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Wildlife Visits to Springs Lessons

A video lesson and written lesson for middle school students to learn about and work with data of animal visits to natural springs.

Mule deer with large ears standing at Mud spring looking off to the side

Wildlife Lessons Introduction

Provide your middle school students the opportunity to learn all about a local spring and the wildlife that frequent it by watching "Mud Spring: From Water to Wildlife". Then have them work with real data of all wildlife visits to Mud and Paradise spring as they make predictions about data trends, graph the data, and interpret patterns.

These lessons are well-designed for use during distance learning, home schooling, and at-home work, as well as in the classroom.

Mud Spring: From Water to Wildlife

This 20-minute video lesson will take you to Mud spring, a natural freshwater spring within Cibola National Forest in the Sandia Mountains, near the north end of Tijeras Creek watershed.

Learn what springs are, why water levels may be dropping in them, see photographs of visits by many animals, search for other animal evidence, and find out what bear research has been done in the Sandias.

  • Part 1- Water at the Spring (0:24)
  • Part 2- Wildlife Cameras (5:10)
  • Part 3- Animal Evidence (10:27)
  • Part 4- Bear Research (12:42)
  • Part 5- Activity Time (16:45)

Mud Spring: From Water to Wildlife Transcript

Hi everyone. My name is Fiana. I'm one of the educators for the Sandia Mountain  Natural History Center in the east mountains,  and I am standing at a place called Mud spring.  

It's really hard to see because this spring is barely at the surface of the land anymore.  There's just a little bit of water above ground. If you've done any exploring or hiking in the Sandia mountains,  you've probably realized there's not a lot of water here. There aren't big rivers.  

There definitely aren't lakes or ponds or things like that, so the animals take what they can get.  There are dozens of springs located all throughout the Sandia mountains, but a lot of them have dried up. Natural springs are filled in by groundwater.  As it sounds, groundwater is water that's often beneath the ground, and the water table is at a  certain level so that groundwater could be many,  many feet down- way down below... you'd have to dig a big deep hole to get down to it,  or it could be a couple feet down. Snow melts. 

It trickles or percolates down into the soil.  It gets into the groundwater down there beneath our feet, in with the soil and the rocks, and then it very, very slowly flows downhill underground and fills in water at springs like Mud spring where I am now. Mud spring is located within  Tijeras creek watershed, so water can flow here down to Tijeras creek, which is down over that way four miles or so down, um, to our south.  

So here I am now at Paradise spring, which isn't as exciting anymore because there's no water above ground for the animals to drink. For many years in the past, I'm sure it had water here at the surface,  and then around 2011 into early 2012, the water level was kind of going up and down right at the surface, and eventually, that water table level dropped enough that it was back underground.  So what I'm going to do now is check this well.  

Take the lid off, and I have this tool. It's a  water level meter. I'm going to slowly put this down into the well until it touches water,  and this tool is designed that when it hits water it will beep, and then I can measure how far down that water is. Let's listen. Isually it's been closer to the surface than this...

[high-pitched beep]

oh,  there we go.

[beeps again]

That's how far down the water is. ...This graph shows all the measurements of how far down the water was at Paradise spring since 2016. You can see that it was right around 2 feet below the surface, and then it dropped in spring and summer of 2017 all the way down to almost 3 1/2 feet below ground, came back up to around 2, and dropped again. So it does seem to have a pattern, and it seems like the drops are happening mostly in the spring and the summer. Here at Mud spring, luckily the water still is at the surface,  but for the last several years the ground water level's been dropping.

The water table has gotten lower and lower, and if it gets any lower it's going to go below ground again, and the animals won't be able to get to this water either. Then they'll probably have to hike up the hill-  only about 2/3 of a mile, but it is a steep trek. Especially in the heat of summer, not a  fun hike. That's Cole spring up there. That one's usually still flowing better. Figuring out why these water levels are dropping in the springs can be complicated.

I've talked to a hydrogeologist who studies the groundwater in the east mountains, and he said it can be due to a number of different reasons. It could have to do with changes in rainfall, with less snow and snow melt higher on the mountain; with the pumping of the groundwater out of the ground for human usage,  like showers and toilets and sinks in homes. At least some of this groundwater dropping could have to do with climate change, which has been causing drought for years in New  Mexico, less snow in the winter, and less rain.  

The combination of less water and higher temperatures is a bad thing. It's a dangerous thing for most species- for plants, for fungi,  and for animals, including ourselves, humans. Since Mud spring is one of the few sources of water around here, we want to see what wildlife is visiting. So we use these cameras that sense animals when they come by. So this one has both motion sensor if anything flies or moves in front of it, and heat sensor if it senses body heat of a warm-blooded animal.

And we just leave it on 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and see what pictures we get. It's pretty exciting. You want to see some? [Silence.] There'll be  Stellar's jays, all kinds of little birds. And then you have your larger birds. Cooper's hawks are frequent visitors here because they're a type of hawk they can fly in and around the trees, so they actually live down in the forest.  

We've gotten turkey vultures here. We've gotten a  lot of actual turkeys. Whole groups of them will come. Moms and babies gather up with other moms and babies, and then they all come by together. As far as mammals, which is probably what you've been waiting for, huh? We've got lots of different kinds of mammals. So every once in a while, we'll get a rabbit hopping through, but rabbits kind of like the more open meadowy areas. We have another camera that's in really good rabbit habitat.  

We get lots and lots of Abert's squirrels. The squirrels hop up and down the trees. We'll see more than one squirrel in one picture chasing each other back and forth. It's pretty exciting. For a little bit bigger mammals, we get raccoons.  Usually at night- mostly nocturnal creatures. And skunks, which are also mostly out at night.  And our camera takes these black and white photos using a special infrared flash so it doesn't scare the animals as much. It's not as bright to them but it still can get these cool night images. Back to our birds for a moment.  

Every once in a while we'll get a picture of an owl, which is pretty exciting, and a couple times we've even got photos of bats, or what are probably bats? Another animal that most people have never even heard of, but it's a common visitor here, is a ringtail. It's a cousin of the raccoon- a little bit skinnier, has those rings on the tail, and they're kind of like the squirrels of the night.  Nocturnal creatures, but they climb up in the trees. They can do flips, they can jump from tree to tree, and, uh, they actually come here a lot. Another common night visitor, but also during the day, are foxes. We have grey foxes here up in the mountains because they're the only member of the canine family that can actually climb up in trees.  

They can spread their toe pads wide enough apart to do that. Can your dog do that? Yeah, I didn't think so. Every once in a while we get a photo of a family of foxes that stay together-mom and dad and babies. Oh, it's so cute. And as far as the biggest mammals of the forest, there's the mule deer. They're called mule deer because they have those big ears that kind of look like mules. They're a very common visitor here, both day and night, all different times.  

And they like to browse on a lot of the maple trees and oak trees around here, and there's been some thinning and burning projects where the trees have been cleared out to make room for new smaller trees like that to grow in. So as we've had more small trees with leaves near the ground for the deer to eat, then more deer come into this area.  And we'll get large groups of deer- females and bucks with the big antlers. We'll get fawns, and so we have a really healthy population of deer. And then we have our carnivorous cats. There are two species of wild cats here in this area. One is the bobcat, which is the smaller one, short little bobby tail, and it has some spotting on its fur.  

They're bigger than your house cat, but not that much bigger. They're not huge, and they come by every once in a while not too often actually,  so it's pretty exciting when we do get a bobcat picture. And then there's of course the larger cat with a long tail, long slender body, very big... I've never seen one in the wild.  I don't really need to see one in the wild.  

I have seen scat and tracks and animals that have been killed by them. There was actually a deer right up over there one time. Close your eyes for a second, I'll show you a photo.

...That was killed by a mountain lion. Yeah, I  know, a little gruesome, but part of the circle of life.

[crow cawing]

So mountain lions don't come here very often either. They have very large ranges. Also, cats get a lot of water from  their food.

[cawing continues louder]

They don't necessarily need to come drink from the spring as often as your cat at home needs to if they're eating a lot of kibble.

[cawing continues]

Oh, a  crow's interrupting me!

[more cawing, then stops]  

Looking around you might see some tracks in the mud, or a spot where a bear was digging to make a little hole for itself to scoot its butt in. Or you might find a pine cone. This doesn't seem like a sign of an animal,  does it? But look at this pine cone compared with this pine cone. What's different? Yeah,  this one still has a bunch of scales on it, and this one doesn't.That's actually sign of one of those Abert's squirrels I was talking about.  

These pinecones used to have seeds inside of every single one of those scales, which is the favorite food of many squirrels. And so they'll eat their way all the way around just like we would eat corn on the cob, and then they'll toss the remains on the ground. This is a bunch of Ponderosa pine needles, and a lot of times you'll find these on the ground still green. And it's not because the tree loses it this way, but it's because the  Abert's squirrels are biting it off at the branch.  
Hopefully that doesn't have squirrel germs on it still.  

Another thing I found here that you do want to wash your hands if you touch, is a feather. Look at that. It's a little old-looking and wet from the rain, but you can kind of see that it has little white bits and little gray or brown bits. And based on the size too, it looks like it could be a turkey wing feather. If you get down low to the ground under this juniper tree, there's a nice little den in here. I've seen many  Abert's squirrels running in and out of here. I also found a pencil. Did anyone lose one? Here's one of the spots we know a lot of animals like to come to the spring from because there's what's called a game trail here, a very faint trail along this hillside going all the way up that way where you can tell a lot of deer,  bears, maybe coyotes, have walked.

So another thing we've done here is we're part of a scientific research study. It may not look like much, but we put some strips of barbed wire up on this tree here, and the reason we put it here is because we knew bears were coming here, and bears will come up to a tree and they'll make it their favorite scratching post. Actually, the real reason they do it is they want to leave their scent behind. They have a lot of scent glands on their body. It's kind of stinky and smelly, actually a little bit skunky. And they'll leave that smell behind so that when another bear comes along they go and they'll sniff what was there, and they actually communicate using their scent.  What we're looking for on this tree is fur. So sometimes without barbed wire, fur might get stuck  in pieces of bark, and the barbed wire just helps  

...grab that fur.

We also strung long lengths of barbed wire that went around several different trees. We poured fish emulsion, so kind of ground up fish bits, and cow's blood...I know, disgusting... on that wood, and sometimes we would smear a little bit of delicious skunk smell. And believe it or not,  this was actually something to attract bears, because when they smell something like that they think there's a dead skunk or a dead deer. And they sniff it out, and they come along and they want to go eat it, but we didn't want to leave actual food because you don't want to get a bear used to coming to a certain spot for food.  

They can find it on their own in the wild. So they'd get up to this spot. They'd get to the barbed wire, and then they'd have to make a choice. Are they going to walk over it, or are they going to shimmy down on the ground under it? And either way, hopefully some of the fur from their belly or from their back would  get caught on the barbed wire. We would come out every couple weeks and we'd collect the fur, and we sent it up to a lab in Canada.  

And the scientists there did DNA testing on it, and if the fur was fresh enough and it hadn't gotten too much sunlight directly on it then they were actually able to extract real animal DNA, and then they could actually get it down to the exact bear. This information is really important to us because if you put barbed wire like this all throughout the Sandia mountains, then you can actually find out an idea of how many bears are visiting these different spots.  

And they'd factor in the range, or how far a bear will go, and how many bears usually live in a certain square mile range. And putting all those numbers together...and my brain can't do this, but computers can do these really cool simulations and models, and they were able to estimate about how many bears are in the Sandia mountains.  Based on this research, scientists estimate somewhere around 43 bears in the Sandia mountains when this research was done in the mid-2010's.  

It's still hard to say for sure, and that number changes every single year. Of course, bears die, or bears are born. All of this research was part of a study that a graduate student named Matt was doing with New Mexico State University.  So he did this work all throughout New Mexico. Those of us that are part of an organization called the Sandia Mountain Bear Collaborative did the work just in the Sandia Mountains.  These camera pictures here at Mud Spring are another form of data collection. We've been able to look at when bears visit, what times of day, what times of year, and how many come over the years. ... It's pretty cool to think that right here where I'm standing, hundreds and thousands of animals have visited.

Now that you've visited the springs with me and learned what goes on here, it's time for an activity. It'll start with background information that goes over what we just looked at... And then you'll be making your own predictions of what patterns you expect to see in the wildlife visits to the springs. You can choose from one of several different animals including bears, coyotes, and ring tails, and you decide if you want to look at Mud spring data, Paradise spring data, or both, and then if  you want to look at the visits per year, per month, at different times of day, or the air temperature. And you make your predictions based on those animals and those variables. ... 

Next it will be time to graph the data. ... 

This is a spreadsheet of the real data. You'll find whichever data you made predictions about and then graph it. Let's say you wrote a  hypothesis about coyotes visiting Mud spring at different years. You can copy that data and then use that to make your graphs. You can either copy and paste your data into Excel,  or Google sheets, or another graphing program, or just draw it on paper. You'll have to  decide what kind of graph you want to make:  

bar graph, line graph, or pie chart- whatever fits your data best, and then make your graph If you're using a computer program, you'll have to make sure you have the data that you want selected and that it's graphing what you want it to, and then you'll finish up your graph by labeling the axes and making a good title for it. For the last part of this activity, you'll be analyzing your data: looking at what patterns you see, whether it goes along with what your hypotheses were, 
and what other information you can get from when animals visited the springs. We hope you've enjoyed this trip out to Mud spring in the Sandia mountains of New Mexico. The animals and I hope you have a great rest of your day.

Wildlife Visits to Sandia Mountain Springs

Black bear in black and white in night trail camera image at Mud spring in 2017.This written lesson provides students with real data collected from the camera photos taken at Mud and Paradise springs. They'll choose from amongst 8 animal species and 4 variables (year, month, time of day, temperature) to focus on which portions of the data they're most interested in exploring. Students will make predictions about what trends they think they may find, graph the data on the computer or on paper, and respond to critical thinking questions to interpret and analyze their graphs.

This lesson is most appropriate for middle school students, and any classes you want to provide experience working with and graphing real-world, scientific data. It is aligned to Next Generation science standards.

Wildlife Lesson Files

View, download, print, and utilize the lesson files for educational purposes. All files are designed to be accessible.

Daily visits of coyotes and foxes to Mud spring from 2008 to 2020.


Please contact Fiana Shapiro at fiana.shapiro@state.nm.us if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions regarding these lessons.