Rivers & Birds: Instilling Wonder for Nature

By Shannon Latham; Americorps/VISTA, Rivers & Birds


Photo by Roberta Salazar. 5th graders from Arroyos del Norte Elementary School hike the Wild Rivers Recreation Area.


If the National Weather Service’s El Niño-related October/November predictions prove true, Taoseños could be in for an exceptionally moist winter and early spring.

That would be great news for our depleted water supplies and for skiers, snowboarders and snow enthusiasts all across New Mexico.

But weather can be cyclical, and drought also is a very real part of life in New Mexico. That’s why it’s important that we understand basic information about our precious water supply.

This autumn, a Taos County-based not-for-profit group is teaching youngsters how to do just that. Staff and volunteers from Rivers & Birds, headquartered in Arroyo Seco, have been helping Taos elementary school students understand and appreciate our watershed.

About 150 students from three Taos elementary schools — Arroyos del Norte, Anansi Charter and Enos Garcia — participated in a nine-week, experiential or “hands on” watershed learning program, from the week of September 8th through the week of November  3rd.


Photo by Shannon Latham. Left to Right: Enos Garcia Elementary School students Miranda Chavez, Karen Rivera, and Jennifer Orozco-Perez look for microscopic organisms in samples of water collected from the Rio Hondo at the Taos Ski Basin.

During an early autumn morning in Amanda Martinez’s classroom at Enos Garcia, Jamie Gallegos, 11, water-colored her idea of the first volcanoes that created water on the planet.

But, says Gallegos, “The best part about Rivers & Birds is that we get to go on a lot of hikes and field trips. And learning about the water cycle is cool!”

Indeed, with Rivers & Birds staff, teachers, and volunteers supervising, students also ventured regularly onto public lands during the program. There they learned about testing water quality, fire ecology, the “leave no trace” ethic, and leadership. They also hiked at the Wild Rivers portion of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.

Rivers & Birds’ instructor Summer Binkley says, “I love experiencing when kids have an ‘a-ha’ click moment outside, doing things in nature. For some kids it’s when they’re identifying trees, for others it’s when they’re building a check dam. There’s more impact on their sensory input by being outside!” She says of Rivers & Birds, “It’s a crucial outreach project, and the community needs this experience.”

The Watershed Learning Program curriculum focuses on STEM learning practices by encouraging students to measure and count trees at burn sites, create bar graphs and use the scientific method. Students also learn about the history and rich culture of Taos.


Photo by Shannon Latham. Dr. Mike Adler of SMU at Fort Burgwin speaks with students from Arroyos del Norte Elementary School about ancient cultures.

Part of a field trip to the long-abandoned pueblos at Pot Creek Cultural Site near Fort Burgwin included a lecture by archaeologist Mike Adler, Ph.D., Southern Methodist University’s SMU-in-Taos’ executive director.

“It was gratifying to have fifth graders out on Pot Creek Pueblo, because the more you understand about Taos’ history, the better you appreciate the diversity and the deep history of our community,” Adler says. “It’s important to get students out of the classroom. As an archaeologist, I’m a very firm believer in experiential education.”

And as for experiential education on the site, the kids built models of check dams — small temporary structures that slow water flow — walked silently imitating an elk herd, and sat on the edge of an ancient kiva while they made thumb pots and other small clay objects.


Photo with kids displaying what they’ve made Photo by Roberta Salazar. Left to Right: Enos Garcia Elementary School students Larissa Chavez, Miguel Cordova-Jurado, and Daniela Martinez display their work on a check-dam they constructed at Fort Burgwin.

Roberta Salazar, Rivers & Birds’ executive director, started the Watershed Learning Program in 1999. She is recognized as the 2015 Environmental Educator of New Mexico by the New Mexico Environmental Education Association.

She understands how important it is to convey natural resources knowledge to young learners.

“In the blink of an eye,” Salazar says, “today’s children will be the next leaders on Earth. Teaching environmental ethics early-on to children is a major foundation for building a healthy community.  At Rivers & Birds, we are doing our best to instill wonder and appreciation for nature so when these students become future community decision-makers they will choose to honor the Earth in the way they live.”

The Watershed Learning Program is made possible with funding from community donations. For more information about how to donate, visit www.riversandbirds.org. Also, check out the Rivers & Birds’ facebook page for updates on community gatherings, classes and events throughout the year.