Laredo preserves ‘ecotourism gem’; Activists hope designation blocks border barrier technology

Border Report

Border city designates 1st birding sanctuary, nature preserve

LAREDO, Texas (Border Report) — As he looked through his binoculars for rare birds on Friday out at the banks of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Raul Delgado spotted something else even rarer: A birder from another state.

Delgado, 69, considers himself a “real” birder. The humble, retired telephone technician spends most days traipsing the trails at this crook on the banks of the Rio Grande near International Bridge No. 2 — across from a shuttered water plant in Nuevo Laredo — looking for Muscovy ducks, red-billed pigeons, and the rare Amazon kingfisher, which he saw here in 2016.

Matthew Voelker, an insurance auditor from Syracuse, N.Y., enjoys birding Friday, May 28, 2021, on the banks of the Rio Grande in Laredo, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

On Friday, Delgado spotted Matthew Voelker, 36, an insurance auditor From Syracuse, N.Y., wearing a bright blue shirt and a heavy-duty pair of binoculars himself. Voelker said he came to find the elusively rare Morelet’s seedeater in a newly established nature preserve and birding sanctuary in this South Texas border city during his Memorial Day weekend vacation.

It’s a spot where the mighty Rio Grande and Zacate Creek meet to form an oasis for rare, tropical birds as they migrate north from South and Central America. And it’s one of two areas that the Laredo City Council recently voted to designate as the city’s first natural landmarks to entice more birding and ecotourism — especially for those wanting to see “Laredo’s signature bird – the Morelet’s Seedeater,” according to the resolution.

But the move might also help prevent border barrier and law enforcement construction from taking the border shorelands, environmentalists tell Border Report.

The stone Las Palmas Trail is seen leading to where Zacate Creek meets the Rio Grande in Laredo, Texas, an area now established as a natural landmark by the Laredo City Council. Across the river is the town of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, as seen on Friday, May 28, 2021. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

The area is so close to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, that music from passing vehicles can be heard on the U.S. side. It is a popular crossing spot for migrants who cross the Rio Grande illegally to get into South Texas, which is happening by the thousands each day on the Southwest since Joe Biden took office.

Border Patrol agents or Army Corps officials are usually positioned here, but die-hard birders, like Voelker, don’t seem to mind.

A National Guardsman is seen on Friday, May 28, 2021, patrolling the Rio Grande in Laredo, Texas, at an area where Zacate Creek empties into the river and where rare birds are found. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“This spot here is known for Morlett seedeater and it’s a bird that is pretty much impossible to get anywhere else in the state except for this area so I think it (the preserve) will really benefit this area,” Voelker said as he scurried about jagged rocks, cane fields and silted soil in the 90-degree humidity looking for the bold white-collared plumage of the male species.

The sight of Voelker gave Delgado hope that more birders soon will come. “This is great luck. I can’t believe it,” Delgado said. “We have a real birder!”

Larado birder and retiree Raul Delgado, left, speaks with visiting birder Matthew Voelker, of New York, at the Las Palmas Trail in Laredo, Texas, a new nature preserve, on May 28, 2021. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

It’s the Amazon kingfisher, along with the Morlett seedeater, that actually helped to persuade the City Council on May 18 to set aside these two riverbank regions in the hopes of enticing ecotourism.

Environmentalists, like Melissa Cigarroa, president of the board of directors of the nonprofit Rio Grande International Study Center (RGISC,) also hope it will prevent further border technology — such as paved roads, floodlights, and underground sensors — from being used in these riverfront areas.

Melissa Cigarroa, board president of the Rio Grande International Study Center, and naturalist Raul Delgado hike May 28, 2021, on the Las Palmas Trail beside Zacate Creek in Laredo, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

On Friday morning, Delgado and Cigarroa took Border Report on an extensive tour of the two riverbanks spots where the city has carved out the nature preserves. This including 36 acres at Zacate Creek, called the Las Palmas Trail, and 77 acres in a city-owned riparian area just below Laredo College known as Riverbend, and the “gravel pits,” because it used to be a concrete factory.

“It’s an amazing place,” Cigarroa said as she made her way through towering sugar cane stalks, mulberry trees and fallen logs on a two-mile hike down the Las Palmas Trail.

Birding enthusiast Raul Delgado hikes the las Palmas Trail in Laredo, Texas, on May 28, 2021. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

The trail is named after its towering Washingtonia palms. It’s also home to 20 species of warblers, “known as the colorful gems of the bird world,” and the Audubon’s oriole, gray hawk, hooded oriole, and Altamira oriole, according to the city resolution.

“This is where Laredo got some good street cred in the birding world for having an Amazon kingfisher sited for the first time in the continental U.S. in 2010, which was a big deal,” Delgado said.

A Canadian was the first to spot the Amazon kingfisher here, and then four other kingfisher species were seen in this spot in subsequent years.

Delgado has seen all four, he said with a smile.

Raul Delgado and Melissa Cigarroa explore the Las Palmas Trail in Laredo, Texas, on May 28, 2021. (Border Report Photos/Sandra Sanchez)

There is a stunning rock waterfall and a partial stone walkway already in place. It’s an area where in the 1930s a developer had wanted to build a river walk that didn’t happen and eventually the city of San Antonio built a successful riverwalk, instead.

It’s just past the downtown El Barrio Azteca historic neighborhood, which was build in the 1870s.

Turning these riverfront areas into natural landmarks to preserve their beauty has been a couple of decades in the making. Since 1998, the city has worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a $5.5 million ecological restoration project to turn the gravel pits into functioning ponds and suitable wetlands for the endangered inland least tern, a migratory bird species, which has been spotted here, according to the resolution passed by the city council.

Over the years, RGISC along with the Monte Mucho Auduborn Society worked with city, state and federal leaders to rehabilitate this twisty section of river, and that’s why it was so crushing when during the Trump administration the area was designated for border wall construction, Cigarroa said.

“We have an ecotourism gem here and we feel this designation is important to help continue the development of that industry in Laredo and also to protect our wonderful and beautiful ecological treasures,” Cigarroa said.

Melissa Cigarroa, board president of the International Rio Grande Study Center, speaks on May 28, 2021, with a National Guardsman about cutting carrizo cane too short on the banks of the Rio Grande in Laredo, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“In the wall-fight, we tried to let people in Laredo understand that we were threatened to lose this,” said Cigarroa, a leader in the Laredo No Border Wall Coalition. “The wall would tear down these ecological areas and would deny access of Laredoans to the riverside and it was an integral part of our message to people here.”

President Joe Biden has halted all border wall construction. Homeland Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has repeatedly indicated the administration is in favor of “smart border management” methods, which environmentalists fear could include all-weather roads built on the riverlands, floodlights and underground sensors to deter illegal immigration.

But during a May 4 speech before the 51st Washington Conference on the Americas, Mayorkas indicated the administration might go another direction, saying: “We must begin to view our smart border management as a critical piece of our economic security and also as a tool for connection and economic development. Rather than viewing borders solely as the lines that mark national boundaries and that divide us from one another, we should see borders as a point of connection, as the place where the flows of people, goods, and ideas from different countries interact and intersect. This view recognizes the good that we can offer each other, and the connection between international exchange and economic vitality.

We should see borders as a point of connection, as the place where the flows of people, goods, and ideas from different countries interact and intersect.”

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas

If the border wall had been built, both of these areas would have been south of it, basically in no-man’s lands inaccessible from the United States, Cigarroa said.

She said her organization has upcoming meetings with Border Patrol “to talk about how we can both meet our goals. To have access and preserve the ecological footprint of this area and understand the need border security has for their line of site.”

Several dirt roads already exist in the area and Border Patrol agents frequently are seen on ATVs and in vehicles patrolling. Cigarroa said they’d like for the ATVs to be curtailed because the noisy vehicles disrupt bird nesting, and she’s hoping agents will more gingerly “to protect the habitat,” she said. “These roads exist now and we want to ask them to respect that and stay on the roads.”

U.S. Border Patrol agents in ATV units are seen May 28, 2021, clearing brush for footprints of migrants in Laredo, Texas, in an area known as Riverbend, which has just been designated a natural landmark. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Right now, nothing is certain.

On Friday, as she came through a clearing of thick brush from the Las Palmas trail to a silt-formed “island” in the Rio Grande, Cigarroa was frustrated to see that federal officials had recently mowed a huge swath of carrizo cane to its nub. She said that will only foster future development of the towering 10-foot-tall invasive cane, not prevent it from growing, according to plans laid out by federal officials in a carrizo cane eradication study program that they produced..

“You cut all the cane,” she told a National Guardsman who was patrolling the banks. “According to their science, you are supposed to allow it to grow to 3-feet and then maintain it and then you get a nice hedge and it doesn’t grow tall. But obviously they aren’t doing that.”

The guardsman listened to Cigarroa and smiled and then asked Delgado the names of a few birds sitting on rocks in the Rio Grande.

He told Border Report he enjoys the post and has binoculars and often “watches the birds all day.”

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