BY ALAN EDMONDS
From the shadow of a bush by the pay station, a young cottontail rabbit eyes me nervously. The deserted gravel parking area at the Rio Grande Nature Center (RGNC) in Albuquerque, New Mexico is covered with a downy layer of cottonwood fuzz, and the rabbit crouches, nearly invisible. My wildlife adventure has begun.
The relative coolness of the morning is quickly dissipating. As I start toward the pond, the blue-grey Sandia Mountains rise in the distance. Although Albuquerque’s mayor Richard Berry has closed all unpaved areas in the city’s Bosque due to fire danger, the bird walk at the RGNC is still on. Bosque is Spanish for “woodlands,” a term used to describe this riverside forest.
With no measurable rainfall in May and the lowest precipitation levels since 1900, much of the state is in an exceptional period of drought and extreme risk of wildfire. Despite the muddy Rio Grande that flows through it, the cottonwood forest of Albuquerque’s Bosque is still in high-fire danger. Police patrols and stiff fines keep most of the Bosque closed.
As I await the other birders, I’m amused to see a roadrunner sitting atop a “Keep Off” sign. Cars start arriving, and I wistfully realize this secret is not mine alone. I meet the other nature walkers behind the Candelaria Wetlands viewing blind at the northeast corner of the lot. Tripods, cameras, binoculars and spotting scopes identify most of the group as avid birdwatchers. Hats and shorts are the order of the day; a high of 104 is expected. The Bosque’s riparian (river) habitat is home to a wide variety of wildlife, and we are all here to experience it.
I introduce myself to a tanned, silver-haired gentleman in olive and khaki. He is Bill Aragon, a volunteer naturalist who has been leading tours at the RGNC for about a year. “I’ve been birding since the ’70s and hold a degree in Biology,” he replies to my query about his background. “I also worked with birds in zoos for many years.”
The Candelaria Wetlands within the park include two areas; the east and west ponds. Peering through the viewing blind, I see Canada geese with their heads submerged in the west pond, feasting and flashing their white bottoms. A turtle on the shore slips into the water as dragonflies flit about. Rough-winged swallows swoop and dart, snatching insect breakfasts. A throaty bullfrog calls and one birder excitedly points out a muskrat swimming amidst the geese, mallards and wood ducks. We also spot red-winged blackbirds and an ash-throated flycatcher.
We follow a gravel path into the shade of the cottonwoods. Mourning doves lament our approach and disappear, but nesting black-headed grosbeaks sit tight as black-chinned hummingbirds spar in midair.
“Mama, look! It’s coyote scat!” a serious little girl in a pink hat cries out. The hair in the droppings is a dead giveaway. Young Addie’s parents Tom and Leigh have clearly taught her much about the wild already. They live in Albuquerque’s North Valley, so the Bosque is only a short drive, and Tom says they come here regularly.
As we leave the shady trees, I blink in the bright sunlight as we approach the east pond. Algae grow thick along the shore, and the air is buzzing with butterflies and gnats. Two mating dragonflies zip past us in tandem. Serpentine grooves in the soil show a small beaver has been here, too, dragging scaly tail behind.
Stands of yerba mansa grow beside the pond. Also called “calming herb,” yerba mansa has been used for centuries by the Native Americans and locals to treat a variety of ailments, according to information at the RGNC Visitor’s Center. The bracing, astringent scent is pleasant, and the white flower spikes stand out from the Bosque’s greens and browns.
Along the trail, I chat with Scott Lake and John Tyson. Scott, a Chicago native, moved to New Mexico a year ago. John, a Quaker from Philadelphia arrived in 1965 armed with a Temple University medical degree to work on the reservations.
Scott tells me his move was driven by his love of nature. “The Sandia Mountains and foothills, the Bosque—there aren’t many places like Albuquerque. Such a variety of outdoor opportunities!”
“Let’s get into the shade,” our guide, Bill suggests. By this time, everyone is baking in the sun, and we’ve already seen plenty of Canada geese, which have expanded their range here in New Mexico and across much of the United States.
We walk into the relative coolness of the forest. Cicadas buzz as I spot I see their emergence holes along the path. Along the trail edge I observe concave pits dug by ant lions to trap unwary prey.
Chickadees and nuthatches beckon down the trail. Downy cottonwood seeds fall and we see a chickadee picking through them. Someone spots an American kestrel. These tiny falcons are the smallest raptor in the Americas, Bill notes. A wooden gate leads us into the native plant gardens, where volunteers are watering, weeding, and raking amidst beds holding flowers, cacti, and many local plants. Butterflies sip from the flowers, and I spot an orange-winged blister beetle hanging upside down from a leaf.
The group has mostly dispersed, and Bill heads indoors as the rest of us say our farewells. My thirst for the wild has been quenched by this excursion into the otherwise forbidden Bosque. Feeling at one with this quiet riparian realm, I regretfully break the bond and amble back toward my car, though I know I’ll return soon to experience its natural grandeur.
The Rio Grande Nature Center is within the city limits in the Albuquerque Bosque (the Cottonwood forest that surrounds the river) that divides the city’s east and west sides, 15 minutes from downtown Albuquerque.
Address: 2901 Candelaria Ave NW
Albuquerque, NM 87107
Front Desk: (505) 344-7240
Office: (505) 343-1373
RGNC website link:http://www.rgnc.org/
The RGNC is part of New Mexico’s State Park system. NM State Parks link: http://www.emnrd.state.nm.us/PRD/
If You Go
The entry fee is $3 per vehicle ($15 per bus). The RGNC is open daily year-round, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. No reservations are required, even for the free nature and bird walks.
Visitors must stay on the trails, leave nothing behind and take nothing with them besides photographs and good memories.
The bird walk takes about 2 hours, and it is advisable to bring:
• Binoculars or viewing scope
• Camera (telephoto lens recommended for wildlife shots)
• Hat with brim
• Water bottle
• Light snack
Depending upon the season, wear appropriate outdoor clothing:
• Comfortable walking footwear
• Hiking socks
• Clothing: olive, tan, camouflage or other neutral colors
Over 300 species of birds, including over 40 year-round residents, including:
• Wood duck
• Canada goose
• Bald eagle
• Green heron
• Sandhill crane
• Black phoebe
• Ash-throated flycatcher
• Black-chinned hummingbird
• Cottontail rabbit
• Bull snake
• A variety of turtles, frogs, toads, and lizards
About the Author
Alan Edmonds has been a nature enthusiast from an early age. He grew up in New Jersey, moving to Albuquerque 15 years ago to live near the natural beauty of the Southwest.
Alan enjoys the outstanding hiking trails and mountain bike rides within a few hours of Albuquerque. A college English instructor and tutor, he likes to use his writing skills to communicate the wonders and beauty of nature.
Click here for a map of the adventure location: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.