When we moved to Abilene in 2008 from the great and glorious state of Pennsylvania, ready access to nature was one of my chief concerns. In Pennsylvania, you see, there are literally millions of acres of public land in the form of national forests, state forests, and state game lands. State Game Lands alone include some 1.4 million acres. State Forests account for about 2 million additional acres, and the Allegheny National Forest itself has more than half a million acres of recreational land. These public lands are dispersed broadly and are within an easy drive (usually less than 30 minutes) of most every resident. Approximately 15% of the land area in Pennsylvania is available to the public. All one needs to do when he or she hears the call of nature is to drive to the closest piece of public land and enjoy. Repeat as often as necessary.
Texas? Well, not so much. Public land in Texas is lacking, to put it bluntly. Less than 2% of the land area in Texas is available to the public, and it is not evenly dispersed. It's better in the eastern part of the state, I'm told, but in West Texas, apart from a smattering of state parks that tend to be both few and small, there just isn't a lot of public nature space. And all this is fine if you happen to be wealthy and can afford your own 1,000-acre slice of prairie, or if, like some, city parks are as wild as you care to get.
But that's not me. I NEED nature. I need it like I need air. I need to be able to spend time in places where I can't see or hear other people or their trappings. And I did not arrive in Abilene with a hefty bankroll to buy my own spread. So when we moved to Abilene, I was worried.
And then I discovered Abilene's own Kirby Lake. Now, I can hear you Abilenians chuckle already. And no, I'm not going to tell you that Kirby Lake in any way compares to Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest or to Cooks Forest State Park or even to my beloved State Game Lands 82. I'm not even going to tell you it substitutes for Abilene State Park, another local haven in which I've spent countless hours. But what I will tell you with conviction is that there is beauty and wonder to be enjoyed at Kirby Lake.
I began visiting Kirby Lake regularly about a year after we moved here. It's close to my home and is easy to visit before or after work. Over the years, I've found birds and bees, plants and scenes that have provided me endless hours of enjoyment and the opportunity for quiet reflection. The images in this post have all been made at Kirby Lake.
The lake is a popular place for local fishermen, but it is a popular place for birds, too. A large flock of white pelicans (seen below) winters here every year. The pelicans are local celebrities and watching them has given me many hours of pleasure. I've also enjoyed a number of other shore birds such as Snowy Egrets (with their bright yellow feet), Great Egrets, Double-Crested Cormorants, Northern Shovelers, Green and Great Blue Herons, Laughing Gulls, the ubiquitous American Coots and Mallards, Greater Yellowlegs, and one of my personal favorites, American Avocets. Avocets don't show up in huge numbers, but you can sometimes catch them in small flocks in May, and they're one of the most beautiful of wading birds.
As far as songbirds go, I've seen Western Kingbirds, Yellow-Headed Blackbirds, and even on the rare occasion, Pyrrhuloxias (as seen in the second photo in this post), a typically desert species that doesn't show up this far east very often. Barn swallows are enjoyable to watch as they dart and dive chasing insects near the water's edge in spring.
Wildflowers abound as well. In spring, I can always find the first bluebonnets of the year at Kirby Lake. In a good wildflower year, and especially when the Prickly Pears bloom, the area around the lake's eastern shore comes absolutely alive with color. And in the fall you can usually find Blazing Star (aka Gayfeather), which always adds a last splash of color to the landscape before winter.
And then there are the sunrises and sunsets. Usually best in the spring and fall, but delightful anytime there's a bit of cloud cover. Here are a few of my favorites:
Kirby Lake, I've found, is not the only beautiful place around the Abilene area. And it's not a true wilderness area. It is, however, one of the richest in terms of natural diversity. In my experience, there are few places within easy reach of Abilene with as much opportunity to see a large variety of flora and fauna that change in delightful ways each month of the calendar year. Kirby Lake is a rich and beautiful ecosystem, and I believe it to be one of Abilene's least appreciated treasures.
Kirby Lake is managed as part of the city's water resources, and so it's an important part of Abilene in terms of critical infrastructure. But it is also a haven for wildlife and has been a haven for me as well. I've thought a lot about what it could be if it were intentionally managed as a natural area. And the possibilities are exciting.