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DSST: College View student finds perfect-fit internship at Bluff Lake Nature Center

On any given Wednesday afternoon, you can find Tara Peña, junior at DSST: College View High School, muddying up her Converse shoes walking the Bluff Lake property completing her internship assignments. And she loves every second of it. 

Tara uses binoculars to identify red-tailed hawks, her favorite type of bird.Tara uses binoculars to identify red-tailed hawks, her favorite type of bird.

“I love being outside,” said Peña. “I really like learning more about wildlife and how their ecosystem affects our human ecosystem. We’re coexisting.”

Peña grew up playing outside and riding horses at her family’s ranch. Now, through her junior internship at Bluff Lake Nature Center, she gets to spend time outdoors every week.

Peña recounts the way her internship placement came about.

“I was talking with my internship teacher Mr. Ferrer,” Peña said. “When I told him I was really interested in nature and biology. He said, ‘I have the perfect thing for you!’”

Bluff Lake Nature Center is a nonprofit agency that owns and manages a unique urban wildlife refuge and outdoor classroom in Denver. The land was once a buffer zone for the Stapleton airport that has since been transformed into a wildlife refuge. 

DSC_0232-2Bluff Lake Nature Center sits in Central Park on the eastern edge of the former Stapleton airport, along Sand Creek.

Peña's weekly projects contribute to the necessary work of Bluff Lake.

One of my projects here at Bluff Lake is to help with the game trail cameras,” Peña said. “We set them up because we like to know what’s going on with the animals.”

DSC_0206-2Tara unlocks a camera case to retrieve game trail footage.

The motion-censored cameras capture 10-second video footage when triggered. Peña then collects cameras from the trails and uploads and reviews the footage.

“I put the data in a spreadsheet so that it’s accessible to everyone,” said Peña. “It’s good to know what’s going on in the park so we can monitor it. For example, there is a limping deer that is possibly injured, so it’s good to know what’s going on with it.”

Peña also completed a prairie dog colony survey for Bluff Lake.

“We take these surveys and get rough estimates of active prairie dog burrows and how many prairie dogs there are,” Peña said. 

Her work ensures there is a healthy number of prairie dogs, which leads to a happy population with enough vegetation to sustain the colony. 

Mentoring Peña through her internship is Tess Robeson, Natural Resource Manager at Bluff Lake Nature Center. Peña and Robeson have bonded over their love for nature.

DSC_0188-2Tess and Tara walk near Bluff Lake while discussing recent legislation affecting water sources in Denver.

Peña wants to study psychology in college, and she attributed some of that desire to Robeson.

“Tess helped me explore the idea of wildlife psychology as a career,” Peña said. “I could work outside with patients and expose them to all the benefits of being outside.”

Peña is grateful for the opportunity she was given through the DSST internship program and she hopes others find the same gratification she did.

"Internship class isn’t just a mandatory class to graduate high school. It’s an opportunity to safely explore possible career paths," said Peña. "I hope the next juniors will step out of their comfort zones and explore the world they are a part of, the world they are capable of changing for the better."

DSC_0218-2Tara poses for a photo in her happy place.