Five Young Researchers Making a Difference |
Members of the Mesilla Valley Audubon Society take part in a bird walk led by young researcher Joel Gilb.

People who love birds and nature often flock together, including in local chapters of the Audubon Society. The members of the Mesilla Valley Audubon Society (MVAS) are certainly bird enthusiasts, and most members have interests in other aspects of nature. However, some of the younger members of MVAS are going a step further and are working on graduate degrees in the natural sciences with career plans in the field. Let’s meet some of these young researchers.

Department of Agricultural and Extension Education (AXED) at New Mexico State University (NMSU)

Young researcher Joel Gilb.
Joel Gilb

Joel Gilb, as part of his master’s degree, designed and implemented an environmental education program for fourth-grade students at a school in Magdalena, New Mexico, with input from the Bosque del Apache and Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuges.

To assess its overall effectiveness, the students were given a test to assess their prior knowledge of the subject; then after the program they were given a post-test to see how much knowledge they had gleaned from the program. Joel analyzed that data, and the results were positive. He says that the students were receptive to the program and seemed to enjoy it. “They liked going out on the field trips and even being in the classroom,” he said.

Joel said it was an internship at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge that put him on his current path. “I spent that summer working alongside the visitor services folks at the refuge and realized that interpretation/education was the career path I wanted to pursue. I have always had a passion for educating the public about wildlife and conservation.” Joel hopes to stay in the Southwest after he completes his master’s degree and to find work as a visitor services ranger at a national wildlife refuge.

Graduate Students in the NMSU Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology

Dylan Osterhaus
Dylan Osterhaus

Dylan Osterhaus, a Ph.D. candidate at NMSU, is the recipient of the Richard Bischoff Scholarship for 2022. MVAS awards this scholarship annually to an NMSU graduate student in the department of fish, wildlife and conservation ecology, department of biology, or the geography department.

Dylan’s research focuses on how artificial light at night (ALAN) impacts the migratory flights of birds. During spring and fall, birds migrate across North America and as they travel across the night sky, they make sounds, or vocalizations. Within Dylan’s study area, these vocalizations are captured by specialized acoustic monitoring equipment which he analyzes, along with weather radar data, to count the number of birds as they migrate.

Dylan says, “The majority of birds migrate at night and rely on multiple navigational mechanisms to guide their flights. Artificial light in the environment can disrupt their navigation and cause them to fly towards lights, leading to potential collisions with human structures and excess expenditure of energy.”

Typically, research on ALAN focuses on large sources of light such as entire cities, but Dylan is examining how specific light sources, even a single building, can impact migration. Dylan says, “The cool thing about light pollution is that it’s the one type of pollution that we can completely get rid of. All you have to do is turn them [lights] off.”

Dylan started studying birds after he completed a Master of Science degree at Iowa State University. He says, “I decided to shift my research focus to birds for my Ph.D. Birds truly are one of the most accessible taxa present within our world. Even at my apartment in a very urban area of Las Cruces I can watch, study, listen to, and enjoy many species of birds right from my porch.” Dylan hopes to pursue a career in academia.

Kelley Boland
Kelley Boland

Kelley Boland, a master’s student, is studying a mass mortality event of migrating songbirds that happened across the Southwest in 2020. Hundreds of bird carcasses were collected on the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) alone.

Kelley says, “Recent studies highlight the combined effects of ALAN and extreme weather on mortalities during migration. Several factors likely led to the 2020 mortality event, including ALAN and extreme weather, plus broader impacts from wildfires and drought. However, there was no standardized data collection during the 2020 mortality, so we are unable to evaluate the impact of ALAN on those mortalities.”

To that end, Kelley is creating standardized carcass surveys at WSMR to identify primary factors influencing avian mortality during migration. She is also comparing the effectiveness of detective methods of humans and scent detection dogs in surveying bird carcasses at WSMR.

Kelley’s undergraduate courses solidified her passion for the wildlife field. She worked closely with an ornithology professor on some acoustic ecology research projects. She says, “I had a great time gaining bird-related research experience and felt confident that was the direction I wanted to go in.”

Hailey Jacobson
Hailey Jacobson

Hailey Jacobson, also pursuing a master’s degree, is investigating the current distribution, habitat selection, and ecological interactions of the Organ Mountains Colorado chipmunk. This chipmunk, endemic to the Organ Mountains in Southern New Mexico, is the southernmost subspecies of the Colorado chipmunk and is isolated from the next nearest population of the Colorado chipmunk. The state of New Mexico considers this chipmunk threatened, and the U.S. Army considers it a species at risk of being federally listed in accordance with the Endangered Species Act.

Hailey uses remote cameras to assess the status of this chipmunk sub-species at multiple points in the Organ Mountains. She is also assessing the extent of any changes in occupancy at sites in the Organ Mountains where it has previously been observed. Hailey says, “This fundamental information about the Organ Mountains chipmunk will foster the design of scientifically rigorous conservation strategies and help make informed management decisions.”

Hailey hopes to stay in the Las Cruces area and continue to conduct research in Southern New Mexico for at least five to 10 years while working for a federal agency.

James Lee
James Lee

James Lee, an NMSU master’s degree student, is studying a species of grouse called a white-tailed ptarmigan. They’re distributed throughout western North America from Alaska to Northern New Mexico, the southernmost extent of their range. This species only exists above the tree line in alpine areas, where the air is thin, and it stays cold year-round. The population that James monitors was recently reintroduced to the Pecos Wilderness area in the Carson National Forest. James camps out for several days at a time at elevations of around 12,000 feet to gather the data required to determine what factors are leading to their decline in New Mexico.

James’ interest in climate change is one thing that attracted him to this project. According to James, “I believe that climate change is going to impact everything. This is the century that I’m alive in and if this is the hurdle that we need to overcome, then I want to understand what we can do to mitigate climate impacts and to see what we can do to help wildlife thrive.”

James has had many interesting field experiences and he would like to continue doing field work after completing his master’s degree.

When asked about their association with MVAS, each of the graduate students expressed how much they enjoy meeting people with similar interests and learning about local birds. Both Dylan and Kelley serve on the MVAS conservation committee and Dylan is on the board. All the graduate students have given presentations at MVAS meetings. As Dylan says, “The key part of science is communication, so that experience with communication has been great.” Dylan leads bird walks at Leasburg Dam State Park on the last Saturday of each month, and Joel led monthly bird walks but will be moving soon to take the next step in his career.

If you’re interested in participating in MVAS bird walks or other activities, check out the organization’s calendar.

Getting Children Interested in Nature

Each of the researchers profiled here can trace their interest in nature back to an early age. These interests were nurtured by family members, scouting, trips to museums, school programs, and easy access to nature and the outdoors. Undergraduate programs, field experiences, and internships early in their formal education also contributed to their desire to pursue the natural sciences as career options.

When asked how parents and teachers can get children interested in nature, these graduate students all agreed, “Get them outside!” Just getting kids outdoors often and in diverse settings can provide the spark that will create a love and respect for nature.

Joel says, “I think having a diversity of experiences helps. Some kids are fascinated by one element of the program — maybe they like following tracks, or maybe birds or insects are what they’re into. It helps to have that wide variety.”

Hailey recommends providing tools to inspire them to explore — a magnifying glass, bug enclosure, field guides, and other items. Getting kids out in nature and finding interesting and diverse programs can help spark an interest in nature.

Kelley worked in wildlife rehabilitation and took animal ambassadors into classrooms. As she says, “It’s one thing to talk about owls; it’s another entirely to have a real owl in front of you.”

Pursuing Your Own Interests in Nature

To nurture your own interest in nature, search for groups of like-minded people. Mesilla Valley Audubon Society is mentioned here, but if birds aren’t your thing, maybe you want to know more about native plants, the night sky, or the abundant wildlife near us here in New Mexico. Download apps related to your interests. The Merlin Bird ID app can identify birds by their calls; iNaturalist lets you identify almost any living thing that you can get a photo of — an interesting wildflower, butterfly, or even a mammal or bird.

Kelley has a favorite quote by John Burroughs:  “To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday.” You might be surprised by that new bloom, a different buzzing insect, or a migrating bird that wasn’t on the same path you took yesterday.

Dylan notes that you don’t have to take a long drive to observe nature. He says, “Invest in the nature you see locally.” So, grab a field guide, download some apps, and see what you can discover.

Here are some places in and around Las Cruces where you and the kids can explore nature.

Story by Julia Osgood
Photography by Julia Osgood. Additional photos courtesy.

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