Nature Art

Liv Niklasson created this piece of land art in early April and it was still intact in mid-May when she checked up on it! What art can you make with the natural materials around you? (Photo by Siobhan Niklasson)

This week on Take It Outside, learn how local artists have been inspired by the natural world around them, and spend some time making nature art yourself.

This week, we’re also celebrating Los Alamos ScienceFest virtually! See what PEEC has in store for this virtual festival.

Summer Nature Challenge:

Participate in our Summer Nature Challenge! Every week, participants who complete the challenge can earn a sticker. If you finish all nine weeks, you’ll earn a bonus sticker! Find our archive containing all of our past Take It Outside activities here.

Download the challenge sheet here to print out and complete at home. At the end of the challenge, you can either bring it to the nature center or mail it to us at 2600 Canyon Rd, Los Alamos, NM 87544.

If you don’t have a printer or prefer to work online, you can tell us about your experiences in the Google Form below or email your stories and pictures to takeitoutside@peecnature.org.

Blog Post:

Patricia Galagan reflects on photographing our forests with her husband Philip Metcalf in the aftermath of the Las Conchas fire. Their book, Fire Ghosts, was published in late 2019 and features their photography portfolios from this project. Learn more about what they learned from this process in this week’s blog post.

Outdoor Challenges:

We’re posting three outdoor challenges today that you can enjoy throughout the week!

Tell us about your experiences with one, two, or all three of them! You can do this in the Google Form below, by writing or drawing about them on our summer challenge sheet, or by sending an email to takeitoutside@peecnature.org.

 

Challenge #1 – Land Art:

Go outside and spend some time getting a feel for the area, then gather natural materials that speak to you. Use them to create land art, ideally using the materials in the area where you found them. If you like, take a picture of your artwork, and share it with us! Leave the art for others to discover, and to break down naturally over time.

See some additional tips here.

 

Challenge #2 – Wildlife Photography:

A male Calliope Hummingbird photographed at a hummingbird feeder. They are the smallest birds in the United States! (Photo by Aditya Viswanathan)

This challenge is from Aditya Viswanathan, a rising sixth-grader from Los Alamos and wildlife photographer.

July is a great time to learn wildlife photography as the hummingbirds are coming to Los Alamos in large quantities. Here are a few activities that you can try to get started or fine-tune your skills. If you have a hummingbird feeder, you can wait for a while and see which hummingbirds come and try to photograph them. Hummingbirds like to visit feeders and you’re more likely to see them at one rather than on a flower. If you don’t have a feeder, try making a simple one from recycled materials! Make sure to get the camera crosshairs on the hummingbird, or else the photo will be blurry. Phones work okay, but cameras (especially ones with zoom lenses) are better if you have one. It will take a bit of practice and patience, but if you stick with it, you should have some very good photos.

If you are ready for a bigger challenge, research which flowers different hummingbirds like. Hint: hummingbirds like red, tubular flowers. If you don’t have any of them, other flowers work too. Wait at a flower of your choice for about half an hour and see if any hummingbirds come. Photographing them at a flower will create a more natural-looking picture. Butterflies and bees may come too, which are also good photo targets.

Another advanced challenge that you can do is try to freeze a hummingbird’s wing while in flight. To do this, adjust the shutter speed in the menus. I recommend 1/1000 seconds for the shutter speed. Please note that some cameras don’t have this feature. I hope you find these activities fun and helpful. Send a picture you snap to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or post it on social media and tag @peecnature!

Challenge #3 – Nature Sketching:

Practice nature sketching this week by drawing the details of different leaves! (Photo by Terry Foxx)

This challenge comes from Teralene Foxx, co-author and illustrator of Plants of the Jemez Mountains, which can be ordered from PEEC’s online shop.

Sketching is a good way of learning and remembering the different shapes and sizes you observe in nature. Wander around your backyard or go on a hike and collect five leaves from five different plants (make sure to stay away from shiny, 3-leaved poison ivy!). Note what plant the leaf comes from: a flower, a shrub, or a tree. Are the leaves positioned opposite each other or do they alternate along the stem? Write down what you see. Look at the top of the leaf and the underside and see any differences.

With a paper and pencil, lay the leaf on the paper and trace around the outside of the leaf. Now you have the outside dimensions of the leaf. Observe the leaf carefully and draw anything you see about the leaf and put the detail into your drawing (e.g. the edge of the leaf, the veins, the color, hairs, texture). Ask yourself: Is the top of the leaf the same color as the bottom of the leaf? Record this information. If you have colored pencils or crayons, you might want to color the leaf. If you have a ruler, you might want to measure the different sizes of leaves and make a note. 

After you practice shapes and sizes of leaves, try drawing a leaf without tracing the outside of the leaf. You will be amazed at the different shapes and sizes of leaves!

 

Want to Learn More?

Share Your Experience:

Tell us about your outdoor experiences! 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. If you’d like this to count for the Summer Nature Challenge, be sure to include your name and email address.

Animals

Mule deer are a common large mammal here in Northern New Mexico. These deer are named for their large, donkey-like ears! (Photo by Mouser Williams)

This week on Take It Outside, explore the world of our local animals. In past Take It Outside posts, we’ve explored reptiles and amphibians, mammals, birds, and insects. Find information and activities about these topics and more on our archive page. This week, we’re exploring aquatic animals, animal signs, and animal behavior in our outdoor challenges. Plus, take a special look at New Mexico’s fish in this week’s blog post!

Summer Nature Challenge:

Participate in our Summer Nature Challenge! Every week, participants who complete the challenge can earn a sticker. If you finish all nine weeks, you’ll earn a bonus sticker! Find our archive containing all of our past Take It Outside activities here.

Download the challenge sheet here to print out and complete at home. At the end of the challenge, you can either bring it to the nature center or mail it to us at 2600 Canyon Rd, Los Alamos, NM 87544.

If you don’t have a printer or prefer to work online, you can tell us about your experiences in the Google Form below or email your stories and pictures to takeitoutside@peecnature.org.

Blog Post:

Do you like to fish? Have you ever wondered how native and introduced fish in our ecosystem differ? Casey Harthorn of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish discusses fish in New Mexico, with a special look at our state’s native and introduced trout species. Read his blog post here.

Outdoor Challenges:

We’re posting three outdoor challenges today that you can enjoy throughout the week!

Tell us about your experiences with one, two, or all three of them! You can do this in the Google Form below, by writing or drawing about them on our summer challenge sheet, or by sending an email to takeitoutside@peecnature.org.

 

PEEC campers were able to find frog eggs, tadpoles, and adult frogs in this pool in Acid Canyon. (Photo by Siobhan Niklasson)

Challenge #1 – Aquatic Animals:

Northern New Mexico doesn’t have a lot of water, but aquatic animals are able to find and take advantage of even very small bodies of water to grow and reproduce.

Seek out water in your area, like rivers, lakes or reservoirs, stock ponds, springs, or pools in canyon bottoms, and look for signs of aquatic animals. Here are some things to look for:

  • Adults and larvae of aquatic invertebrates (insects and other small critters)
  • Frog or salamander eggs, tadpoles or nymphs, and adults
  • Fish
  • Birds, reptiles, and mammals visiting water sources

 

Challenge #2 – Animal Scat:

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!

Challenge #3 – Animal Behavior:

This squirrel was photographed with a mouth full of nesting materials! (Photo by Mouser Williams)

It’s fascinating to watch animals go about their daily lives. Go outside and find an animal: a bird, insect or other invertebrate, mammal, reptile, amphibian, or fish. Be as still as you can to let it get used to you, and watch what it does. Can you see how it does any of the following things?

  • Gathering food and eating
  • Moving around
  • Regulating its temperature
  • Feeding and caring for young
  • Nesting
  • Taking shelter
  • Interacting with others of the same or another species
  • Communicating with others
  • Defending itself or its young
  • Playing

If you have a nature journal, record some of your observations. Let us know what you notice!

 

Want to Learn More?

Share Your Experience:

Tell us about your outdoor experiences! 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. If you’d like this to count for the Summer Nature Challenge, be sure to include your name and email address.

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.

Craft:

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!