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Monte Mucho’s Laredo

Destination: Laredo

Travel time from:
Austin – 3.5 hours
Dallas – 6.5 hours
El Paso – 9.5 hours
Brownsville – 3.5 hours
San Antonio – 2.5 hours
Lubbock – 8 hours

Local bird watchers offer an insider’s tour of the border town’s avian hot spots.

By John H. Ostdick
Photos by Earl Nottingham

The annual Laredo Birding Festival is days away, so Danny Perales has birds on his mind more than usual. Perales is doing a planning ride-along with local naturalist and beginner birder J.J. Fulgham on an unusually chilly Friday morning in February. I’m tagging along to get the 64-year-old Monte Mucho Audubon Society president’s insights into birding and the city he’s called home since 1975.

Perales turns his shiny black pickup away from La Posada Hotel in downtown Laredo and drives out of the San Agustin de Laredo Historic District, past streets named after generals (east-west) and saints (north-south).

The nascent birding culture here isn’t as well known as its better-visited cousins in other parts of South Texas, but the first recorded glimpse of the Amazon kingfisher in the United States (2010) and two subsequent visits put Laredo firmly on the birder radar. (The species normally ranges widely from southern Tamaulipas, Mexico, into South America as far south as Uruguay and Argentina.)

Laredo

Danny Perales birding along Zacate Creek.

Birding, hunting, hiking and biking are central activities in a burgeoning eco-tourism trade in this city, founded as a family rancho on the north bank of the Rio Grande in 1755.

“Everything in South Texas bites, scratches or stings,” Perales will tell me later, smiling. Fair warning.

Perales and Fulgham are retired Border Patrol agents, and their work familiarity leads to shorthand conversations that bounce sporadically inside the truck, like the birds they scan the horizon for, hopping from limb to limb.

Perales, born in Encinal, 40 miles north of Laredo, visited relatives here as a youth and attended local community college before doing a three-year stint in the Marine Corps. He returned to continue his education in 1975, and later was stationed in Laredo after joining the Border Patrol.

After his retirement, a friend invited him to a nature hike sponsored by the Rio Grande Historical Study Center. Monte Mucho Audubon Society members led the hike. He slowly took a shine to the activity.

We drive east through El Azteca, the oldest neighborhood in Laredo. (It received a National Register Historic District designation in 2003.) Descendants of Spanish colonists first settled here and later were joined by Mexicans who migrated to escape the Mexican Revolution.

Laredo

Shopping in downtown Laredo.

The pickup creeps through narrow streets, passing a mishmash of buildings representing every type of architecture that’s dotted the border, dating back to the 1870s.

“My history teacher told us that the streets here were built just wide enough so that two Spaniards could pass each other on their horses and not rub shoulders,” Perales says.

We stop at the steep-walled Zacate Creek, which provided fresh water in the settlement’s early days. (Laredo currently gets 80 percent of its water from the Rio Grande through a treaty with Mexico.) The trail here offers access to one of the area’s signature birds, the white-collared seedeater, as well as ringed, belted and green kingfishers, Audubon’s orioles, various waterfowl and other migrating shorebirds.

“The Amazon kingfisher stayed here for about 11 days the first time,” says Perales, a beginning birder at that time. “We had at least a thousand birders here — from as far away as Australia.”

During the next few hours, we peer over the edge into the Rio Grande’s crooks for signs of birds clinging to tall Carrizo river cane. We drive under a railroad trestle leading across the border, through the Riverbend area, where the Rio Grande shifts from running east-west to north-south.

The beep-beep-beep of heavy equipment backing up fills the air at a 77-acre ecosystem restoration project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the City of Laredo aimed at creating habitat for some federal endangered species.

Laredo

La Posada Hotel.

The former sand-and-gravel mining site — on an important migration, foraging and breeding corridor for resident and migratory wildlife — is overrun by nonnative plants and degraded by erosion. The project will clean up the site’s two ponds, remove salt cedars and other invasives, plant native vegetation and construct nesting areas to accommodate the least tern and great egret. Along soft-surface trails, educational signs will explain the restored wildlife habitat adjacent to Laredo Community College.

We drive past the new Laredo Water Museum, a vivid blue-trimmed building dedicated to telling the story of water conservation and purification, ecology, environmental stewardship and drought in Texas. I make a note of it for a return visit.

The truck stops at a private ranch that borders the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed Max Mandel Municipal Golf Course, where a visit from the rare red-billed pigeon attracted birders from throughout the state. The par-72 layout course, covering 270 acres of rugged South Texas landscape, is consistently ranked among the best municipal courses in Texas. Fulgham adds birding moments to his rounds of golf.

As we make our way back into town, Perales suggests a lunch
stop at Danny’s, the local Mexican food franchise that is a Laredo success story.

Danny’s bustles with a local lunch crowd; Perales greets four Border Patrol agents at a table near the door. We’re soon devouring puffy tortilla chips and salsa. I sample a hearty guisada plate, and Perales settles in with a house specialty, Tlalpeño soup.

At 28, Danny Lopez opened the doors of the first Danny’s on Juarez Avenue in 1983. The “easy-in, easy-out” Mexican food concept struck a chord with locals. Before long, he was introducing more locations in Laredo and other South Texas cities.

After a siesta at La Posada Hotel, I venture out to San Bernardo Avenue, host to all manner of stores offering imported pottery, jewelry, furniture and artwork — a sliver of the amount of products that flow through the border in Laredo.

Laredo

Casa Ortiz.

 “We cross 17,000 trucks a day here,” Assistant City Manager Robert Eads says over iced teas in the hotel’s Zaragoza Grill. “If you look into your suitcase, you’d probably find two or three things in there that came across the bridge — not including the food you regularly eat in Texas.”

As evening approaches, I participate in CaminArte, a downtown art and events walk that occurs the first Friday of every month.

I poke my head into the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum, located next to La Posada. Laredo was once its own republic. The former 19th century capitol building offers insights and memorabilia from the short-lived Republic of the Rio Grande (283 days).

At the George Washington Birthday Celebration Museum, Ana Isabel Alvarez tells me Washington is a long-held symbol of freedom for the people of Laredo. Last year, the 120-year-old celebration featured 33 events in 28 days.

I peer into Casa Ortiz, with its Mexican vernacular architecture. All rooms face inward to a large courtyard. The structure dates back to 1829. Locals hold that Casa Ortiz is the longest consecutively inhabited structure in Texas, not the Governor’s Mansion.

The Laredo Center for the Arts, which works with the Mexican Consulate General to exhibit art from south of the border, is teeming with bird paintings by artists, including local students, in conjunction with the upcoming birding festival.

All this walking whets the appetite, so I venture into Siete Banderas to dine with Tom Miller.

Earlier in the day, my companions spoke glowingly many times of Miller, director of Laredo Community College’s Lamar Bruni Vergara Science Center. Once an avid certified scuba diver and instructor, Miller spent an extensive period on the Rio Grande working on research involving the threatened Texas hornshell mussel in 2000, at which point he shifted his focus “from fins to feathers” and took up serious birding. Miller leads festival birding kayak trips along a stretch of the Rio Grande that is central to bird migratory patterns.

Miller talks excitedly about the new Laredo Water Museum, for which he is a consultant, and what it will be able to teach visitors. He proves an invaluable fount of information about Laredo, but I have to meet birders early in the morning.

Before 7 on Saturday, I pull into a megastore parking lot in a residential area north of downtown, a gathering spot for some Monte Mucho members to head out to a private ranch about 14 miles out of town. We number 10, including two local students.

Monte Mucho has 31 members, a core of about 10 who are active. Its annual festival attracts about 110 to 120 birders each year. This year’s festival documented more than 155 species.

At the ranch, an employee guides the line of pickups from pond to pond. When we reach a pond on a rise, activity erupts around us. Covies of scaled quail cross the roads below; the pond is ripe with waterfowl and other activity.

Laredo

A statue of Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza watches over San Agustin Plaza.

 “This is a very birdy spot!” one of the group joyously proclaims. We linger as the bird count rises, with the group finally creeping into the trees to get closer to the water birds.

As we make our way off the ranch, Monte Mucho member Glenda Barrera closes the official count at 47 species.

“That’s low for one of our group trips, but this was a new location,” she says.

Soon, the group is back in the parking lot before scattering like birds. I spend the rest of the day sticking my head into recommended places.

Sunday morning breaks with a thick fog covering Laredo like a moist blanket. A little later in the day, the pace will pick up at Rochas El Catan Grill, a popular place for Sunday brunch. Before I hit the road home, I’ve got to try the chicharrón de Catan, an alligator gar taco plate. Small breaded and fried pieces of gar are served on a tortilla, topped with crisp coleslaw.

No scratches and stings here, and the only bites fall into the gar, a delightful surprise among many during this Laredo weekend.

More Info:

City of Laredo

Laredo Birding Festival

Republic of Rio Grande Museum

Danny’s Restaurant

Laredo Center for the arts

Siete Banderas


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