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.

April ICU Update

Since the last update, we have released two Desert Cottontails that came in with no injuries, both of the Red-tailed Hawks we’ve had in care, one more Northern Saw-whet Owl, four Rock Pigeons and the Collared Dove. We also released a Cooper’s Hawk who came in with mild head trauma.

Inside, we have eight juvenile Desert Cottontails, one Collared Dove, a fledgling Rock Pigeon, two fledgling House Finches and one nestling House Sparrow. Summer is definitely upon us.


Outside we have one last Saw-whet owl, the Black-headed Grosbeak and a Collared Dove. The Saw-whet owl has just passed mouse school with flying colors and will be ready for release in the next few weeks. The Grosbeak is showing some great feather growth and will be ready to go once the Grosbeaks get back from migration.

Thanks to everyone’s support, we are able to take excellent care of all of these critters. We couldn’t do it without YOU!

Releasing a Northern Saw-whet Owl

Exploring the Edward Sargent WMA

Our 4th and 5th grade students from Chama Elementary are lucky to live and go to school just down the street from one of the most beautiful places in northern New Mexico- the Edward Sargent Wildlife Area, which is operated by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF).

Last Tuesday we took these students to this area to explore. For many students it was their first time in this area. We were fortunate to be joined by Officer Zamora, with NMDGF.

Officer Zamora explains what it’s like to be a game warden and what sort of schooling he needed to qualify for the job
Hiking towards the Rio Chamita

The morning began fairly chilly, and the Rio Chamita was covered in a thin layer of ice when we arrived.


Officer Zamora discussing some of the water quality parameters that these students test
Finding the temperature of the Rio Chamita with a stream gauge. If the ice didn’t tip you off, it was pretty chilly!

These students typically visit the Rio Chama below the village of Chama, and the Rio Chamita is quite different. We discussed the differences between creeks and rivers. Comparing the Rio Chama to the Rio Chamita really allowed students to understand the difference.

Pointing out vegetation along the Rio Chamita


Because the Sargent is a Wildlife Management Area, there was an abundance of sign of wildlife to identify and discuss.


Checking out a track
One of the many tracks our students discovered
Discussing tracks in the road
One last opportunity to explore the Rio Chamita

Our students had a fantastic time exploring this wildlife area, and we hope that they share their new-found knowledge with their peers and families so that the entire community continues to enjoy and protect this area!

Testing Water Quality on the Rio Chama

Testing water quality is critical for knowing if the waterway is suitable for organisms to thrive; so this week, our class analyzed the water quality on the Rio Chama through multiple sampling techniques.

Before we began testing water quality, though, we had a surprise for the students …

When I’m not teaching River Classroom, I also work in the ICU at NMWC, so I brought along a juvenile male Cooper’s Hawk to release back into the wild. I explained the natural history and ecology of Cooper’s Hawks to the students and then it was time to set him free!

Once the excitement settled down, we split the students into 2 groups. The first group collected benthic macroinvertebrates using a 1m x 1m square net with 2 students holding it on each side. Then two other students go 2m upstream from the net and kick up macroinvertebrates from the substrate, while slowly walking towards the net. This mode of collection is a version of the kick-sampling method.

Kick-sampling in the Rio Chama for benthic macroinvertebrates
Finished sampling and now getting ready to start picking off the benthics

Students then removed all the macroinvertebrates from the net using forceps and put them into a collection jar with isopropyl alcohol for the teachers to count and ID at a later time. Each sampling site was given a separate collection jar and GPS coordinates were taken at the sites as well.

Picking off all the benthics from the net using forceps and patience 🙂
Checking out and trying to identify the various benthics collected from the kick-sample

The second group learned all the different components of testing water quality through a fun activity of making foldables! We explained each component (e.g. pH, conductivity, etc.), what units they are measured in, and gave a brief explanation/example.

Once that task was complete, the students collected several samples of water from the river so we could test the various components using Vernier water quality probes.

Miss Christy explaining how to safely and properly use the water quality testing probes
Testing a river sample and reading the measurement
All watching over the monitor and reading the values for a water quality test
Ranger Austin Kuhlman came to talk with us about the importance of testing water quality

The students switched groups after lunch so everyone got a chance to participate in both activities.

This was our first ‘real’ river sampling session, so students familiarized themselves with the numerous water quality testing techniques. The class will be conducting at least two more river samplings this year, so stay tuned for what happens next!

Birding in Tierra Amarilla

Last Thursday we headed back north to Tierra Amarilla to meet with the 5th and 6th graders from Tierra Amarilla Elementary. We planned on heading to Heron Lake State Park to test water quality and compare lake and river ecosystems.

This plan ended up being modified a little because the ospreys are back! We pulled the bus over on the side of the road to check out a nest with two ospreys, and we discovered that these students are not only great (quiet) birders… they’re actually very interested in birds!

Quietly checking out a nest with an osprey on it


Learning to use a spotting scope


The view through the spotting scope


Looking up Osprey in the bird book


After this quick detour, we headed to the boat ramp. Once again, we pulled out the spotting scope, and our students were all over it. They spotted many birds, including one in particular that we were very excited to see!

Seeking birds on the lake


Learning how to use the index to look up a bird
A Common Loon!
A Spotted Sandpiper
Students trying to sneak up on the sandpiper


We did discuss water quality and the differences between lake and river ecosystems, but our students learned a great deal about the birds on Heron Lake in the spring, how to use binoculars and spotting scopes to observe these birds, and how to look up birds in a bird guide. This is a perfect example of our philosophy- science is all around us! There’s always an opportunity to learn if you keep your eyes open and ask questions!


Mammals on the Rio Chama

The last time our 4th-6th grade River Classroom was at the Rio Chama, we placed some game cameras in areas that had quite a few signs of life. This week we met again at NMWC to take a look at the images and begin some important research into the animals that live along the river.

Here’s a sample of what we found:

Can you spot the rabbit?
A fox
A bobcat

Our students were pretty excited to see these images and correlate them with the signs of life we saw at the river!

Once we had reviewed the photos, our students began some basic research on these mammals. We wanted to know their natural history, where they belong in the ecosystem, whether they are threatened, and what changes to the ecosystem and habitat could have negative impacts on the species. We also discussed taxonomy and the scientific names of these species.

Books are always a good place to start.
Comparing the rabbits in the book to our photos
Moving on to online research
Debating characteristics of rabbit species
Taking detailed notes


After all of this work, we took a much-needed lunch break. After lunch, we began some preliminary work on a summative project. One of the great things about studying the environment is that everything is connected in some way. In most schools many subjects are separated by class- Algebra, English, Science. It’s not easy for students to see how they relate to each other and to the world around them.

To get our students thinking about how everything we’ve learned is connected, we had them brainstorm a (very long) list of topics we’ve discussed. We did this as a group and typed everything up. We printed copies for each group of students and had students organize them into categories. Our only requirement was that students only have between 5-10 categories.

Cutting out the words
Our students came up with three pages of words!
Discussing organization of terms
Organizing words into categories under the watchful eye of the magpie


Our students were proud of completing their task, which at first seemed insurmountable.


Once again our students exceeded our expectations. These kids are so smart, and we can’t wait to see the finished projects that they will put together connecting all of the knowledge they’ve gained over the last few years!

Wildlife of New Mexico

One very important, and sometimes overlooked, aspect of place-based environmental education is learning what kinds of animals belong in the ecosystems in your area. Last week we addressed this with the 7th graders at McCurdy Charter School by bringing them to NMWC.

We discussed why these animals are here and on exhibit (either because they have an injury that prevents their release or because they are imprinted). We took an up-close look at a few birds and discussed what adaptations make them able to live here and why.

Testing our hand strength to see if our hands are as strong as eagle talons.

The students also got to meet our bull snake, Basil, and see how he compares to a rattlesnake.

Checking out the flammulated owl.


This particular student has been begging to see our grey fox all year.
Taking photos of our bald eagle, Maxwell.

This group of students has been begging to come and tour NMWC all year, and we were excited to give them the chance. We’ve spent the year teaching them about the ecosystems around them, and after getting to meet some of New Mexico’s wildlife, we think that these students are more committed than ever to protecting these species.