|A kiskadee on Las Palmas Trail in Laredo, Texas. Photos by Stew Magnuson|
Nestled between bustling downtown Laredo, Texas, and the banks of Rio Grande is a wide thicket of palm trees, grasses and assorted vegetation where some 140 bird species have been spotted over the years.
Tom Miller, director of Laredo Community College’s Lamar Bruni Vergara Science Center, is leading a group of writers, including myself, down a path into the dense vegetation on a cool early December morning as a light fog lifts off the river.
The Las Palmas Trail — populated with native and non-native grasses and palm trees — has survived fires, floods and urban development and emerged as a prime spot for “birders.”
(Don’t call them ‘bird-watchers as that is a bit of a faux-pas.)
“Birders” are well known for keeping detailed records of the species they have spotted and many come here for the white-collared seedeater, which Miller describes as the trail’s “signature bird.”
But it’s only 7:30 a.m.
“Actually, I think the white collared seed eaters are late risers. They’re a little lazy,” he says. “It seems that the best time is 10, or so. They would rather to sleep in late and wait for it to warm up a bit.”
Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley as Highway 83 travels south of here to Brownsville, has long been known as a Mecca for “birders.” Its southern locale brings in species that don’t travel far north and is also a popular stop for migrating birds. The city holds an annual Laredo Birding Festival in early February. Attendees recorded 165 species in the region last year.
Blasita Lopez, Laredo Convention and Visitor’s Bureau director, estimates that 1,000 to 2,000 visitors from all over the world travel to the border city every year just for birding. This is one of nine prime birding spots or trails within the city limits.
Miller takes out his binoculars and scans the tree branches.
“Three kingfishers have all been seen here the belted, ringed and green,” he says.
In January 2010, a female Amazon Kingfisher was spotted for the first time in North America in this spot, which by itself brought in hordes of birders as it took up a two-and-half-week residence, according to a visitor’s bureau brochure.
“There!” Miller says. “In the top of the tree directly ahead of us is an Audubon oriole.”
One avid birder in the group, a University of Texas-Austin professor, gets to add that species to his list. Later he will send a simple text message to his brother in a game of birder one-ups-manship. “Audubon oriole,” he wrote. That elicited an immediate response from his sibling, who is also an avid birder. The hobby can be competitive, I find out. The professor is most excited about a group of red-billed pigeons that are reportedly hanging out at a municipal golf course north of town.
That’s on the itinerary, Lopez assures him.
We spot green jays in some other branches sticking out from the cane. I had no idea that they came in colors other than blue.
Mixed in with the distinctive call of a kiskadee, we hear a lonesome train whistle, and Spanish coming from a megaphone across the river trying to lure shoppers into a store Only these sounds reminds us that we are in the middle of two large cities.
Next, we spot a pair of golden-fronted woodpeckers.
“That’s one I hadn’t seen yet this fall. So that’s a good bird for me,” Miller says.
The professor is the first to see a yellow-bellied sapsucker.
Along with birds, those who hike the path are likely to encounter members of the Border Patrol. They have ground sensors here, and have cut a path wide enough for vehicles to traverse on one part of the preserve.
“We’ve had to negotiate a little bit … but they’re working with us,” Miller said. The agency has promised to do their best to keep ATVs and other vehicles out of the sanctuary.
Indeed, a pair of agents in their green uniforms come down to check us out. But it’s pretty obvious that we’re a bunch of hikers. They’re friendly, chat about some of the birds they’ve seen, and leave us be after awhile.
We at last come to a cove near a water treatment plant, where some neotropic cormorants and other waders reside. The treatment plant is scheduled to be demolished, which may open this area up for more visitors.
On the way back to our bus, Miller sees a white-collared seedeater scurrying across the path. I’m standing right next to him, but I didn’t see it. We crouch still for a minute hoping it will come back, but it doesn’t.
I feel a little frustrated that I missed it. I’m starting to understand why many are attracted to this hobby. It appeals to those of us who like to hunt, but only want to shoot animals with a camera lens. On your worst day, you’ve taken a nice walk in nature.
|Rio Grande at Laredo|
Highway 83 is the perfect road for birders. Heading north from the birders' paradise that is the Rio Grande Valley, they arrive at the wetlands of the Great Plains and all its diversity. They can then take a detour a few miles east to see the Sandhill crane migration on in the Platte River Valley in Nebraska. In the heart of the Nebraska Sand Hills is the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge and Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge.
North Dakota and its Prairie Pothole Region is called North America’s “duck factory.” And then there is the Audubon National Wildlife Refuge and Lake Audubon at Coleharbor, North Dakota, where some 200 bird species have been recorded.
The Laredo Birding Festival takes place Feb. 3-6, 2016. Registration is now open (link here). Other times of the year, local tours can be arranged by contacting the LBV Science Center at 956-764-5701. A list of birding spots in or near Laredo can be found here.
Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 83.
To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com. Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com