November 13, 2019
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Winterport woman makes birds her business

Community Author: Anne Gabbianelli
Post Date:
Matthew Chabe | BDN
Matthew Chabe | BDN

WINTERPORT — Alyson McKnight of Winterport is for the birds—literally.

“I fell in love with birds when I took ornithology at UMass,” said McKnight. “I was really impressed by their intricate behaviors and advanced body design. In terms of their physiology, they are like high-performance race cars, and we are like lawn mowers.”

McKnight, a doctor of philosophy in ecology and environmental science, lives to study data specifically about migrating birds. But the study of birds wasn’t the path she started on.

“Birds just kind of happened,” said McKnight. “I actually worked with green crabs for my master’s degree, but I had a chance to volunteer for a seabird project in Alaska and fell in love with the lifestyle of a seabird field biologist, too.”

That lifestyle included living and working on boats in remote field camps in places that McKnight called “jaw-droppingly beautiful.” This work and more has led McKnight to author numerous agency reports and peer-reviewed publications. Most recently, she was published in the March 2018 edition of National Geographic. 

“[The National Geographic Society] contacted me back in December about using an example from our Arctic tern study,” said McKnight. “I happily provided them with the data, and was really pleased with the end result.”

The article, titled “Wonders of Migration,” includes a removable map using data from a project in which McKnight and her colleagues tracked the migration of six Arctic terns from Prince William Sound, Alaska, to the Weddell Sea near Antarctica. During that time, McKnight worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service based in Anchorage, Alaska, on various seabird projects stemming from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

“We monitored seabird and mammal populations for evidence of recovery and conducted directed studies that assessed whether they were still ingesting oil years later,” said McKnight. 

When she and her husband began their family, it was time for a more stable lifestyle, so Maine was next on McKnight’s journey. She now lives in Winterport and shares her passion and knowledge with students of Unity College as a visiting assistant professor of wildlife and fisheries management.

From 2014 to 2016, McKnight was part of the Gulf of Maine Coastal Ecosystem Survey, which seeks a better understanding of ecosystem dynamics in Maine’s coastal waters. For two weeks each summer, McKnight prowled the Gulf of Maine with a team of scientists. Because of her knowledge and passion for marine birds, McKnight was treated to a rare sighting, as documented in the GOMCES blog. “I was doing my final scan before heading back to help with the sampling,” wrote McKnight. In scanning the seascape, her eyes come upon a sight: “20 meters, 90 degrees to the port… wait, is that a dovekie? What the… HOLY COW THAT IS A BABY RAZORBILL!!” (The blog explained that razorbills are a species of auk related to puffins. Records of razorbill chicks are somewhat rare.)

McKnight is switching to new waters this summer. She and a fellow Unity College biologist head to Curacao off Venezuelan’s coast for a week next month. They plan to conduct pilot work for a research project that, of course, involves birds. “We will use marine birds as indicators as we study marine community health,” said McKnight.

Even though this project in on the calendar for June, McKnight is still keeping a focus to the Gulf of Maine this summer looking into whether mats of floating rockweed way offshore provide important resources for fish and marine birds. With a laugh, she said, “I’m really just getting started.”