NMWC Open House Weekend: Close Encounters of a Personal Kind

by Catherine Carlozzi

Photos by Sam Rodar

I’d been looking for an excuse to learn more about New Mexico Wildlife Center (NMWC),  so when I read about the October 7-8 Open House, I decided to make the half-hour drive from Santa Fe to Espanola.  I expected to have encounters with a variety of critters. The surprise was all the pleasurable encounters with staff, volunteers and visitors.  Perhaps because 2017 marked the 40th anniversary of the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which is, after all, about contact with and interaction among very different species), I found myself reflecting on my visit as Close Encounters of Three Kinds.

Close Encounters with Nature

During her presentation about NMWC and its mission, Director Melissa H. Moore lamented on how much less direct contact with nature today’s younger generations have than people of her (my) and earlier generations.  I grew up capturing (and releasing!) bullfrogs, fish and lightning bugs; watching tadpoles grow into frogs and butterflies emerge from cocoons; and tending to wounded or orphaned birds, bunnies and turtles. We didn’t have computers, iPads, mobile phones and video games. We played in the local parks, creeks and fields near home. The Open House made it abundantly clear that creating opportunities for children to gain direct exposure to and understanding of the creatures that share our immediate world is central to NMWC’s mission.

Marcel, the Black-billed Magpie (Photo by Catherine Carlozzi)

My first encounter of the critter kind was with Marcel the gregarious Black-billed Magpie. Until I found myself face to face with this beautiful bird, I’d only seen European magpies. Next were the reptiles. I grew up handling garter snakes and box turtles, but moving to New Mexico has required learning about a whole new cast of reptilian characters. Being able to observe those living at NMWC and learn more about them was very helpful. As much as I enjoyed watching Joni the bobcat get weighed and fed (we have a bobcat that visits our property frequently) and seeing the beautiful little desert fox, it was the birds – especially the raptors – that I found most compelling.

NMWC Volunteer Judy Anastasio with Sienna, a Red-tailed Hawk (Photo by Catherine Carlozzi)

During the three hours or so that I spent at the center, I attended a number of sessions where volunteers brought out individual birds:  Sienna, the red-tailed hawk; Electra, the osprey; and Maxwell, one of NMWC’s Bald Eagles. Each handler talked not just about her bird’s species and care, but also shared its history and the quirks of its behavior – individualizing them. The afternoon program that focused on raptors and owls was an immersive experience and followed a similar pattern.  A standing-room-only crowd met Pancho, an American kestrel; Oscar, a 33-year-old Great Horned Owl; and Aurora, a Western Screech-Owl.  Lefty, a Harris’s Hawk, and Sol, a Turkey Vulture, stole the show with their aerial demonstrations. The factoids presented were interesting – Harris’s Hawks are social and communal; screech owls are misnamed; turkey vultures have extremely strong stomach acid – but so much better was coming away feeling that turkey vultures really don’t seem ugly after you get to know them.

Basil the Bull Snake (Photo by Catherine Carlozzi)

Close Encounters with Staff and Volunteers

From Director Moore to the man at the entrance to the parking lot, and from the volunteers who work with the center’s nonhuman denizens to the volunteers selling cookies, all of my encounters with the people who are NMWC were positive.  Dawn Wright, the center’s Office Manager, promptly signed me up for an ICU tour and answered all my questions about volunteerism, referring me to Christy Wall, the Director of Science and Education, to address specific questions.

The Intensive Care Unit tour, led by Dawn and Jordan, a member of the rehabilitation staff, provided an excellent overview of how wounded and orphaned creatures come to NMWC; the entire process of treating and rehabilitating them; and even how food is prepared for the center’s permanent and temporary residents.  Sadly, but not surprisingly, much of the equipment the rehab staff has to work with is clearly way out of date.

Throughout my visit, I found it easy to read the staff’s and volunteers’ genuine commitment to the creatures in their care and to the center’s mission.  All questions addressed to them by visitors were answered thoughtfully, enthusiastically and often with humor.

Close Encounters with Other Visitors

I had no idea how many others would take advantage of a gorgeous Sunday to visit NMWC. It was a small number when I arrived at 10:30 am but grew steadily. And when I left at 2:30 pm, they were still streaming in. Many visitors arrived with bags of things on the center’s wish list: paper and cleaning products, old towels, greens.

Kids explore the grounds of NMWC   (Photo by Angela Bentley)

As expected, the mix included families with kids of all ages.  I found myself interacting with many young visitors and found their observations interesting.  One young boy, observing Joni the bobcat, talked about her in terms of his own cats and displayed a good knowledge of the varied mannerisms of the broader feline family.  Kids tend to ask good questions, and throughout the day these certainly did.  Some were quite impressive and persistent.

Perhaps the best part of the whole day was the looks of delight and wonder on the faces of visitors of all ages as they became acquainted, at a personal level, with the creatures that inhabit New Mexico Wildlife Center.

Catherine Carlozzi, a speech and business writer, lives outside of Santa Fe. She has shared a home with turtles, finches, a blue jay, dogs and cats.

Back at the Rio Chama with River Classroom

Fall is here at last, and that means that River Classroom has begun again! This is our 6th year of River Classroom, and so far we are working with some fantastic groups. These include the Española Public School District’s GATE students in 4th-6th grade and 7th-10th grade, the 4th-5th grades from Chama Elementary, and the 5th-6th grades from Tierra Amarilla Elementary.

A ranger with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers talks to our students about the Rio Chama.

We began honing our skills as scientists by doing some very close observation of limes. Groups of students selected a lime, recorded observations about the lime, and then had to select their lime from a pile.


We also like to begin the year by doing some initial exploration of the ecosystem that we will be studying, so we handed out waders to test the waters of the Rio Chama.

Two of the groups got up close and personal with some of the local inhabitants.


Students meeting a crayfish


The year is off to a great start, and we couldn’t be more thrilled with these amazing groups of kids. We’re going to have a great time exploring the beautiful habitats of New Mexico, and we’ll be collecting data and learning science along the way! Don’t forget to “follow” our blog to stay up-to-date on the latest.



Introducing… Geology!

New Mexico (in general) is a pretty dry place. It seems like most people don’t own rain gear. We seldom have to adjust class for weather. This week was a rare exception- with all of the rain/snow, we had to move our outdoor River Classrooms for our Española 4th-6th graders, our Tierra Amarilla 5th-6th graders, and our Chama 4th-5th graders in to the classroom! Obviously being outside is much more fun than being inside, but we worked hard to come up with a fun activity to make up for it.

We decided to start one of our very favorite topics…. GEOLOGY!

To gauge how much our students understand about geology, we began by talking about the three primary types of rocks- igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic. As we discussed the different types of rocks, our students created a cool foldable to stick in their science notebooks.

After cutting, gluing, and drawing, our students had a neat way to remember the three types of rocks and the rock cycle.



Next, in order to make this concept stick, we used crayons to model the rock cycle! Students began with crayons with no wrappers. These represented igneous rocks. Students used plastic knives to carefully weather the rocks into sediment.

This sediment was converted into a sedimentary rock by lightly pressing on the sediment to replicate the weight of water on it. Students used even more pressure, as well as body heat to transform their sedimentary rock into a metamorphic rock.

Students working on transforming their rock

Finally, the most exciting step: melting our “rocks” into “magma” and letting them cool to form “igneous rocks”!


This student “carved” his “igneous rock” into an arrowhead as if it were obsidian!

While I’m sure our students would have preferred to be outside, we made lemonade out of lemons and had a lot of fun learning about the rock cycle in all three classes! The best part: now our students have the background knowledge for our next outdoor trip to be a geology hike!

Exploration of a Bosque Ecosystem

Earlier this week our 7th-10th graders from the Española Public School District took advantage of the gorgeous spring weather and ventured out to Pilar, New Mexico to explore a bosque ecosystem along the Rio Grande.

The bosque of the Rio Grande is a lovely and unique environment that encompasses the riparian forest and floodplain around the river. Willows and cottonwood trees are common native vegetation, although invasive tamarisk has taken over in many areas.

We began the day with some time to explore and take notes about this ecosystem and its characteristics.

Students practiced making objective observations of several trees in the bosque.

Because of the recent warm temperatures and melting snowpack, the Rio Grande is running pretty high. The nearest stream gauge reported a discharge of around 1200 cfs, and the water level had been steadily rising.

Students along the Rio Grande


After a quick lunch break, students hiked up to a bench in the Rio Grande Gorge. From this perspective we had a fantastic view of the bosque ecosystem, as well as the rocks that surrounded us. We discussed the geology of the area and the Rio Grande Rift.

Exploring the rocks of the Rio Grande Gorge


Regrouping to fill out our ecosystem worksheet

After all of this exploring, we needed a break in the shade. We took advantage of one of the gorgeous group shelters in the new Rio Grande del Norte National Monument to rest in the shade and fill out our ecosystem worksheet. We spent some time comparing this ecosystem to the others we’ve visited.

We had a fantastic trip, and our students now understand a great deal about the bosque ecosystem. Next month we’ll be on to a different location!

Measuring Velocity… Using WHAT!?

With the rapidly approaching spring melt, we are getting our classrooms out into the river as much as possible. Last Wednesday our 4th-6th graders from Española braved chilly temperatures to collect some data on the Rio Chama below Abiquiu Dam.

In our last session our students learned a new equation:


(distance = rate × time)

Our goal for this session was to find the rate/velocity of the Rio Chama. We began by reviewing this equation and talking about different units. This discussion helped us determine which units of measure would be appropriate for measuring the speed of the river. We settled on meters per second, but our tape measures didn’t have metric units, so we had to measure in feet and convert to meters.

Our clever students were able to puzzle out how we could measure the speed of the river with this equation- we could lay out a distance and measure the speed of a floating object! We decided to use an orange. They float well, and they’re so bright that they’re easily visible for catching.

Fortunately, we had a data sheet ready to collect this very data.

We began by taking GPS coordinates of the locations where we wanted to measure the river’s speed.

Students used rocks to delineate the beginning and end of their river segments.

We had two data collection teams. Each team had 5 jobs. One person released the orange into the river, one person timed it with a stopwatch and recorded the data, one person was responsible for catching the orange with a net, and two people were responsible for making sure the orange was released and caught at precisely the right spot.

Double checking the measurement of our length of river.
In some cases students had to evaluate whether it was safe to continue the measurements in the middle of the river.

We also talked about possible sources of error. Students were concerned about the exact way in which the orange was released. We tried to standardize the way we did this.

Students enjoying cheering on the oranges as they floated down the river.

Catching the orange was not always an easy task, but our students did a great job!


At the end of class, one of our favorite game wardens dropped by! The students were excited to show off their data and explain what they were measuring and why.


We’re so proud of our students for braving cold water temperatures to collect this data. Everybody seemed to have a great time. The next time we meet, we’ll plot this data and compare it with the measurements we took a few years ago.


Wrapping up Fall Classes

The holidays are quickly approaching, and this week we wrapped up our final River Classroom session before the winter break. Our 4th-6th grade students from the Española Public School District met at NMWC to present some fantastic projects and review everything we’ve learned this fall.

Students have been working on individual projects about elements on the Periodic Table. Many students opted to study fireworks and how different elements produce different colors. The chemistry of fireworks is a really interesting topic that fits right in with our lesson on elements in the Periodic Table, and students gave some really entertaining and informative presentations!

After each student had a chance to present his or her project, we moved on to our main attraction: a Jeopardy-style game in which teams of students answer questions related to the material we’ve covered this year!

Categories included Water Quality, Riparian Ecosystems, The Scientific Process, Water on Earth, and Atoms and Molecules
Miss Audrey explains the rules of the game

One of our most important rules: each team must come to a consensus before one group member can raise a hand to answer the question.

We tested the speed of students’ reflexes as they raced to raise their hands after the Jeopardy theme song stopped!


Our students did a fantastic job and successfully answered almost every single question.

For Final Jeopardy the rules changed slightly, and each team had to make a bet for the number of points they could win or lose on each question. Teams had one minute to write their answer to earn their points!

In the end everybody in the room proved to be a brilliant scientist and remembered a great deal of what we covered during the year, so everybody won a mini Snickers bar.

One of the most entertaining aspects of the game: the team names!

We also took a minute to recognize our fearless leader, Katherine. She founded the River Classroom program, and in the last five years she has made a tremendous impact on many students in northern New Mexico. At the end of this year, Katherine will begin a well-deserved retirement, but we are very grateful for her leadership and influence!


Have a safe, happy holiday, and we look forward to resuming classes in 2017!

Synthesizing Our Knowledge of New Mexico Ecosystems

We had planned to spend last Monday at the Bosque del Apache with our 7th-10th grade Water Scholars from the Española Public School District. Unfortunately the trip had to be postponed until January. Instead, we took the opportunity to meet in the classroom and synthesize some of our knowledge about ecosystems.

We also took the opportunity to discuss climate change and how it could affect the ecosystems we’ve visited.

We began by making K-W-L charts, and students listed everything they knew (or thought they knew) about climate change, as well as what they wanted to learn.

Our students created some really nice lists of questions about climate change, and these questions were answered during a talk about climate change and what it means for New Mexico.

Students filling out the “L” column of their K-W-L chart by listing what they learned.

After our talk, students created a lengthy list of what they learned about climate change.

After a lunch break, students returned to the day’s primary mission- comparing and contrasting two of the ecosystems we’ve visited this year, which include lake, aspen, and piñon-juniper ecosystems.

Students divided into three groups, and each group conducted online research to compare and contrast two ecosystems: lake ecosystems to aspen ecosystems, aspen ecosystems to piñon-juniper ecosystems, and piñon-juniper ecosystems to lake ecosystems.

After comparing and contrasting factors like typical elevation ranges, annual precipitation, common animals, common plants, and soil characteristics, students assembled a PowerPoint presentation to share their findings with the class.


Of course one of the perks of class at NMWC is that you occasionally get to meet the wildlife!

One of our volunteers introduces our students to our Saw-whet owl.

At the end of the day, students shared their presentations with the class, and we discussed how all of the places we’ve explored have been similar and different. This review was a great way to end the Fall semester. Students who missed individual field sessions were able to catch up, and we were able to synthesize some of the knowledge we’ve gained this year.




We can’t wait to explore new ecosystems with these students in the spring!