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Natural Albuquerque: The Rio Grande Nature Center

The bird pond at the Rio Grande Nature Center

The bird pond at the Rio Grande Nature Center

It’s funny how, even in urban areas, nature makes a stand if you give her half a chance. Sometimes she’s a little too pushy, of course, if you count earthquakes and hurricanes – or termites –  those times she lets you know who’s really boss. Sometimes she nudges you lightly with a sparkle in her eye, when a hawk decides to nest on the upper floors of a Manhattan apartment building. I’m thinking, however, of those graceful places and moments where the natural and the cultural coexist with intention. At the end of Candelaria Street in Albuquerque, where the road ends abruptly in the cottonwood trees along the Rio Grande, there is such a place: the Rio Grande Nature Center.

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The Rio Grande neatly bisects the state of New Mexico from north to south, entering the state with vigor not far from its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, and exiting at the southern border as a desert-bound river near El Paso, Texas, where it turns in an easterly direction, on its long way to the warm sandy waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The northern stretch of the river is hemmed in with rocky canyons over most of its length – the Rio Arriba, or upper river, of the Spanish – but just southwest of Santa Fe the river leaves its confines near the Pueblo of Cochiti and takes up a more sedate course through the rest of the state.

Most of New Mexico enjoys a semi-arid climate, and a great deal of the central and southern part of the state is downright arid – as in qualifying as true desert, where less than 10 inches of rain will fall in a year. The Rio Grande flows year-round even in the driest times, however, and its narrow floodplain supports a unique ribbon of deciduous forest throughout the central part of New Mexico. It’s call the bosque – a Spanish word for woodlands – and interestingly, the place it is best developed – and most accessible – is right in the middle of our largest city, Albuquerque. Walking and biking trails run for miles through the leafy cottonwoods of the bosque throughout the city; the Albuquerque zoo takes advantage of its pleasant shade; and at the end of Candelaria Street the city has created a park to celebrate its little Nile: the Rio Grande Nature Center.

A path through the bosque of the Rio Grande

A path through the bosque of the Rio Grande

Ponds in the floodplain attract waterfowl of all kinds, and there is a very pleasant room, perched on the edge of one pond, with floor to ceiling windows, sofas and chairs, a little library, and a view into a sea of birds and turtles:

The viewing room at the Rio Grande Nature Center

The viewing room at the Rio Grande Nature Center

Hidden microphones pipe the cacophony of peevish waterbirds right inside. Here culture and nature truly intersect, as you sit back in the comfort of a sofa and listen to avid birders point out the distinctive markings of the female wood duck – yes, that little brown one that has just pushed all the other birds off the feeder.

There are some good interpretive displays inside the nature center, as well as a sweet little bookstore and a children’s activity room:

Interpretive displays inside the Rio Grande Nature Center

Interpretive displays inside the Rio Grande Nature Center

Outside there is a network of trails under the cottonwoods of the bosque, with access to the banks of the Rio Grande and series of small gardens of native plants. Concrete walls with strategically placed holes form blinds for viewing ducks, geese, snipe, cranes, and other waterfowl at the edge of the ponds. There are excellent views of the Sandia Mountains to the northeast:

The Sandia crest seen from the Rio Grande Nature Center

The Sandia crest seen from the Rio Grande Nature Center

It’s funny: in spite of hiking all around the Southwest, some of my most fascinating animal sightings have been right here in the heart of Albuquerque. I’m thinking of enormous porcupines perched in the upper branches of the forest canopy, nesting owls, a roadrunner with a lizard squirming in its beak, and – best of all – a pair of bald eagles feasting on a fish on a sandy island in the river. So if you can tear yourself away from the historical delights of Santa Fe for part of a day,  or if you have a few hours to kill in Albuquerque, waiting for your flight, consider a walk along the Rio Grande under the cottonwood trees. Keep your eye peeled for porcupines. And hey, it’s Albuquerque, so you can hit a Satellite Coffee or the Flying Star Cafe minutes later!

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