Biologist and scientific illustrator Lauren Helton first started working with IBP as a MAPS bander back in 2009. After falling in love with bird banding, she worked seasonally with IBP before joining the Point Reyes Station team as a full time biologist in 2014. These days Lauren runs IBP's MAPS stations in Yosemite and on the Merced River, as well as a station near Point Reyes. She recruits and trains the banders, and manages banding data. Lauren also works on IBP's Pacific Island Bird Conservation program and has done fieldwork in American Samoa and Saipan. In addition, she teaches some of IBP's bird banding courses. And last, but not least, Lauren serves as IBP's official scientific illustrator, putting her artistic talents to use producing artwork, illustrations, and figures for IBP's publications.
What was your first bird job? In 2007, I spent a summer with The Peregrine Fund in far west Texas releasing captive-bred Aplomado Falcons. We fed, hacked, and monitored almost 40 falcons. Hacking, for those who don’t know, is the process of acclimatizing falcons to an area, then letting them fledge and practice flying and hunting all while supplementing their food. After a month or so of honing their skills, they start to wander and disperse and we followed, checking in on them at a distance. I loved it so much I came back for a second season in 2008.
Some young Aplomado Falcons which Lauren helped to release. Photo by Lauren Helton.
What's the best part of your job with IBP? There are a ton of things I love about my job but I think if I had to pick one, it would be the travel opportunities. To date, I have banded birds in multiple US states including Alaska, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and also Nicaragua. Not only do I get to see incredible, unique birds up close, but I love meeting the local people and enjoying the food and scenery. It has given me more of an interest in history, too. My grandfather fought in WWII in the Pacific theater, but it’s not something we ever learned much about in school. I’ve seen old cannons and bunkers, and found unexploded ordinance while checking mist-nets. It really makes that part of world history so much more tangible and terrible.
Hobbies? Illustration, although that has thankfully become a part of my actual career as well these days. In my free time, I’ve been working on improving my portraits lately as well as pushing my color use brighter and bolder. I also enjoy hiking, knitting, cooking, and gardening. But I also very much admit to being a nerd and a child of the digital era. I play video games, read lots of science fiction, and run a weekly Dungeons and Dragons group that really puts my improv skills to the test!
"Privateer" a portrait by Lauren Helton
Do you have a favorite bird? If yes, why is it your favorite? Every time someone asks me this, my answer changes. I have too many favorites! I can guarantee that it will almost always be a bird of prey, though. Aside from the Aplomado falcons I talked about earlier, regular top favorites include Harris’ Hawks (they’re so smart and so social, which makes them really fascinating to me), and Cooper’s Hawks (once you’ve seen one swim through blackberry bushes and run down sparrows on foot like a velociraptor you can’t help but be impressed). The one non-raptor that often makes the list is the Micronesian Kingfisher, which is Saipan’s closest equivalent. As a forest kingfisher, they eat insects, lizards, and small birds rather than fish, and the electric blue back and wings combined with the bright white head and belly are just so stunning.
Do you have any unusual skills? I’ve actually done quite a bit of falconry. I can’t really consider myself a falconer at the moment as the big downside to living in California and traveling a lot is I can’t really keep a bird. But I’ve flown several American Kestrels and a Cooper’s Hawk over the years, and I really miss having a partnership like that with a hunting bird. It’s a fascinating way to get to know an individual hawk’s personality, see all sorts of little details about their lives you would never know from birding or banding only. Because of falconry, I’ve also learned a lot of DIY skills for making perches, how to purchase and sew leather to make hoods and anklets and other gear, and some basic veterinary first-aid that actually helps in the field when banding, like how bent feathers can be re-straightened with water.
Lauren with her Cooper's Hawk, Pele. Photo by Heath Garner.
I never go bird banding without... Hot tea, but that’s just because I’m a tea-drinker 24/7. Irish breakfast with milk and shou puer are my top two choices for fieldwork because they seem to hold up well in a thermos without overbrewing too badly, or turning strange colors as they oxidize. And yes, I do mean hot tea even while in the tropics. I love hot weather and I love hot drinks and the two are perfectly fine in combination!
Lauren with the Broad-winged Hawk she extracted from a mist net in 2009. Photo by Ramiro Aragon.
Coolest bird you have ever caught? Back in 2009 when I was a brand new volunteer, I walked up to one of the nets at our training area in Grants Pass, OR and found a Broad-winged Hawk lying in the very bottom. The two volunteers with me on that net check weren’t comfortable handling raptors, so I got to be the one to take this crazy migrant hawk back to the banding station! As if I wasn’t already completely convinced that bird banding was awesome, that was certainly a special moment.