Week 3, Day 4: Bears in Spring

A black bear stands on a log and looks for food along Alamo Boundary Trail in Bandelier National Monument. (Photo by Sally King/NPS)
This black bear stopped by the nature center last August to take a dip in our pond.

We are exploring our local black bears in today’s Take It Outside post. These creatures are beginning to emerge from their winter dens now! Now is a great time to make sure you are using bear resistant trash cans and to start bringing your bird feeders in at night to avoid attracting bears to your yard.

Upcoming Event:

Join PEEC’s Gift Shop and Programs Coordinator Ashleigh Lusher for a critter live-feed from the nature center on Friday, April 3 at 1 PM. Ask questions about our resident critters and get a behind-the-scenes look at the work of our Critter Care team. Tune in here tomorrow afternoon.

Blog Post:

Learn how hibernation works — and why bears are such unique hibernators — in a blog post from wildlife biologist and Wildlife For You instructor Daryl Ratajczak. Read today’s blog post here.


Bears are champions of smell! They have been known to follow a food scent from 2 miles away, and a dead animal carcass from 20 miles away. How well can you smell?

Choose different scented plants, natural materials, or spices to include in your scent challenge. Place in cups with air holes and challenge the other members in your family to identify the items! Extend this by making a scented painting. Mix spices or grind up scented plants from outside, like sage or juniper, and make scented “paint.” 

Find instructions for spice paint here.

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

A black bear cub sleeping on a tree limb. (Photo by Bob Howdeshell)

It takes a while for a bear’s appetite to ramp up after the winter. They’re not as hungry now as they are in the fall. This is one way they’re well-adapted to their environment, because there’s not much to eat outside early in the spring. Pretend to be a bear looking for spring food. Can you find the following?

  • Tender plant and grass shoots
  • Soft tree buds
  • Insects
  • Worms
  • Last-year’s dried fruits and berries

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Bears aren’t the only ones whose behavior depends on the season! See if you can find any of the following:

  • Birds building nests (crows and house finches are early nesters)
  • Bees pollinating flowers
  • Hummingbirds chasing each other to establish territories
  • Red squirrels retrieving food from caches
  • Abert’s squirrels chasing potential mates
  • Deer stags that have shed one or both antlers
  • Increased gopher mounds and tunnels
  • Signs of bear activity

Let us know what other spring behavior you notice!

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

Tell us what you learn about our four-footed friends this week! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to learn about our native reptiles and amphibians!

Week 3, Day 3: Scat and Tracks

This gray fox says, “You can’t leave tracks when you walk on a fence!” (Photo by Bob Walker)

We are exploring scat and tracks in today’s Take It Outside post. Learn how you can get started identifying tracks, scat, and other animal signs when hiking on our trails in today’s lesson. We’d love to see what you find while exploring the outdoors today!

Upcoming Event:

Join Bob Walker today at 10 AM on the Los Alamos Nature Center’s wildlife observation camera livestream to see what birds and other critters are visiting the nature center. Tune into the livestream here.

Blog Post:

Wildlife biologist and PEEC’s Field Science Specialist Mariana Rivera Freeman shares some tips on looking at scat, tracks, and other animal signs while out on the trails. Check out today’s blog post here.


Play a scat mystery game!

Look at the scat of black bears, coyotes, mountain lions, raccoons, and mule deer.

Have each person in your family choose one or two types of animal scat. Make the animal scat from playdough or mud balls, matching shape and size. Go on a walk to collect add-ins for your scat. Some ideas:

  • Dried crabapples, rosehips, and juniper berries
  • Grass and other small plants
  • Small twigs to represent bones
  • Pussy willows, other tree buds, or dried grass to represent fur
  • Small seeds or shiny rocks to represent insect parts

Once the scat is finished, line them all up for a mystery challenge. Have each family member guess what animal each type of scat came from. We definitely want to see pictures of your homemade scat, so share them with us on Facebook or Instagram, or email them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org.

Use this homemade playdough recipe if you don’t have playdough at home.

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Scat can tell us who was in an area and also what they ate. Go on a hike and look for scat! How many of these can you find? Based on what you find, what types of food are animals eating in your area?

  • Scat containing berries or fruit
  • Scat containing grass or other plants
  • Scat containing fur or bones
  • Scat containing insect parts

Remember that all scat contains bacteria, so don’t touch it with your fingers (use a stick!) and wash your hands when you get home. Stay away from dog poop, which is often very uniform in texture and lacks recognizable food items, since most domestic dogs eat processed dog food. Remember to always clean up your own dog’s poop when out on the trail!

Test your knowledge of animal scat in this poop quiz, too!

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Mule deer are a common sight on the Pajarito Plateau. Can you find their scat, tracks, or other signs of them while outside today? (Photo by Bob Walker)

Look for signs of wildlife on your walk! Look for:

  • Scat
  • Tracks
  • Fur
  • Feathers
  • Owl pellets
  • Animal burrows or nests
  • Scratch or peck marks on trees or in the ground
  • Animal middens (piles of food waste, like pinecone bracts)

Can you identify any of the creatures they came from? You can use our downloadable scat and track guide, our online Track Guide, or the other resources listed below to help you identify the signs. Let us know what interesting things you find out there today!

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

Tell us what you learn about our four-footed friends this week! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Tomorrow, we’ll explore black bears and seasonal behavior!

Week 3, Day 2: Predators of the Pajarito Plateau

Our staff sometimes sees bobcats hunting for chipmunks at the nature center. (Photo by Bob Walker)
Bobcats at the New Mexico Wildlife Center.

In today’s post we are exploring some of the Pajarito Plateau’s well-known predators, like the bobcats in this video from the New Mexico Wildlife Center. This film was made last fall, and the bobcats have now grown up, and the Wildlife Center hopes to release them to the wild in April!

Blog Post:

PEEC volunteer and board member Hari Viswanathan shares some information on mountain lions, his family’s experience with one, and his quest to capture a photograph of one on a backyard critter camera. Read his blog post here.


One way that prey species, like the squirrels we learned about yesterday, protect themselves from predators is by blending in with their surroundings. Make some camouflage art and see how long it takes someone to find the animals hidden in your pictures.

Instructions are here. This is a great activity for any age. You can draw your own animal or cut pictures from a magazine.

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Find an outdoor area and play a game of hide-and-seek! The hiders are the prey and the seekers are the predators. Both might want to consider wearing clothing that blends in with the surroundings to increase your chances of being undetected!

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Does a prey animal like a chipmunk freeze, flee, or try to distract you when you encounter it? (Photo by Bob Walker)

Observe how prey animals like birds, squirrels, and other small animals in your environment respond to you, a potential predator. Do they freeze, flee, or try to distract you? Does it depend on the prey animal, or how you approach them? How long do you have to be still for them to start to go about their ordinary business again? Let us know what you observed!

Other Resources:

  • The New Mexico Wildlife Center operates a wildlife hospital and educates our local population about indigenous wildlife. Visit their webpage or Facebook page, where they sometimes do live events featuring their animals. Today at 1 PM, join them for a Facebook live tour of their animal hospital!
  • We share our home with large predators like black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, and coyotes. Check out this brochure from the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish on how to live with large predators.

Share Your Experience:

Tell us what you learn about our four-footed friends this week! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

We’ll explore scat and tracks in tomorrow’s post!

Week 3, Day 1: Squirrels

Learn a lesson from this Abert’s Squirrel and practice social distancing! (Photo by Jonathan Creel)

Welcome to week three of Take It Outside! This week, we are focusing on our four-footed friends. Our first post is about distinctly unfriendly quadrupeds: squirrels!

We’d love to hear your thoughts on Take It Outside so far. Please fill out this evaluation form to help us improve this program.

Blog Post:

Mariana Rivera Freeman, wildlife biologist and PEEC’s own Field Science Specialist, gives us insight into the world of cute but not cuddly tree squirrels. Check out her blog post here to learn more about two of our local squirrel species.


Keep an eye on the squirrels in your neighborhood by making a squirrel feeder. Choose from the many design options described here, using common household materials.

Enjoy watching the squirrels run and scurry to your feeder. What kinds of behavior do you notice? Learn more about squirrel behavior using this guide from the Cincinnati Nature Center.

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Red Squirrel in Bandelier National Monument. (Photo by Sally King/NPS)

Play a game of red squirrel! Head to an area with pinecones. This could be your backyard or a favorite trail or outdoor area. Challenge your family to collect as many pinecones as possible in 30 seconds. Everyone should get a designated spot to stash their pinecones. Then, spread out and start collecting all at once!

Unleash your inner kleptoparasite and steal from each others’ caches if you like! Make up your own rules and add to this game as you play.

Do you see any signs that squirrels have been munching on these pinecones?

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Go to a forested spot, and look for signs of squirrels. Some things you might notice:

  • Eaten pinecone cores
  • Piles of pinecone bracts
  • Twigs with stripped bark under ponderosa pines (these are fun to collect for crafts!)
  • Squirrel sounds: Red squirrels’ agitated chatter and calls and chirps. It is rare to hear vocalizations from Abert’s squirrels.

Other Resources:

  • Check out this guide to the Abert’s squirrel from Bandelier National Monument.
  • Learn more about the social life of prairie dogs, a type of ground squirrel, in the Valles Caldera from this website featuring the research of Mariana Rivera Freeman and her colleagues from the University of Maryland.

Share Your Experience:

Tell us what you learn about our four-footed friends this week! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to explore predators and prey, with a special focus on mountain lions!

Tree Squirrels: Natural Distancers

An Abert’s squirrel eating seeds from a Ponderosa pinecone in Bandelier National Monument. (Photo by Sally King/NPS)

By Mariana Rivera Freeman

Among the many species of the rodent family Sciuridae, tree squirrels are generally known as asocial: they live alone and minimize social contact with each other. Two such solitary species found here in northern New Mexico — the Abert’s squirrel and the red squirrel — happen to be experts at social distancing, a concept we have all recently become very familiar with.

While there can be clear downfalls to living a solitary life as a prey species, the benefit of commanding a territory of resources outweighs the risks for tree squirrels. And perhaps one of the greatest benefits to living alone in the wild is avoiding disease. Many species of ground squirrels (including the Gunnison’s Prairie Dog, found in the Valles Caldera) live in colonies or other communal groups. Though this gives them safety in numbers, living in close quarters means diseases spread quickly and can devastate populations.

When a virus or bacteria strikes a population of tree squirrels, however, the minimal contact between individuals means the disease will have a harder time spreading, and epidemics are far less common for these species. Tree squirrels have been practicing social distancing for millennia!

So in celebration of these solitary but charismatic animals — who keep much farther than six feet away from each other whenever they can help it — let’s take a closer look at the ones in our backyards.

An Abert’s squirrel visiting a Los Alamos backyard. (Photo by Mouser Williams)

The Abert’s Squirrel (Sciurus aberti)

Among the most elusive of the tree squirrels is the Abert’s squirrel, also called the tassel-eared squirrel. This animal is so named for the prominent tufts of fur on the tips of their ears in winter, called tassels. They are camera-shy and difficult to spot.

To identify an Abert’s squirrel by sight, you want to look for a large squirrel (450-900g) with:

Ponderosa pine twigs cover the ground below a tree — a sure sign of Abert’s squirrels. (Photo by Siobhan Niklasson)
  • A dark grey dorsum (back), sometimes with a red stripe along the spine
  • A white or cream ventrum (belly)
  • A darker side stripe that is not always present or clear
  • A long, bushy tail that is dark above with a visible white edge, and white/cream below
  • Long ears with tufts of dark fur on the tips in winter
  • White eye rings that range from subtle to well-formed

Abert’s squirrels favor Ponderosa forests. They will make nests in branches out of twigs and needles, and will nest less commonly in tree cavities. Their diet consists mainly of Ponderosa pinecone seeds, and they will also eat inner-layer bark, flowers, and fungi in the summer. Look for tell-tale signs of bare twigs on the ground and patches of stripped bark on trees, and you’re definitely in Abert’s squirrel territory.

A red squirrel pops out from behind a tree. (Photo by Jonathan Creel)

The Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)

These bold, noisy animals might be hard to locate in the branches because of their small size, but they’ll certainly let you know they’re there with loud chattering, chirping, and squeaking in unmatched displays of territoriality. Red squirrels are the most northern-dwelling tree squirrel in North America, and as altitude mimics latitude, it’s no surprise this species thrives in the mountains.

To identify a red squirrel by sight, you want to look for a small squirrel (110-250g) with:

  • Red or reddish-brown dorsal coloring
  • White/cream ventral coloring
  • A short red tail with darker edges
  • A clear, black side stripe that sometimes fades in the winter
  • A clear, distinct white eye ring
  • Loud vocal displays of territoriality, sometimes accompanied by pounding feet

Red squirrels favor pine forests but are also found in mixed-coniferous forests. Though they prefer to nest in tree cavities, you might also find nests in branches made of leaves, grass, bark, twigs, and lichen. They feed primarily on the seeds of pinecones but will also eat pine sap, nuts, fungi, and occasionally small birds and eggs. They are messy eaters; if you see a massive pile of pinecone scales scattered at the base of a tree or on a mound, you’re in a red squirrel’s territory.

A red squirrel’s food cache and midden in Yellowstone National Park. (Photo by Jacob W. Frank/NPS)

Though all tree squirrels will occasionally steal food from each other, the red squirrel is known as a master kleptoparasite (a fancy word for an animal who steals resources, in this case food). These (admittedly cute) little thieves will sneak into other squirrels’ caches of pinecones and pilfer from them! If you see two red squirrels chasing each other in the woods, one of them has likely just been caught stealing, and if they’re stubborn enough you may even see them running for their lives with a cone still in their mouth!

Tiger Salamanders and Mammals: Underground Companions?

Expanded version of the article printed in Nature Notes No. 4, 2017

By Dr. Ellen A.G. Chernoff and Jennifer Macke

Tiger salamanders are common on the Pajarito Plateau and throughout northern New Mexico. Because they live underground, we rarely see them. The underground parts of our world are one of our “final frontiers”; we know very little about what goes on down there! Read more Tiger Salamanders and Mammals: Underground Companions?