Restoring Our Night Skies

Comet NEOWISE photographed in July 2020 at Valles Caldera National Preserve. Valles Caldera recently achieved International Dark Sky Park status. (Photo by Glen Wurden)

By Galen Gisler

Ancient cultures populated the night sky with fanciful imaginary creatures, and told their stories so frequently and so vividly that the stars were named for specific parts of those creatures’ bodies.

We don’t know the stars as well as our ancestors did. We keep ourselves busy after dark; artificial light and other conveniences of our age have meant that most of us only know a few of the brightest stars. Those who live in cities see them rarely.

A deep connection with nature is lost when we lose the sight of the stars, those celestial beacons that have been with us since the dawn of our species, that have guided our migrations and explorations, that have inspired our deepest meditations.

Yet we do need artificial light to guide us and to keep us safe during our nighttime activities.

Unfortunately, much of the light we generate is wasted or ill-used. In fact, much of the light that is intended to keep us safe does the opposite. Bright floodlights shine in our eyes, blinding and distracting us from things we need to pay attention to. Lights that are too bright make dark shadows that hide hazards. Ill-positioned and unshielded lights shine into our bedrooms and disturb our sleep. Poorly shielded lights send light up and out into space, where it does no good. We waste money and energy by sending light where it’s not needed.

This is light pollution. 

Light that leaks up into the sky, either directed upward or reflected from surfaces, causes skyglow that washes out the brilliance of the stars. Curbing light pollution to restore our night skies does not mean eliminating all artificial light. But when we learn to distinguish good lighting from bad, we will still enjoy night life and preserve our view of the stars.

Valles Caldera National Preserve has recently achieved International Dark Sky Park status, and Bandelier National Monument has submitted an application for that status. The National Park Service (NPS) invites you to drive up to the Caldera some evening when the moon is below the horizon, and discover anew the brilliance of the stars. It’s not perfect; you will see skyglow from Los Alamos, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque. These parks inspire us to reduce light pollution from our cities and improve the stunning dark skies of the Jemez Mountains.

These units of the NPS have joined with PEEC and other regional entities to form the Jemez Mountains Night Sky Coalition (JMNSC), whose aim is to promote the preservation of our spectacular night skies. The JMNSC has prepared a draft of a new lighting ordinance for Los Alamos County to replace the one in the County Charter that was written in the early 2000s when lighting technology was very different from today. This draft is being considered for inclusion in the ongoing development code update. 

If Los Alamos adopts a strong new lighting ordinance, we could apply for status as an International Dark Sky Community, following the example of cities like Flagstaff, Sedona, and Moab. Together with Valles Caldera and Bandelier, our area might become a destination for astrotourism: a growing vacation target for people interested in viewing or photographing the night sky and night-time scenery.

This article is the first in a series planned by the JMNSC to celebrate International Dark Sky Week (April 5-12) and Earth Day (April 22). Successive articles will cover environmental and health effects of poor outdoor lighting, principles of good lighting, technical specifications for good lighting, and where to find good light fixtures for homes and businesses.

Information on all these topics is available from the International Dark-Sky Association. For more information about the Jemez Mountains Night Sky Coalition, visit our Dark Skies webpage.

This article was originally published in the Pajarito Environmental Education Center’s Earth Month section in the Los Alamos Daily Post on Thursday, April 1, 2021.

Tsankawi Loop Trail

The rock forming the mesa on the Tsankawi Loop Trail is a melted together volcanic ash called tuff. It is relatively soft and easily worn away by foot traffic, and forms either deep ruts or is simply a white color after the weathered orange layer on the tuff wears away.
Trail Name: Tsankawi Loop Trail
Length: 1.5 miles roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 300 feet
Difficulty: Moderate, mostly because of the ladders
Suitable For: Hiking only, good for families with children under close supervision

By Craig Martin

If you are looking for a scenic trail with plenty of cultural resources and scenic vistas to enjoy, then check out the Tsankawi Loop Trail in the detached section of Bandelier National Monument near the intersection of the Truck Route and New Mexico Highway 4 north of White Rock. Because the trail is at a relatively low elevation, snow and mud dry out quickly, making this a good late winter destination.

Read more Tsankawi Loop Trail

New Mexico Naturalist: Bianca Gonzalez

Bianca Gonzlez is our New Mexico Naturalist for the month of December! She currently works as a Land Planner for the New Mexico State Land Office and enjoys running, climbing, and getting outside with her dog.

Bianca Gonzelz is the December New Mexico Naturalist in the monthly New Mexico Naturalist series from the Pajarito Environmental Education Center. We hope you’ll enjoy learning about her, her thoughts on the outdoors, and her work in this interview.

Read more New Mexico Naturalist: Bianca Gonzalez

Virtual Field Trip: Bird Banding

A student releases a bird after banding during a field trip at Bandelier National Monument. (Photo by Rachel Landman)

Bird banding is a scientific method for collecting information about bird populations. Whether you’re a student or a bird enthusiast, join us on a virtual field trip to find out more about bird banding! If you’re a teacher, please contact us at educator@peecnature.org to let us know if you’re using this content in your classroom. Enhanced content may be available for teachers.

Click the links below to take a virtual bird banding field trip!

1) Watch this video:

Learn more about bird banding in Bandelier National Monument in this video by bird banding intern Zoë Moffett.

Texto del video en español

2) Hands-on activity: Build and band a bird (Versión en español)

3) Outdoor activity: Birds in your community scavenger hunt (Versión en español)

Share your experience with us! Email us at educator@peecnature.org to share your pictures and stories. You can rate our field trip using our evaluation form.

Night Friends

Bats are extraordinary creatures that benefit people in myriad ways — the world would be infinitely poorer without them. Bats come in an incredible variety of shapes and sizes and have a great diversity of lifestyles. They are among the most diverse and successful mammals on the planet.

Consider this: Do bats play any part in the production of …

  • Bananas?
  • Chocolate?
  • Coffee?
  • Tequila?

It turns out that …

  • Wild banana plants — the source of all commercial varieties — require bats for pollination.
  • Without bats and birds controlling pests, cocoa bean yields would fall about 30%. That would mean less chocolate!
  • Likewise, on coffee farms, bats are voracious eaters of insects that attack these crops.
  • The agave from which all tequila is made relies on long-tongued bats for pollination. Where would New Mexico be without tequila for margaritas!?

Let’s take a moment to thank bats for life as we know it!


Bats show up in the fossil record around 50 million years ago, so these creatures have been inhabitants of this planet for a long time! There are more than 1,400 bat species worldwide. In the United States, we have 47 bat species, 23 of which are found in New Mexico. Our state’s species include the big brown bat, hoary bat, little brown bat (now endangered), Mexican free-tailed bat, pallid bat, silver-haired bat, Townsend’s big-eared bat, and western pipistrelle (also known as the canyon bat).

Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis), commonly known as Mexican free-tailed bats, are noted for long, narrow wings and quick, straight flight patterns. These bats are the fastest mammals on earth, and have been recorded flying at speeds of 100 mph. These bats can also fly at heights of up to 10,000 feet! They start searching for food right after sunset and keep hunting throughout the night. We can thank them for eating thousands of insects each night, keeping mosquito and other harmful pest populations at bay.

Brazilian free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis) eating a moth while in flight in Texas. (Photo by MerlinTuttle.org)

Mexican free-tailed bats are also the most famous mammals found at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, in southern New Mexico. This large colony wows visitors every evening from spring through fall with spectacular outflights. Bracken Cave Preserve, near San Antonio, Texas, hosts the largest group of Mexican free-tailed bats in the U.S. where as many as 20 million bats are located in a single cave. These bats alone can eat over 200 TONS of insects in one night!

Closer to home, you can see outflights of tens of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats at El Malpais National Monument in Grants. Bandelier National Monument had a colony of about 10,000 individuals that frequented a cave along the Main Loop Trail between 1986 and 2002. It isn’t known exactly why this colony stopped using the cave: an ecological mystery!

Did you know that bats have had to deal with their own pandemic in North America? A deadly fungus known as White-Nose Syndrome (WNS) was discovered in Upstate New York in 2006. It thrives in cold environments where bats hibernate and has been decimating bat populations by keeping them from sleeping properly (much as you might sleep poorly when you are sick). The lack of sleep causes bats to use up their fat reserves before the end of winter, and consequently starve. The outbreak has resulted in millions of bat deaths and the epidemic is considered the worst wildlife disease outbreak in North American history.

A bat flight photographed from Natural Entrance at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. (Photo by Thomas Hawk)

WNS is less likely to be seen in warmer regions and has not been seen in migrating bats. Most Mexican free-tailed bats, for instance, migrate to Mexico and Central America during the winter and WNS has not been seen in this species. WNS has not been identified in New Mexico, but has spread westward to Texas and Oklahoma. Wildlife biologists in New Mexico are watching the spread of this disease with concern and are doing research and taking precautions to protect our bats. This interactive map shows how WNS has spread in the United States since 2006.

Bats may also prove useful in helping humans deal with our own pandemic. Because COVID-19 did not evolve with humans, our bodies have few defenses against it. Bats, on the other hand, have likely been evolving alongside coronaviruses for millions of years. Most importantly, bats might actually help to provide the solution for COVID-19 and other viruses. Bats do not get sick from many viruses that might kill humans, and research on how bats achieve this could hold the key to help us fight this and future outbreaks. This is one of many articles now appearing on this topic

How you can help bats: 

  • Learn about bats and teach others about bats.
  • Give bats the best habitat and resources to survive.
  • Put up bat houses, plant gardens that attract insects, avoid pesticides.
  • Avoid caves where bats are hibernating.