The Rio Grande Nature Center State Park (emnrd.state.nm.us), now in its 35th year, is just such a spot.
While a couple of generations of youngsters have enjoyed excursions to the Nature Center as part of school field trip, it also provides a welcome metropolitan haven for birds, other wildlife and even the two-legged denizens who populate the city.
“We’re really here for two things,” said Tanja George, the park’s instructional coordinator. “Recreation is one, and providing wildlife habitat is another important aspect to the park.”
Tucked onto 40 acres – and surrounded by another 100-plus acres of open city land – smack in the middle of Albuquerque’s North Valley, snuggled against the bosque, the nature center is covered by a canopy of towering cottonwood trees, making a 1.2-mile trail a pleasant, shady stroll.
About 250 species of birds and water fowl have been recorded at the park, part of the Rio Grande flyway, George said. That number includes plenty of raptors and occasionally rarer species.
“It’s an important bird habitat,” she said.
Wood ducks that leisurely splash around the ponds and roadrunners that scamper across the grounds are generally permanent residents, George said, while other species come and go.
Four-legged critters abound, as well, she said, with beavers, muskrats and porcupines prevalent on the grounds.
To help see the animals without disturbing them, three viewing areas are set up within the park, and there is one in the visitor center, George said.
“We call them blinds, but they’re really walls with windows cut through it that overlook the observation pond,” she said. “There’s another one by the parking lot by the wetlands area, and there’s our newest one that looks out at the field at the Candelaria farm.”
The one in the visitor center sits in a glass-walled room, also overlooking the observation pond.
“It’s a great spot for people who maybe don’t have mobility to walk on the trails,” George said. “They can sit comfortably inside and view the ducks and other birds coming and going.”
The visitor center was designed 35 years ago by renowned local architect Antoine Predock. Although he has designed noteworthy structures around the world, he listed the park’s visitor center as among his 10 favorite projects.
The center also includes a kid-friendly space designed to unplug children from electronics and plug them into nature, George said.
“It’s a discovery room that has a slideshow, an area to make tracks in the sand. They can take paper and crayons and make rubbings. There’s a puppet area and puzzles and a Velcro board where they can move animals around. It’s a popular spot for kids.”
Spring is a great time to visit, George said, because “things are just starting to bud out in garden.”
“We have a main garden, our native plants garden,” she said. “And another, small demonstration garden that focuses on plants good for pollinators.”
The latter is the theme for the Herb Fest on May 13-14, said Dave Hutton, outgoing president of the Friends of the Rio Grande Nature Center and festival coordinator.
In addition to herbs that attendees can buy and plant or use, there’s a big push for education, he said.
The May 13 talks include Olivia Carril, who wrote “Bees in the Backyard,” and Wes Brittenham, who owns Plants of the Southwest and will speak about “Attracting Pollinators to your Garden.”
On May 14, George Miller, president of the Albuquerque native plant society, will discuss the “ABCs of Pollinator Habitat Gardens,” and Michael Halverson of the Santa Ana Nursery will talk about the “Native Plants for the Native Garden.”
This summer, George said, the center will hold nature discovery camps for children in grades 1 to 6, with a different focus each week on such topics as insects, reptiles and predators.
Other sessions are geared toward 11- to 14-year-olds and will feature hiking and discovering bosque habitat, collecting data, doing experiments and doing a nature journal, she said.