Rio Grande Nature Center State Park

November 13, 2021

On Saturday, Nov. 13, we drove a few miles from our campground to Rio Grande Nature Center State Park in Albuquerque. It’s located on the west side of the city, along the Rio Grande River. More than 300 species of birds have been seen in the park, although only about 60 can be observed year-round. The Rio Grande starts in the San Juan mountains of southern Colorado and flows through the San Luis Valley before turning southward to roughly bisect the state of New Mexico. It splits the cities of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to begin the border between the United States and Mexico. The river is just under 1,900 miles long before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, but only about 20 percent of the water that enters the river actually reaches the gulf because of irrigation, municipal usage, and storage in reservoirs.

In the arid regions of New Mexico, of course, the river is an invaluable resource for wildlife and human habitations alike. The Albuquerque area receives about 8 3/4 inches of precipitation annually, so the river plays a critical role in making an abundance of life possible. These photos were taken on Saturday perhaps two miles away (as the sandhill crane flies) from the stark desert environment of Petroglyph National Monument that we visited the previous weekend.

Rio Grande Nature Center State Park features a bosque (pr. BOSS-kay), or cottonwood forest. Cottonwoods like this have been growing in the bosque alongside the Rio Grande for a million years. In our travels southward from Denver and attempting to stay just ahead of freezing temperatures at night, we’ve inadvertently happened to time our stays in Lathrop State Park, Las Vegas and Albuquerque, and, where I’m writing from a few miles south of Truth or Consequences, to be just barely after peak color. It’s been wonderful.
Sandhill cranes are migrating southward through New Mexico now to spend the winter here, in Texas, and in Mexico. There are hundreds of thousands of cranes in the state – the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, just north of Truth or Consequences, could have 10,000 cranes on it right now. This set of three was preparing to land in the Rio Grande on Saturday.
This crane is coming in hot for a Rio Grande splashdown. Some subspecies of sandhill cranes have wingspans exceeding seven feet, which allows them to soar efficiently while riding thermals to keep them aloft. We heard many, many more cranes than we saw on Saturday – we think they were just flying too high to discern in the sky.
Adult male and female sandhill cranes look alike (both of them have the distinctive red forehead); adult males come in at about 10 pounds and females weigh a pound less, and they can grow to about four and a half feet tall.
Juvenile cranes have yet to develop the red forehead, and their plumage has rusty-brown feathers. Sharp-eyed viewers will spy a great blue heron lurking along the bank on the far side of the river.
… and here it is, slightly less blurry and strutting upstream. Great blue herons grow to about four and a half feet tall and weigh up to about eight pounds. They live in the American southwest all the year round.

The visitor center at the state park has a couple of ponds that provide for really good waterfowl viewing. I saw many mallard ducks, Canada geese, and was pleasantly surprised to see my first-ever wood duck. The park has some easy walking trails (some allow dogs, and others do not in order to reduce pressure on wildlife) and is a great oasis in the city, with plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing (I also took some photos of a spotted towhee, but the pictures turned out to be a better representation of the tree limbs he was perched on rather than the bird itself).

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