up my graduate degree and ended up flying wildlife aerial surveys for BioDiversity during the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010-2011. Finally a job opened up for a biologist-pilot with the USFWS and I applied and was hired in 2012.

What are your current duties?

I work for the USFWS migratory bird programme branch of migratory bird surveys. The mission is to conserve bird populations and their habitats, through careful monitoring, effective management, and by supporting national and international partnerships that conserve habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife.

This position serves in a dual capacity as a wildlife biologist and an airplane pilot. Main duties include designing and conducting aerial surveys for wildlife. Data collection, data management, and analysis are regular components of the job.

Yates flies migratory bird surveys for the US Fish and Wildlife Service

Can you give us an example of a major project?

We tend to have surveys we fly on an annual basis. One of these is the Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey. During this, we cover over 2 million square acres of waterfowl breeding habitat with airplanes and helicopters. It is the largest and longest-standing aerial survey in the world. It has provided over 50 years’ [worth] of data for waterfowl population and habitat management. Long-standing surveys like this are extremely rare and it’s definitely a crowning achievement of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

How do you know that your work helps?

This survey has contributed invaluable information about waterfowl populations that has been used to better manage waterfowl in North America. Not only is this survey invaluable for assessing the population status of many waterfowl species but it’s also allowed for the conservation of vast habitats throughout the United States and Canada.

What is most challenging about your job?

There is a lot of travel involved in this job. We don’t just fly surveys in our regions; in fact a lot of our surveys take place far away from home and in other countries. That is the hardest part for me. We all have families and it’s always hard to leave them for weeks at a time. Luckily, my family thinks I have a pretty cool job and I’ll always have some interesting adventures and stories to share with them. 

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