International Research Learning Center Volunteers

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Hannah and Simone help Costa Rican student, Kimberly, record a species of bird during a transect. The names of the birds were called out quickly, so the girls helped Kimberly, a native Spanish speaker, with memorization and spelling.


At first it may not seem like the small city of Estes Park, Colorado has much in common with its international sister city, Monteverde, Costa Rica. However, I learned that both share a handful of migratory birds, stunning national parks, the continental divide and genuine, hardworking people. When I found out that high school students from one of the prettiest Central American countries were coming to explore, research and learn about Rocky, I knew I had to take the opportunity to practice my Spanish and help out during their stay.

On Wednesday morning I met up with the Costa Ricans, or "ticos," at the Research Learning Center dormitory, where researchers are housed to conduct research in the park. The five high schoolers are a part of a student group from the "Reserva Bosque Nuboso Santa Elena," or Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. Joining them from the reserve was Walter Bello Villalobos, José David Badilla and Judit María Badilla, as well Ulisses Chavarría, the principal of Palo Verde National Park, or "Parque Nacional Palo Verde" in Guanacaste, Costa Rica.

After introductions, we put on rubber boots and hopped in the van borrowed from Estes Park High School (many thanks to Pam Frey, science teacher at EPHS, for volunteering to drive the van and letting us utilize her Spanish skills!). During the drive to our first destination, I learned that students and chaperones from Estes Park High School, along with Jay Halford from the Estes Institute, traveled to Monteverde earlier in the month as part of an exchange program through Estes Park Sister Cities Association Inc. Hannah Willis and Simone Paul, two of the students who went on the trip abroad, volunteered to show the Costa Ricans around their research at the park.
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Volunteers make their way through the lush vegetation in the elk exclosure. The area inside the fences protect native vegetation, like willow, from being eaten by elk.


Our first stop of the day was at Horseshoe Park, which is a winter elk habitat and home to an elk exclosure where we took bird and vegetation transects. Elk exclosures are big fenced off areas scattered around Rocky that are used for protection purposes and to study the effects that elk have on vegetation and the native habitat. This environment was the perfect place to start off our day of research.

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Jeff points out different birds in his guidebook as Walter translates. On rainy days birds typically don’t sing as frequently and on hot summer days, they’ll usually stop singing around 9 or 10 a.m.


We made our way toward the middle of the exclosure and Jeff Connor, a volunteer and retired RMNP employee, began to teach us about the native birds, or "aves," we'd hopefully hear and see during our transect studies. Once we settled into the area and quieted down, we waited for one minute, then for the next five minutes we recorded the different species and number of times Jeff and the other volunteers identified the birds. Eight species were observed, three of which Rocky shares with the Reserva Bosque Nuboso Santa Elena.
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Seasonal staff member Andrea Gohl volunteers to hold the tape measure during the line transect while Jeff teaches the group how to properly measure the plants. Willow plants are a native species that are also one of the preferred food choices of elk. 


After the bird transects, the group of researchers, or "investigadores," began to measure the vegetation with a line transect, or "transecto de línea." We got out our compasses and extended the tape measure 15 meters to the north. Every time a willow stem made contact with the tape measure, it was noted on paper, as well as its height. This type of transect is done to see how fast the plant is growing and to estimate the amount of that species in the area.
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Park Ranger Marilyn Irwin at Sheep Lakes educates the group about the importance of the lake to the bighorn sheep. She points out that the left horn is shorter than the right, because the sheep most likely shaved it down against rocks and other hard objects to keep it from blocking its eyesight.


Ulisses, who I mentioned earlier, was very interested in learning about Rocky's native plants but could not speak very much English. He paired up with Scott Esser and Michele Bratschun, park employees, and the three were able to talk about the species using their scientific latin names. Obstacles that I thought the language barrier would bring were overcome and surpassed by the willingness to help and urge to learn from one another.

The next stop on our adventure was just a few minutes down the road: Sheep Lakes. This is a protected area known for the frequent Big Horn Sheep that come down the mountain to eat the mineral-rich soil and nutrients around the lake. Although we weren't able to catch a glimpse of the sheep, we did spot a coyote in the distance and a ranger taught us about the different mammals, or "mamiferos," that inhabit the park.
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The researchers learn how to set up the sturdy trap cameras that collect data when movement is detected. As of July 15, only elk, hikers and small mammals were captured on camera.


McGraw Ranch, a restored dude ranch that now hosts park researchers, was our last destination for the day. After we ate lunch in the main cabin, we were invited to hang personalized clothespins on the line in the back room, where guests who have shared a meal at the cabin add their mark. Bill Peterson, the volunteer McGraw Ranch caretaker, told us the history of the property, whose buildings are not open to the public.

For our last research project of the day, we headed up a trail behind the cabin to look for different animal signs within a 2,000 sq. ft. sample area. Whether it was tracks, scat or other visible clues, the volunteers identified what they found and marked down the location. We ended up discovering rabbit, turkey, elk and mule deer sign as well as a rock that had been recently turned over by a bear looking for food.

The recorded information will not only help determine what different animals roam the area, but also to predict the population size. After our data collecting and taking a break to photograph the Western Terrestrial Garter snake (the only snake species in the park) that Jay saw, we decided to set up one trap camera near a small stream and the other near a worn path. Now we cross our fingers and hope to capture some footage of bears and mountain lions! '
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After their presentation, the students were given gifts as well as awarded with junior ranger badges. We are very appreciative of the many park employees and volunteers who were involved in making their stay such a success!


The following Wednesday I attended the high schoolers' presentation about what they learned at Rocky and their overall experience. They valued their time here, especially because the environment at the Reserva Bosque Nuboso Santa Elena is very dense, which makes it difficult to see wildlife. The young researchers were able to learn and participate in different plant, bird, mammal and water quality studies during their trip, as well as attend a local rodeo and experience an overwhelming shopping megamarket.
Rocky Mountain National Park is very lucky to be able to host researchers from all over the world who come to study and experience the wilderness, wildlife and wonder that has sustained our park for the last 100 years and many more years to come.

Last updated: August 27, 2015

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