Biologist

Please tell our readers a little bit about yourself.

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My name is Aimee Tomcho. Originally from northern Virginia, I have lived in North Carolina since 1998, beginning on the coast and now in the mountains. I knew I wanted to pursue a career in natural resources at a young age when I began to notice the birds in my backyard. My “spark” bird was the scarlet tanager, which generally sings from the treetops but came down to our bird feeder one day.

My first “real” job was with a county park in Virginia where I worked my way up from selling hotdogs as a concessionaire to climbing in the treetops as a ropes course instructor. While I was studying wildlife sciences at Virginia Tech, I was able to volunteer for many types of conservation activities and get experience in everything from black bears to salamanders and aquatic invertebrates to ducks. Whenever people ask me what they can do to help wildlife, I always recommended volunteering your time. It not only allows you to learn so much about nature, but also provides a very important contribution to the world of science!

I spent some time after college working with the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker in the longleaf pine forests of Florida and North Carolina. I earned a master of science degree from Clemson University studying the effects of fire in Appalachian oak forests. I now focus my time on bird conservation efforts with Audubon North Carolina as a conservation biologist.

I have two inquisitive and energetic sons, ages 8 and 10, who sometimes get to help me when I work with birds and other animals.

How are you associated with the Audubon Society?
I work for Audubon North Carolina, which is one of 22 states that have offices of the National Audubon Society. I am also a member of the Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society, one of 10 Audubon chapters in North Carolina.

wiltb2What does the Audubon Society do and why is this work important?
Our mission is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity. This work is important because I believe we are responsible for our “piece of the puzzle.” Audubon’s work considers “Flyways” (the flight path used in bird migration) as our piece of the puzzle since many birds migrate to Central and South America. But your piece of the puzzle could be your backyard!

What exactly does a conservation biologist do?
A conservation biologist studies different habitats and the organisms that live within these habitats (A habitat is made of the physical and biological surroundings of an organism. For example, a habitat can be a forest or it can be a field). With this knowledge, a conservation biologist is able to understand how each part of every habitat fits together to make an ecosystem. Therefore, when something becomes imbalanced (like when the number of animals in that habitat decline), we are able to use our knowledge to help restore the balance.

What training does it take to be a conservation biologist?
Most biologists get a bachelor of science degree from a college or university. Many biologists study for advanced degrees as well, such as a master of science and even a Ph.D., or doctoral degree.

What is a typical day at work like for you?
Much of my work is based on the seasons. In spring, conservation biologists get really busy! Spring is when animals look for mates and have babies, so they are often more visible during these months, making it a little easier for biologists to study them. Spring is especially important for ornithologists, or biologists who study birds, because this is when many birds migrate back to the places they make nests. I study the golden-winged warbler, which flies from as far away as Ecuador in South America to make a nest in North Carolina! So in the spring, we do a lot of surveys either by listening for birds (they each have their own song) or watching birds closely with a spotting scope or binoculars. Sometimes we set up nets to catch birds so we can take measurements and put bands on their legs. When they have bands on their legs, we can identify each individual more easily.

What do you love most about your job?
I love that, in my own small way, I am helping conserve earth’s resources for generations to come. Spending time outside interacting with nature also reminds me how humans are but one part of this big, wide world.
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What are some challenges you face in your job?
Sometimes we have to traverse challenging terrain or be out in all types of weather, but it’s really not that bad.

Why is conservation so important?
Nature is really neat in that most resources are renewable, or they come back with time (think about trees growing into a forest). But sometimes, humans are not giving nature enough time or space to regrow. Nature sustains us (think about what your house is made of or the food you eat), and we need to make sure we take care of it.

What is something most people don’t know about conservationism?
There are a lot of people studying nature every day, either in their job or in their free time. But there is still so much we don’t know! Nature is a wonderful mystery we may never completely solve.

What do you like to do when you are not working?
I like to travel, go camping with my family and go kayaking.

What is your favorite kind of bird and why?
I like the brown creeper. They live in every continental U.S. state, including Alaska. They’re camouflaged like bark and are hard to see as they “creep” around on the side of a tree.

What role do birds play in monitoring the health of the environment and the planet?
Birds are really important because they can fly, which makes them able to move long distances. Some animals can only move a relatively small distance from where they began (think about an earthworm), so if something like climate change makes their space different in some way (temperature, too wet or too dry, types of plants that live there, etc.), they have to adapt to the changes or they might die. Sometimes these changes are so subtle that humans fail to notice. But birds can move to a completely different area to avoid uncomfortable changes in their environment. When scientists see that birds that used to be in North Carolina are now mostly in Minnesota, as is happening with the golden-winged warbler, we are able to study their movements in hopes of learning why they are moving so far away from where they started. These movements can give us clues to other environmental changes that, when added all together, may answer a much bigger question, such as how our planet is being affected by climate change.

What are some things that people can do every day to make a difference?
You can make sure your backyard is a friendly place for birds to live in or stop for a bite to eat. You can learn how to identify birds and watch their behaviors – you don’t even need binoculars. If you start doing these things, you have become what we call a “citizen scientist” and are well on your way to taking care of the earth just like a conservation biologist would!
Thank you so much for your time!

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