When winter really digs in, you might not think about your favorite state park or wildlife area as a destination. It's cold and only the hardcore hikers, campers, ice-fishing enthusiasts, cross-country skiers and snowshoers have us at top of mind.
Don't forget about us or you'll miss out on some great winter festivals and wildlife viewing opportunities available across the state this time of year. I'm particularly thinking about our annual Eagle Day Festivals on the first weekend of February at both Lake Pueblo State Park and Barr Lake State Park in Brighton.
There are others, like the Bighorn Sheep Day February 10 at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, High Plains Snow Goose Festival running February 8-11 in Lamar and the Monte Vista Crane Festival running March 9-11 in the San Luis Valley.
If you miss the festivals, you might miss an opportunity to be inspired and change your life, as happened to me many years ago.
Of all the festivals, Eagle Days are my favorite because they remind me of an encounter I had years ago while I was in college with a certain golden eagle. It ignited my passion for wildlife and inspired me to become a park ranger.
I needed internship experience before I could complete my biology degree. My mom saw an ad for an internship at what has been known as the Nature and Raptor Center of Pueblo. It's a non-profit organization that shelters and rehabilitates all manner of wildlife. (As of January 1, it became the Nature and Wildlife Discovery Center.)
Working there would give me the credits I needed to graduate and three months to enjoy my mom's cooking, so I applied and won an experience that changed the course of my life.
During that transformative summer, I conducted my first education programs for the public, led hikes, developed programs, learned how to organize special events and, most importantly, was introduced to the raptor rehab center.
I worked with birds of prey that had been injured and did education programs using birds with injuries so severe they could never be released back into the wild. I still remember the awe I experience as I felt the power in their talons.
And I felt the stress they experienced when these majestic creatures were trapped in the grips of a human, even one trying to help them.
One day we received a young golden eagle that had been hit by a semi-truck near Grand Junction and suffered a badly injured wing. It arrived in Pueblo via a mail truck. That is a story in itself.
I had never worked with a bird that large. Her ability to do some serious damage with her large talons and distinctive hooked beak was immediately obvious. Unlike other birds clearly stressed at being handled, this bird seemed almost arrogant at the touch of a human.
This eagle made a huge impression on me. I named her Aquila before I returned to college. In the coming months, I found myself thinking about her and worrying about her recovery. It was then I discovered my own passion for conservation, education and birds of prey.
Sadly, Aquila was never able to return to the wild. She became an education bird at the center and I would see her at programs and events throughout the years.
Fast forward 30 years to 2014 when I was promoted to Senior Ranger. Suddenly I had a more consistent schedule which allowed me to return to the Nature and Raptor Center as a volunteer, working mainly in its Raptor Rehabilitation Center.
I am a firm believer in volunteering and that it should be something that feeds your heart and soul, and that is exactly what working with these amazing birds does for me. Happily, Aquila is still a resident at the center.
Due to Aquila's size - about a dozen pounds - she is a challenge to handle and only a few members of staff are comfortable displaying her. As a result, Aquila is rarely used on weekend programs and does only limited public programs. She is, however, housed in the public section of the center where you can see her Tuesday thru Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
And I'm happy that Aquila will be in attendance at the annual Eagle Days Festival at Lake Pueblo February 2-4. She is always a crowd favorite and gets lots of ooohs and aaahs. That reaction only feeds her ego and she remains fairly arrogant. I guess when you are the apex predator in many Colorado ecosystems, you can be a little cocky.
Seeing Aquila reminds me of that internship, which led me to become a park ranger - a career I dearly love. My advice to all college students searching for their passion is to take every opportunity to explore your interests - even if it is motivated by your mom's cooking. You never know where it may lead you.
As always, please give me a shout if you have any questions I might be able to answer.
Photos courtesy of Nature and Wildlife Discovery Center and CPW.