Connie Sanchez does not have a favorite bird. Like many birders across the world, it is the hardest question to answer. “Too many to choose from.”
Sanchez would probably have a similar response when asked about the highlight of her conservation career. That’s what happens when a career spans more than twenty years, takes multiple twists and turns, and touches so many different parts of the environmental field. “I have seen it all,” says Sanchez. She was and is at the nexus of everything: conservation wins like the “Lights Out Philly” initiative of Bird Safe Philly, collaborative teams, multiple organizational priority shifts, and the founding of Audubon’s first employee resource group.
The one constant throughout her Audubon story—from the time she started as a program assistant and ascended to director for the Important Bird Areas (IBA) program and to now as the Bird-Friendly Buildings program manager and Communications Coordinator for Audubon Mid-Atlantic—is her ability to build meaningful relationships with her colleagues and collaborators. Though Sanchez left Audubon briefly in 2017, she never really said ‘goodbye’ to the organization. These relationships she cultivated during her two tenures and volunteer work are at the center of what Sanchez does and will always be passionate about.
The ‘birding bug,’ as Sanchez likes to call it, came during college. She initially wanted to pursue cancer research at the University of Rochester in New York, but once she got there she realized that she wanted to focus on ecology and evolution. One of her first ecology classes included a week-long spring birding trip to southeastern Arizona. She says she will never forget the first time she saw Vermillion Flycatchers, Acorn Woodpeckers, and Steller’s Jays. “There was no turning back after that,” says Sanchez.
After completing her undergraduate studies and getting her master’s in biology at Fort Hays State University in Kansas, Sanchez wanted to get her career started but positions in conservation and environmental education were hard to find. And so Sanchez did what she knew best: adapted and followed the opportunities that were available. After a few years of managing elementary school computer labs and teaching biology at a local Kansas community college, Sanchez joined Audubon in 2002, as part of the national Important Bird Areas Program.
Since that time, Sanchez has worked with hundreds of volunteers, ornithologists and scientists, chapter and center leaders, and partner organizations to lay the foundation for a lot of Audubon’s organizational priorities: conservation, community science, grassroots capacity, and equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging work. For Sanchez, Audubon’s network of birders, scientists, communicators, volunteers, and chapter leaders is an extension of her family. And with this ‘family’ Sanchez has achieved a lot. She worked alongside departments to help transform community science projects like the Christmas Bird Count and the Great Backyard Bird Count, and co-founded and started Audubon’s first affinity group: Women Employee Resource Group. Sanchez never made it her goal to achieve all this. Her goal was and is to make connections so that the journey, the twists, and the turns are worth taking.
Most recently she helped create the “Lights Out Philly” initiative with Bird Safe Philly, a dedicated effort designed to help protect native birds in the Philadelphia area from a variety of issues that harm birds in urban areas. After months of planning and collaboration with the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, Delaware Valley Ornithological Club, and two local Audubon chapters—Valley Forge Audubon Society and Wyncote Audubon Society—Sanchez and the entire Bird Safe Philly team successfully launched their platform last March.
“It is always surreal to me that I could make a living thinking about birds, something I had never even dreamed of doing,” says Sanchez. “I have learned that life is not just about accomplishments, it is about how you get to your goals and the people you work with along the way. There is so much more you can accomplish for birds and for anything really when you make the time to understand people’s perspectives, where they come from, and how you can best collaborate with them. So, in a sense, you create a tightly-knit ‘family’ that gets work done.”