Have you ever seen a science documentary that shows biologists out in the field studying animals in their natural habitat? Ever wondered what life as a biologist is like? Well, wonder no more! Meet Shoestring Warrior and contracting wildlife biologist Julie Webber. With a Bachelor’s degree in Wildlife and Fisheries and a Master of Arts degree in Public Administration with a focus on environmental policy and land use planning, Julie has found a way to spend her days outdoors with the animals she loves (primarily birds).
The nuts and bolts of it vary wildly depending on the specific project, but field work for me usually involves waking up obscenely early so that I can be at a specific spot in the field to start doing whatever (capturing, surveying, doing a nest observation) at dawn. Many birds, especially songbirds, are most active and vocal shortly after dawn, so if you’re studying them you need to work on their schedule.
As a contractor, Julie is able to travel and take on a variety of projects. Did you know that the U.S. military has natural resources offices scattered across the country? Ever wondered what life at a research station in Antarctica is like? Keep reading to learn more about Julie’s life as a contracting wildlife biologist and then connect with her on LinkedIn.
Shoestring Warrior: Julie Webber
Fort Hood, TX
Contracting Wildlife Biologist
What are your passions outside of work?
I dabble in arts and crafts- mostly painting and sketching, some quilting and other fabric-based projects. I’m a big advocate of lifelong learning, so I’m usually in the middle of several books. I love to travel, which is one of the reasons I keep working on a contract basis. It allows me to live and work pretty much wherever I want, with breaks in between jobs if I’m lucky, and sightseeing on the road between my work locations. I love folk history and what’s sometimes called “commercial archaeology,” 20th century kitsch, or roadside Americana. If you know of a dinosaur sculpture park, a monument to the world’s largest ball of string or pie tin or whatnot, or a museum of oddities, I’ve probably been there.
Tell us about yourself!
Oh man, what a question! Well, even though I said above that my profession is “wildlife biologist,” I’d say I’m really a 36 year old who still doesn’t quite know what she wants to be when she grows up, hence the “contracting” and constant movement. I’ve dabbled in other things as well between field contracts: I’ve taught English in the Czech Republic and worked several summers at a cultural and language immersion program in southern California; I’ve worked in the service industry as a ticket to live in Vail, Colorado and McMurdo Station, Antarctica; I’ve filled in some employment gaps at temp agencies, where I’ve been placed everywhere from construction sites to pipe foundries to high-profile defense contractors. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Wildlife and Fisheries, but I’ve always been interested in politics and how the government works, so I just finished a Master’s degree in Public Administration with a focus on environmental policy and land use planning.
I hate to sound like someone who’s defined by my work, but for me, my jobs have allowed me to pursue the things I’m passionate about: trying new things, meeting new people, seeing new places.
I’d like to eventually have a forever-home somewhere with either mountains or a coast or both. I love animals. Mostly birds, but also snakes and spiders. The only creature I haven’t been able to find affection for so far is centipedes.
How would you describe your level of camping experience?
I’ve spent a lot of time living in tents, mostly either as a place to crash while driving cross-country, or in relatively long-term field camps. I would love to do a long through-hike somewhere at some point, but haven’t yet. I’ll have to learn to be less of a chronic over-packer first! When you spend a lot of time camping for work, camping for leisure can look like less of a vacation than it otherwise would.
When did you first discover your love for wildlife and the environment?
So long ago I can’t even remember. My family vacations were always at campgrounds rather than hotels. I was a kid in the 80’s when it was still normal for children to disappear alone into the woods to catch frogs for hours at a time, so most of my childhood was spent outdoors. I was definitely the “animal girl” in my neighborhood- I would frequently get calls from neighbors to come catch spiders or snakes or whatever animal they found in their basement that they didn’t want to deal with. When I was in high school, someone left an injured pigeon on my doorstep, and it ended up being my pet for years. I went into college not knowing what I wanted to study or do with my life, but when I noticed that my school had a Wildlife and Fisheries program, it seemed like the natural choice. The rest is history.
What does a “typical” day working as a biologist look like for you?
The nuts and bolts of it vary wildly depending on the specific project, but field work for me usually involves waking up obscenely early so that I can be at a specific spot in the field to start doing whatever (capturing, surveying, doing a nest observation) at dawn. Many birds, especially songbirds, are most active and vocal shortly after dawn, so if you’re studying them you need to work on their schedule. Like all forms of science, wildlife biology involves lots of meticulous and detailed data collection. Sometimes that means catching animals, putting tags on them, taking measurements on them, etc. Hands on, active stuff. Sometimes the work is more passive; it means sitting in one spot and watching a single animal through a spotting scope and writing down every single thing it does for hours on end. One of my biology lab instructors in college did her graduate work in entomology, studying ant anatomy. She measured the heads of over 10,000 ants under a microscope with tiny calipers. She told us “if that doesn’t sound like fun to you, then change your major and leave science.” I’ve never measured ant heads, but I still think that was pretty astute advice.
This field is rewarding and allows you to see some amazing things, but it also requires a lot of patience.
You’ve spent some time working at McMurdo Station, a United States Antarctic research center. What did you enjoy most about your time living and working in Antarctica?
Antarctica is a beautiful place.
The penguins are adorable, the sunsets on the mountains (when we get to see them- summer season is 24/7 daylight) are spectacular, the ice goes on forever.
While one of the big draws to life at McMurdo is the opportunity to live and work in an environment that most people never get to experience, the biggest appeal to me is the community. Making friends as an adult is hard. Living alone and commuting to a regular 9-5 job is isolating. I think that humans are meant to be a bit more communal than traditional Western culture allows us to be. People joke that McMurdo is a summer camp for grown-ups, and it is in a way. Don’t get me wrong- we work extremely hard, and it’s all in support of some amazing science, but there is kind of a college-dorm social vibe to the place that I haven’t experienced in any other adult setting. I feel like I’ve definitely found my people down there.
What is the most challenging aspect of working in the field?
Compared to other science disciplines, there are a lot more variables.
We’re not working in a lab, we’re working in uncontrolled environments where we are at the mercy of the weather and the animals we’re studying.
Depending on where you’re working and how remote it is, some field work can be extremely physically challenging. I’ve had jobs where I hiked down and back up about 2,000 feet in elevation every day, or carried over 35 pounds of equipment up to 15 miles every day, in areas with no established trails. You might be spending months at a time in a remote location with no way to contact your friends or family. You might be living and working in close quarters with the same handful of people day in and day out, or you might be alone in the wilderness for extended periods. Some people thrive in these conditions, and some are broken by it and make a career change. It depends on who you are.
What’s your favorite animal to study and why?
Birds, broadly. They’re smart, they’re socially complex, they’re interesting to observe. They’re relatively easy to study compared to other taxa and and are valuable as “indicators” of overall ecosystem health, so there are lots of opportunities to work with them, which is also nice. More specifically, I like working with endangered species, because ideally the data we collect can be used to better understand, protect, and recover the populations of those species. Each species is different: some are in decline because of disease, loss of a food source, competition with or depredation by artificially introduced species. I’ve spent several years working with a bird in Texas (the Golden-cheeked Warbler) that faces none of those pressures, but has very specific habitat requirements and is endangered because of the destruction of that habitat. Since each species is different, that means that each research project across has different methods, different challenges, and different things to learn. It keeps things interesting.
Which biologists, conservationists, or environmentalists inspire you the most?
Behind every famous conservationist is an army of assistants, technicians, and volunteers. I’m inspired by the passion of most of the people I’ve had the privilege of working beside. I’m sure that sounds contrived, but field work can be grueling, and when you’re having a rough day you definitely find inspiration in the people you live and work with. If I have to name famous names, I’m a big fan of Rebecca Solnit. She’s gained a lot of publicity in recent years for her work as a political and feminist activist and writer, but she’s got a dynamic body of work and also has a strong background in environmental activism and landscape history. She and other landscape historians (William Cronon also comes to mind) challenge the false notion of a pristine wilderness untouched by man in pre-colonial America; unfortunately a lot of conservationists believe this fiction because they weren’t taught otherwise.
Indigenous Americans intensively used, managed, cultivated and altered the land long before European settlers arrived, believing otherwise erases their history and their legacy. If conservation is to be successful, it has to be inclusive and based on an accurate understanding of history.
Funniest outdoor experience/mishap?
I’ve spent a few seasons working in military land conservation, which can be pretty amusing because even though pretty much every military installation in the country has a natural resources office, the vast majority of military service members don’t know we exist. I’ve awkwardly stumbled into a few training exercises, once the soldiers involved thought I was an actor who was part of the scenario. I’ve explained to some confused soldiers why I was showing up to their camp at the same time every morning to stare at a tree for half an hour (observing a bird nest). I had a troop transport vehicle roll by just in time to see me dancing around in the woods with my pants off, slapping fire ants off my legs. This stuff must all look exceedingly strange to people who don’t realize that civilians work in the field in military training areas.
Where’s your next adventure?
I’m heading back to Antarctica in August. I’ll be arriving there during one of the coldest times of the year, travelling from Texas during one of the hottest times of the year here, so that adjustment will be interesting. After that, I’ll spend some time exploring New Zealand, and then I’m not sure. A life in contracting means you’re on the hunt for a new job every few months, which is both exhausting and exhilarating.
The perfect s’more? (if you don’t like s’mores, what’s your favorite campfire dessert?)
Add peanut butter, caramel or butterscotch! I’ve seen some folks push chocolate blocks inside a marshmallow before roasting it so the chocolate is meltier, but I’ve never been able to do this successfully without losing the whole thing in the campfire. When all else fails, a bag of jelly beans does just fine- no assembly or cooking required.
Photos © 2018 Julie Webber