Los Fresnos is for the birders. Or at least, city leaders are betting it will be.
Val Champion, executive director of the Los Fresnos Area Chamber of Commerce, is working closely with Los Fresnos Community Development Corp. Liaison Desi Martinez to put the city on the birding community’s map.
The chamber added a birding section to its website about two months ago, created a map that shows birding sites within one hour of Los Fresnos, and is part of the Texas Birding brochure distributed to birders from around the globe who travel during the fall to the Rio Grande Valley, Champion said.
Los Fresnos wants to attract those visitors to stay and patronize the city’s RV parks, hotel, restaurants and beauty shops, and come back the following season, Champion said, and it’s positioned to do just that with its close proximity to the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.
“When they come to see the birds, they’ve got to stay somewhere, they’ve got to put gas somewhere, they’ve got to eat somewhere,” Champion said,” so it helps the entire economy of our community. Our effort is to help in any way we can … and expand this industry.”
A 2011 study by Texas A&M University concluded that nature tourism annually generates more than $300 million in the Rio Grande Valley, considered the No. 2 bird-watching destination in North America, and supports 4,407 full and part-time jobs. The region is home to nearly 500 bird species, according to the study.
“Mother Nature’s done well for us in the coastal area,” Martinez said. “Because we are a small community, we all participate as a big team to get more for our buck, more for our effort.”
Javi Gonzalez, a naturalist educator at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, said birding is one of the fastest-growing hobbies in the United States, and the region’s subtropical climate means the Valley has species that can’t be found elsewhere in the country. It’s home to two migratory routes that bring hundreds of species to the area, including birds like green jays and chachalacas.
“That’s a big incentive for them to take a trip here,” Gonzalez said of visiting birders. “The winter is exciting because the diversity doubles (when) the birds travel south here.”
He said the wetlands, woods and proximity to the coast make Los Fresnos an area with good potential for birders to spot a variety of species. Gonzalez hopes more awareness of the Valley’s unique birding sites will lead to creation and preservation of wildlife habitat.
Donna Bates. former director of the Inn at Chachalaca Bend, where she now volunteers, said the upscale bed-and-breakfast’s pristine 40 acres boasts 300-year-old plant growth that attracts sought-after birds. Birding enthusiasts from Texas and abroad have stayed there to check species off their life lists, and the sighting of a rare rose-throated becard drew visitors from England.
“We’re kind of the best-kept secret in the Valley, unfortunately,” she said of the inn.
Bates said an advantage of Los Fresnos is its central location to other birding sites like Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco and Resaca De La Palma State Park & World Birding Center.
“You can drive down Arroyo Boulevard and see birds you won’t see anywhere else in the world,” she said.
Bates said birders who visit the inn tend to be retired and financially well-off. According to the Texas A&M University study, travelers surveyed about visiting Rio Grande Valley for nature tourism spent about $128 per day for each person in their party.
“This is what they want to do. They want to put it on their list, and Los Fresnos is right in the center of it,” Bates said.
Champion said the effort began to develop about two years ago when Texas Birding called to tell him a rare Amazon Kingfisher had been spotted near Los Fresnos. That led to a visit from a German birding magazine writer, followed by a nine-person delegation of birders from China to tour the area.
While Los Fresnos doesn’t have an industrial park or manufacturing operations, the city has experienced population growth because of its good schools and friendly suburban community, Champion said. The city expanded 11.3 percent from 2010 to 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and stands at about 7,800 residents.
Birding is part of growing the cultural offerings of the city, Champion said. Los Fresnos already hosts a monthly Under the Stars artisan market, and it will start its run as the new home of the Narciso Martinez Conjunto Festival in October. Also, the city is part of a plan to extend Brownsville’s Historic Battlefield Trail to Los Fresnos.
Martinez said there’s still work to be done building local partnerships and getting Los Fresnos on the national radar for birders. The city is working with Brownsville, Laguna Vista and South Padre Island to promote the region, he said.
Champion said that if visiting birders spent their day in Los Fresnos but opted to stay in Weslaco, that would be just fine.
“We’re trying to make this easy to share with the rest of the world,” he said.
NADIA TAMEZ-ROBLEDO Staff Writer