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Lessons of nature

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The Sandia Mountain Natural History Center and its 128-acre forest parcel – owned by Albuquerque Public Schools and operated by the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science – serve a specific ecological education purpose, and 86 APS elementary schools combined to shuttle more than 12,000 students to study at the site this past year.

But for one day in each warm-weather month, the center offers access and special programming for nature enthusiasts of all ages.

Formerly scheduled on the first Saturday of those months, the center’s public days shifted last year to Sundays. They now align with free admission days at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. Officials have also broadened the “First Sunday” programming to reflect the museum’s influence, according to the center manager Paul Mauermann.

Sandia Mountain Natural History Center
WHAT: First Sundays
WHEN: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. July 1 and Aug. 5
HOW MUCH: Free.
WHAT: BioBlitz
WHEN: Aug. 10, 5-9 p.m.; Aug. 11, 7 a.m.-4 p.m.
HOW MUCH: Free, all ages welcome.
The Sandia Mountain Natural History Center will host BioBlitz 2012 for the N.M. Museum of Natural History and Science. This 24-hour event will bring together scientific experts and citizens to take an inventory of all living organisms in the area. The events are free, but pre-registration is required at nmnaturalhistory.org. For more information on how you can get involved with BioBlitz, contact Rosie Norlander at 505-281-5259 or rosie.norlander@state.nm.us.
DIRECTIONS: From Albuquerque: Follow Interstate 40 east through Tijeras Canyon. Take the Cedar Crest exit (175) and follow N.M. Highway 14 north through Cedar Crest. Watch for the coffee shop on your left, approximately 3 miles from I-40. Turn left immediately after the coffee shop onto Columbine Lane. Follow Columbine Lane approximately 1 mile to the center. Columbine Lane ends at the center.

July’s program, for example, is titled “When Albuquerque was an ocean.” In August, visitors can learn about Ice Age vertebrates of Albuquerque and the Sandia Mountains.

“We used to do more stuff like plants and animals of the Sandias. We’re very ecology-based,” Mauermann said. “Now the programming is more varied.”

But plants and animals are still a huge part of the deal. The center opens on first Sundays from 9 a.m.-4 p.m., and the optional programming is generally just an hour long.

“The idea is that the rest of the day is for people to go out and learn more on their own on the topic or explore the trails,” Mauermann said.

That includes the on-site visitor center, contained in one of several World War II-era military barracks (formerly of Kirtland Air Force base) that make up the campus buildings.

There visitors can peruse a collection of lichens, fungi and mold gathered on-site or examine different animal scat – even a miniature sample from a bee. The display also encompasses cow and rattlesnake skeletons, a stuffed great horned owl and photographs snapped by the game cameras spread throughout the grounds. The images demonstrate variety of animals that prowl the area, including bears, mountain lions and even a ringtail cat.

From the assortment of bear scat – which shows what type of food the animal had eaten – to the chunk of witch’s broom, Mauermann said the room aspires to show the inner-connectedness of the ecosystem.

“This (visitor center) really is more for the public,” he said. “We do bring kids in, but the kids we want to have more outside.”

Once outside the building, visitors can venture out to picnic areas or onto 5 1/2 miles of trails for self-guided hikes. There are also geocaching opportunities.

“First Sundays average 75-80 people. Spread out over a day, (that means) usually people have a nice, quiet experience,” Mauermann said as he walked along the Pajarito Trail toward the bird blinds on a recent weekday morning.

The center also offers good spots for bird watching. The site’s bird blinds are located in an “ecotone,” or the convergence of two different ecosystems. In this case, it’s located between meadow and forest, meaning birds who flock to either type of area may be seen. The Sandias are also located on a migration route, further enhancing the bird watching.

Mauermann said because it’s reserved primarily for students, the general public tends to be unfamiliar with the center. The adults chaperoning school field trips usually have one of two reactions when they arrive on site, he said. The local ones may remember coming when they were in elementary school, but a lot of them simply had no idea the place existed.

That’s “one of the reasons why we have these public programs because nobody really knows that much about us,” Mauermann said.

In addition to the First Sundays, the center will open on Aug. 10-11 for BIOBlitz. Volunteers of all ages can join scientists and other experts during the BIOBlitz as they try to perform an inventory of all the living organisms – including mammals, reptiles, birds, wildflowers and fungi – in the area.

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