Last month, as I busily worked at preparing June’s OASIS newsletter, my 11-year-old daughter, Alaina, sat beside me curiously observing. It didn’t take long before she piped up and asked what I was doing. Our conversation naturally led to how important our connection with nature is and in particular, what a special place Bosque del Apache is. We are incredibly lucky to have this treasure right “in our backyard”! Shy by nature, she bashfully suggested, “I could write an article for your newsletter mom. I love Bosque del Apache too!”

3 year old Alaina bravely holds a snake during the Dragonfly Festival at Bitter Lake NWR

My proud momma heart skipped a beat! All too often, busy with my day-to-day tasks, I sometimes fail to notice my children for who they are becoming – eager young minds, full of zeal, curiosity and wonder at the world around them, and capable too! Capable of seeing so much more than I take the time to notice. It is certainly true that the next generation is our future; I couldn’t wait to hear what she had to say!

Born into the Fish & Wildlife Service “family”, my children are lucky enough to have access and privileges that many other children (and adults) don’t even know they’re missing out on! You see, their dad, Jeff Sanchez, spent the last six years (the majority of their young lives so far) as the Supervisory Biologist at Bosque del Apache, before taking on his current position as Refuge Manager at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. And let me tell you, if you love animals and being outdoors, it’s a pretty sweet gig being the kid of a Fish & Wildlife Service biologist! Tagging along on dad’s many adventures, we’ve seen some amazing things and been invited to partake in experiences that I know they’ll never forget.

Alaina’s brother, Adrian, accepting his first refuge volunteer certificate, just as soon as he was able to walk up to receive it!

Signed up as official refuge volunteers at a very young age, they have participated in everything from bird surveys and duck banding to prairie dog relocation efforts and even cliff swallow banding in the mouth of the natural entrance at Carlsbad Caverns National Park! They’ve driven along on more pre-dawn jaunts to make adjustments to wetland water levels than they admittedly cared to, but they know that the payoff for early risers is usually spectacular sunrises and incredible wildlife viewing opportunities during that “magic hour” before and just after the sun crests the horizon.

They have mingled with dozens of college interns, researchers and aspiring young biologists – wonderful role models for them, if you ask me. They can recite by heart their dad’s many tales of hiking the coastline of Alaska performing walrus counts, conducting spotlight counts of whitetail deer, as well as river otter and snapping turtle research in Oklahoma, re-routing a whole river in order to save a snail the size of a pin head, and watching front and center as Mexican grey wolf pups were released into the wild in an effort to boost a now struggling but once thriving native population. They have even verifiably identified endangered yellow-billed cuckoos and southwestern willow flycatchers in the wild! How many other elementary children can boast of such a claim?

When you’re the biologist’s kid you often get picked on during field trips. Here, Alaina and Jeff demonstrate what an invasive American bullfrog looks like to the rest of the class.

I often reflect with wonder and gratitude on the unique relationship that our family has had with wildlife refuges, which undoubtedly has shaped all of us in countless ways. Being a career US Fish & Wildlife Service employee, Jeff has enjoyed the incredible privilege of working at seven different National Wildlife Refuges.

Jeff prepares to release this female wood duck after being rocket-netted, processed and banded

Although his early days with the Service (including internships at two different refuges in Alaska and even another stint at Bosque del Apache as a student intern) occurred before he “picked me up in Oklahoma”, as he likes to say, our children and I have been along for the ride throughout most of his colored and exciting career. And believe it or not, Jeff and I can even say that we owe our marriage (and our subsequent family) to the existence of this nation’s beautiful wildlife refuges – we met while bird banding at Sequoyah NWR!

Jeff & Trish at MAPS bird banding, summer 2005. Because this male’s coloration pattern is brown and drab, he utilized the much flashier beauty of a Kentucky warbler to draw the attention of the female.

With a legacy like that, is it any wonder that Alaina already says she wants to also be a biologist when she grows up? I can’t wait to see what exciting new places and adventures that dream will introduce her to, as she blazes her own trails and starts accumulating some stories of her own to add to our family collective.

I continue to be thankful beyond measure for places like Bosque del Apache, for providing my family and so many others with opportunities to connect with nature and re-connect with our own souls!

Why I am Thankful for Bosque del Apache

Article by Alaina Sanchez, age 11

My dad is a wildlife biologist and my mom works for the Friends group at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. I am their daughter and since they work there, I am lucky to get to see the refuge often. Whenever I record data for my dad I get to see parts of the tour loop that no one else gets to see!

Sometimes me and my brother would get up early before the sun and go to work with our dad. We would sit in the car while he worked on checking water levels and drive around all morning seeing tons of cool things. I would also occasionally go with my mom to fill the bird feeder on the Desert Arboretum trail and I would see the garden with all the cactuses and there are usually lots of different lizards, cottontail rabbits and quail to spot. I always see something neat when I’m at the refuge, like various types of ducks, cranes, sparrows, finches, hummingbirds, dove and orioles. We got a birding book from the Nature Store and now my brother and I are learning to identify many of the birds and ducks that we see on the refuge.

When I go with my dad to work we get up early. Before the sun peeks over the hills you have a chance to see nocturnal animals. We always see rabbits and mice crossing the road. Sometimes you can see my favorite animal, skunks! But you always smell them. You can see turkeys still roosting and ducks start to fly over the truck and land in the water.

At dawn, waterfowl leave the safety of the Bosque del Apache wetlands, where they roost overnight, in search of food | Photo by Alaina Sanchez

Our dad would always ask us “what kind of duck is that?” Most of the time they are pintails, mallards, shovelers, wood ducks, cinnamon teal, or one of the many other species I never would have known about if I didn’t go with him. There was also snow geese, ross’s geese, cranes, songbirds, birds of prey, and Gambel’s quail.

Once the sun starts peeking over the hills, the sky is so pretty and the water is shining like diamonds. The ducks start to land in the water and the daytime animals come out. It is the prettiest time of the day. We would call it magic hour because it felt magical and it was the time all the animals came out.

Sometimes we would even see wild cats like bobcats and mountain lions, but they are very rare! We would also see deer and elk, muskrats, javelina, coyotes, and even sometimes box turtles or snakes.

Elk spotted crossing the road at Bosque del Apache | Photo by Alaina Sanchez

My favorite thing when I went with my dad was when the turkeys would start coming down from their roosts in the trees, they land on the road and we would drive by them and they would run next to each other and it looked like they were racing. It was funny and fun to watch.

Two tom turkeys strut past one another, establishing dominance | Photo by Alaina Sanchez

After the magic hour was over and the sun was pretty high was when you could see all different types of birds. We would roll down the window and listen to the birds and try to name them by their calls. It sounded beautiful. Next we would go to dad’s office and see all the cool bones and skulls of animals, stuffed animals and insect displays that he had in his collection for educating school groups.

My favorite animal from the refuge is the striped skunk. I have loved skunks my whole life because I think they are adorable and they don’t have many fans or people who love them, but they are really cool animals. I even have a stuffed animal skunk that I have had since I was a baby. My parents tell me that I swiped it off of my dad’s desk one time when we were visiting him at work and wouldn’t give it back and that I’ve had it ever since, but I don’t remember that.

Alaina and her stuffed skunk, back when she was still new! We jokingly refer to her as “The Velveteen Skunk”, as she is decidedly less new now, after many years of being loved so much!

Growing up around refuges has made me love animals and nature and I’m so glad that I’ve had that chance. Something about visiting a refuge makes me feel like I am a part of the ecosystem and connected to it all, which I think is very special.

What’s cool about refuges and this refuge in particular is that they are all so different and unique. They all have different animal mascots, like the one for Bosque del Apache is the crane (although there are, of course, so many other animals too!) One refuge in Ohio even celebrates skunks! And I just learned about a refuge in Texas which specializes in caring for the endangered Prairie Chicken population. That’s cool, right? They all give you different opportunities when visiting, which makes me feel like I want to see them all.

I think the opportunities that make Bosque del Apache unique are the amazing views of things you would not expect to see in a desert, like cottonwood forests and thriving wetlands. Also, the animals are so abundant, especially the birds! I think when you visit Bosque del Apache you have an opportunity to see lots of cool native animals and it would be easier to see them on the refuge than in the actual wild, but you could still say “I saw a wild elk today” because the refuge IS the actual wild! So it’s like the refuge brings the wild to you.

Refuges also help the environment, which I think is really important, because the animals were here since before humans were. The whole goal of a refuge is to make animal habitat and keep the wild animals healthy and give them a home that is still wild when the rest of the world is getting more and more crowded with humans and buildings. My dad works hard every day to help the wild animals and I am proud of him for that.

Every time you go to a refuge you are guaranteed to see an animal! It is impossible to go to Bosque and not see at least a bird, so what I mean by seeing an animal is something in addition to the birds, like an elk or deer or turkey (even though turkeys are still birds) or a coyote.

A mule deer buck, out for an early morning stroll | Photo by Alaina Sanchez

And if somehow you don’t, you see the pretty views and the sunrise if you go early enough. Everyone should visit a refuge at least once in their lives. Maybe we would all be nicer to each other and to the planet if everyone did!