Naturalist’s Choice

Way back in 2011, these PEEC summer campers learned how to use binoculars while out in the field! Binoculars are one of the tools that naturalists use to make close observations of nature. (Photo by Michele Altherr)

We have reached the end of our Take It Outside summer challenge! By now, we hope you have found some favorite nature topics or favorite activities to do outside. This week, we challenge you to explore one of your favorite topics in more depth, revisit something you tried earlier to see how it has changed with the season, or pick a new topic you’ve been curious about!

We’re also kicking off a new blog series focusing on New Mexico Naturalists. Below, read our profile of our first New Mexico Naturalist, Mariana Rivera Freeman.

Summer Nature Challenge – Due September 1!:

You can earn this binoculars sticker by completing our Naturalist’s Choice challenge!

Finish your summer nature challenge sheet by September 1 to get your stickers! We plan to offer a curbside sticker pickup and passport prize pickup the weekend of September 4 – 6. Keep your eye on our events page for more details soon. You can also mail your completed challenge form to us at 2600 Canyon Rd, Los Alamos, NM 87544, or contact us to arrange a pickup at another time.

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 us your stories and pictures to takeitoutside@peecnature.org.

 

Blog Post & Upcoming Event:

We interviewed PEEC’s Field Science Specialist, Mariana Rivera Freeman, on today’s inaugural New Mexico Naturalist profile. Find out what brought Mariana to nature, and learn about some of her hopes and concerns for us and the place we call home. Come back next month to meet another New Mexico Naturalist!

Join Mariana to hear her discuss her field experiences studying Gunnison’s prairie dogs at Valles Caldera National Preserve this Tuesday, August 4 at 7 PM. Find out more and register for the talk here.

Outdoor Challenges:

This week, you choose the challenges! Here are some of our favorite challenges from the past 20 weeks, along with something new.

Tell us about your favorite outdoor topic or activity! 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 – Go Birdwatching

Way back on the very first day of the pandemic closure (seems like 100 years ago!) we challenged you to find as many of the 20 most common birds of Los Alamos as you could. Then, people noticed lots of Spotted Towhees and Dark-eyed Juncos, and nary a hummingbird. That was in March. Try it again in early August, and notice how the birds have changed with the seasons.

 

Challenge #2 – Fish for Aquatic Creatures

Looking for aquatic creatures is a great way to explore the less-noticed critters that live around you!

In March, most of our surface water came from snowmelt. Then we went through a long dry period, and now we can see water in our canyon bottoms again, due to our monsoon rains. Find a stream or other body of water, and look for aquatic creatures! One of the best ways to find aquatic macroinvertebrates is to pick up rocks, hold them upside down, and look for anything that wiggles. Bring a light-colored tub or container, fill it halfway with water, and carefully transfer your critters to the container to see them better. Try to identify some of your finds using this easy-to-use key.

This time of year, in addition to macroinvertebrates, we can sometimes find vertebrates like tadpoles and adult frogs in still water. See if you can find any of these! Always return your creatures to the wild after you have looked at them.

 

Challenge #3 – Get a New Perspective

So you think you know your favorite spot? Get a new perspective on it by trying a micro-hike: explore it from the eyes of an ant. Use a piece of string to outline an area of about a square foot or so, and notice everything you can about that microworld. What textures, smells, sights, or even sounds do you notice? What would it be like to wander around as a tiny inhabitant of this spot?

 

Want to Learn More?

  • Check out the National Phenology Network, which tracks data about seasonal changes around the United States and how these are shifting with global climate change. You can participate as a citizen scientist through their Nature’s Notebook program.
  • Take your observations to the next level and contribute to citizen science! Check out our citizen science activities from back in June for some ideas.
  • Check out this YouTube video for some inspiration on challenge #3. It was filmed with a GoPro to capture life from an ant’s perspective! We also like this photo, which was a part of Smithsonian Magazine’s photo contest, of a tree from an ant’s point of view! Can you capture any photos or videos from a different point of view? If so, we’d love to see them!

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.

Ecology

Northern Pygmy Owls interact with our ecosystem in a variety of ways! They eat rodents, insects, reptiles, and other birds. This owl nests in holes in trees, but they never dig their own cavities. Instead, they rely on cavities formed by rot or woodpeckers! (Photo by Mouser Williams)

Did you know that the word ecology comes from the Greek roots “oikos,” or house, and “-logia” or study? So, you can think of it as the study of home, or how organisms relate to their environments. 

This week on Take It Outside, we are exploring some of the particular ways organisms in Northern New Mexico relate to our local environment.

Summer Nature Challenge:

You’ll earn this Abert’s squirrel sticker by participating in Ecology Week!

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:

In this week’s blog post, learn bats have impacted life as we know it. Check it out 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.

We explored bats at a Halloween Nature Playtime in 2018. Some of our participants even dressed the part! (Photo by Rachel Landman)

 

Challenge #1 – Look for Bats!

There are at least a dozen species of bats in Northern New Mexico. Try to spot some of them! Bats are active at dusk and dawn, and sometimes throughout the night. They like to eat bugs and prefer areas with open skies.

Some places to look include over bodies of water, like at Ashley Pond in Los Alamos, or rivers, lakes, and water treatment ponds. Or, try looking near parking lots where the lights attract bugs. Let us know where you saw a bat!

 

Challenge #2 – Ecosystem Mapping

This challenge is based on an activity designed by the Santa Fe Watershed Association. An ecosystem is composed of the living and nonliving things in a place, and all the relationships between them. Take a piece of paper outside, and start writing down or drawing all the living and nonliving things you notice. Examples are specific animals, plants, sun, water, air, and much more. 

Now, think of the ways they are related. For example, grass needs the sun for photosynthesis. Draw a line between sun and grass to represent this relationship. Keep thinking of relationships and drawing lines. How many can you think of? How connected is your ecosystem? Share your results with us on your summer challenge sheet or by using the form below!

 

Challenge #3 – Ecological Relationships

New Mexico’s state insect, the tarantula hawk wasp, has a fascinating relationship with tarantulas! (Photo by Mike Lewinski)

Try to spot some of our region’s iconic ecological relationships:

  • Abert’s squirrels and ponderosa pines. Look for these tufted-eared squirrels among the ponderosa pines, whose seeds and sap they eat. In addition, the squirrels eat the fruiting bodies and spread the spores of mycorrhizal fungi, which grow in a symbiotic relationship with the ponderosas!
  • Tarantula hawk wasps and … tarantulas. The state insect of New Mexico is a large wasp that captures and paralyzes tarantulas with its venomous (and reportedly extremely painful) sting. It lays a single egg inside the arachnid, and when the larva hatches, it eats the still-living tarantula from the inside out. Look for a heavy-looking wasp, up to 2 inches long, with a dark body and orange wings. Don’t worry, these wasps are not aggressive toward humans. See a quick video of a tarantula hawk paralyzing a tarantula here.
  • Milkweed and monarch butterflies. Monarchs breed and migrate through New Mexico, and you can see them here in late summer. The monarch is a specialist on milkweed plants, which means the female monarch lays eggs only on milkweed plants, and these plants sustain the hungry larvae until they are ready to metamorphose into adults. As they feed on the milkweed, the larvae build up toxins called cardenolides that help protect the butterflies from predation. There are several species of milkweed native to New Mexico. If you find milkweed, look for adult monarchs, eggs, larvae, or chrysalises, but be sure not to disturb these animals whose populations have declined precipitously in the last few decades due to habitat loss, pesticides, and climate change. You can visit PEEC’s new native milkweed garden behind the fence on the west side of the nature center.

 

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.

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.

Weather & Climate

July monsoon clouds seen from Deer Trap Mesa in Los Alamos. (Photo by Craig Martin)

This week on Take It Outside, we are exploring weather and climate. Explore monsoon season, build a weather station, play in the rain, and more!

Summer Nature Challenge:

You’ll earn this weather sticker by participating in Weather & Climate Week!

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:

In this week’s blog post, PEEC volunteer Jean Dewart explores the science behind the monsoon season in Northern New Mexico and gives an update on outlooks for the 2020 season. Read it 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.

 

Challenge #1 – Play in the Rain!

One of the best things about rain is to get outside and splash in it. Smell the petrichor, feel the cool drops on your skin, take off your shoes, dance, sink your fingers into the mud, and float leaves and sticks in rivulets. Be aware of traffic, lightning (stay inside if you hear thunder), and flash flooding (avoid canyons when rain is falling in the watershed).

 

PEEC volunteers Dave North and Akkana Peck installing the weather station at the Los Alamos Nature Center. (Photo by Rachel Landman)

Challenge #2 – Build a Weather Station:

There are good reasons to have your own weather station. For one thing, weather can be extremely localized. Comparing rain and other measurements with neighbors only a few blocks away can give very different results. Knowing the nearby air temperature also gives you a better idea of when to open and close windows, turn on fans, and how to employ other low-cost and energy-efficient alternatives to using heat or air conditioning.

You can craft a simple weather station with household materials using this guide from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). With it you can craft tools to measure wind speed, wind direction, air temperature, rainfall, and more at your house! 

This week, we challenge you to build at least one of these instruments and take a weather-related measurement at your house. Let us know what you record!

Did you know that we have our own weather station at the Los Alamos Nature Center? Check out its readings on Weather Underground!

Thanks to PEEC volunteer Dave North for sharing some weather station tips for this challenge!

 

Exploring the outdoors after a rain can be a great time to observe wildlife! This summer camper discovered a worm in August 2019! (Photo by Denise Matthews)

Challenge #3 – Rain and the Ecosystem:

Water is life! Observe how wildlife and plants behave after rain. Look for evidence of the following:

  • Worms emerging from the ground
  • Insect larvae hatching in stagnant water
  • Birds and other wildlife drinking from and bathing in puddles
  • Plant leaves changing from a wilted to perky appearance
  • Seeds germinating in damp soil
  • Lawns and natural areas greening over several days

 

Want to Learn More?

  • Did you know that you can get a nearly real-time professional weather readout from Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Weather Machine. Check out this page to explore the weather in Los Alamos County.
  • If you were inspired by this week’s outdoor challenge, you can purchase a weather station to set up at home for more accurate readings. According to Dave North, there’s no real need to spend top dollar. The accuracy difference — if any — between the most expensive amateur units and cheaper units is not really significant. Be sure to calibrate your machine if you decide to get one! This is an important step to get accurate readings. Learn more about personal weather stations here.
  • Check out NASA’s Climate Kids page for interactive learning about our climate.

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.

Plants

A bee pays a visit to a penstemon palmeri at the Los Alamos Nature Center. (Photo by Larry Deaven)

This week on Take It Outside, visit a community garden in Abiquiú on our blog, and then check out the plants growing in your neighborhood.

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:

In this week’s blog post, PEEC’s Education Programs Director Siobhan Niklasson recounts her recent visit to the Northern Youth Project Garden in Abiquiú. Read her 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.

 

Challenge #1 – Sensory Exploration:

Visit a garden or wild area with plants. Use your senses to explore the plants. Can you find something:

  • Fuzzy
  • Waxy
  • Cool
  • Smooth
  • Red
  • Yellow
  • Buzzing
  • Sweet-smelling
  • Herby-smelling

If you like, choose some of the colors and textures you noticed and use those inspirations to make art!

 

Challenge #2 – Eat Locally:

Pilar and friends make popsicles from Yerba Buena in this video from Tewa Women United.

Pick up something in season from a farmers’ market, a CSA, or another source for local produce. Or, harvest something for your own garden or forage for berries, fruits, and herbs locally (make sure you know what you are picking before eating anything you find in the wild). 

Here’s an idea for a cool, local treat: In this video from Tewa Women United, watch as Pilar and her nephews make popsicles from Yerba Buena, or spearmint, and lavender from their garden. The video is part of a series called Plant Adventures that explores New Mexico plants and their traditional culinary and medicinal uses.

Let us know what you tasted! Or share your favorite recipe from your garden or from locally-grown, seasonal produce.

Challenge #3 – Plants & the Food Web:

A male Rufous Hummingbird gets ready to visit a flower in White Rock. These hummingbirds have recently started to make their annual stops in Los Alamos County! (Photo by Bob Walker)

In a process called photosynthesis, plants use energy from the sun to combine carbon dioxide and water to make sugar. This process changes some of the sun’s energy into a form that animals and other organisms can use when they eat the plants. Go outside and look for evidence of animals and fungi getting energy from plants:

  • Hummingbirds and insects gathering nectar from flowers
  • Birds eating seeds and fruits
  • Caterpillars, ants, and other invertebrates eating leaves
  • Herbivores, such as deer and rabbits, munching on green plants
  • Decomposers, like worms, roly polies, and fungi, breaking down decaying plants and trees

 

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.

Visiting the Northern Youth Project Garden

The Northern Youth Project Garden in Abiquiú empowers young people to learn to grow their own food. The bounty from the garden is distributed to the community. (Photo by Siobhan Niklasson)

By Siobhan Niklasson, Education Programs Director

Con muchas manos el trabajo es menos reads the sign at the Northern Youth Project Garden in Abiquiú. Many hands make light work. And on this day, everyone has a job to help this community garden grow.

The youngest children are on grasshopper duty. They’re hunting grasshoppers to keep these insects from eating the plants. They already have two jars full.

Other youth are weeding the flower beds. They explain that some of the flowers can be harvested for food, like echinacea for tea, but most of them are meant as food for other creatures: specifically, pollinators. They have milkweed for the butterflies and onions and cosmos for the bees, among other flowers. This colorful bed in the middle of the garden helps nurture a healthy population of insects that pollinate the herbs and vegetables, too.

Interns Veronica and Eddie social distance while mulching plants in the garden. (Photo by Siobhan Niklasson)

Two interns are mulching around the plants. Lupita Salazar, the Executive Director of the Northern Youth Project, calls out to them to leave a little open space around each plant. She explains that because of the dry conditions, they mulch like crazy to conserve water. But all of this litter on top of the soil has created a perfect habitat for roly polies and other decomposers, and some of them will eat live plants as well as decaying matter. With some experimentation, the gardeners found that leaving a little space mulch-free around the base of each plant helps protect the plants from these sun-shy creatures.

In the northwest corner of the garden, where the sun heats the soil the most, is the herb garden. The garden staff and youth created a waffle garden to retain moisture. This style of dry-land gardening, where small earth berms are raised around each planting square, was first practiced at Zuni Pueblo, and continues to be used today by water-conscious gardeners at Zuni and elsewhere.

The herb garden is also the oldest part of this community garden, which was started in 2009 by Leona Hillary, a staff member at the Boys and Girls Club in Abiquiú. She realized that once the students aged out of the Club, there weren’t a lot of things for them to do locally. Teens came to her and asked for her help to create a program for them. So the garden was started as a way for youth to find meaningful ways to spend their time and participate in their community. Today, the Northern Youth Project focuses on arts, agriculture, and leadership skills, and serves youth ages 12-21 from Abiquiú and nearby communities. Some of the young people working in the garden today are siblings of the initial teens that were involved and started the project 11 years ago.

A child shows off the grasshoppers he collected while volunteering at the garden. (Photo by Siobhan Niklasson)

The youth harvest their produce and learn to prepare it in monthly cooking classes. They also sell produce at the Abiquiú Farmers’ Market and distribute their herbs in Green Gift bags to local students and families as a COVID relief program.

Veronica, one of the interns, first learned about the garden after buying plants at a virtual plant sale and seed exchange. Her internship is paid by a workforce training program run by Help New Mexico. She’s been able to apply some of the things she’s learned at work to her home garden, like planting to take advantage of the natural flow of water through the site.

The other intern, Eddie, is interested in the irrigation system. The garden is watered by a spring onsite, and from the local acequia once a week. He’s had the opportunity to take agriculture classes at his high school, and sees this internship as a start to what he wants to do as a career.

The Project recently partnered with Padilla Lumber to clear an area of bosque adjacent to their garden. They’re considering extending the irrigation ditch to this area, and hope to be able to plant corn and squash. On the day that I visited, they noticed milkweed springing up in this area. Just as milkweed brings butterflies, this growing community garden is fostering a new generation of land-literate youth.

A sign at the Northern Youth Project Garden reads: “Con muchas manos el trabajo es menos.” This translates to: “Many hands make light work.” (Photo by Siobhan Niklasson)