Local naturalists hope to develop birder park
Colin Guy<br>Staff Writer
With few trees and little water, Midland may not seem like an ideal location for a migratory water-fowl rest stop, but numerous birds and a minority of residents know better.
At a secluded site adjacent to I-20 birds often take a break from their biennial journeys to rest and feed at a marsh-like habitat, or playa, that some local birders would like to see developed into a park everyone could enjoy.
Located a few miles west of Midkiff Road, the I-20 Wetlands has been a favorite spot for local naturalists for decades. The roughly 80-acre site is home to a stunning variety of species of birds, insects, snakes, amphibians and plants that are not typically found in the dry and rugged West Texas climate, such as ducks, ibises, Canada geese, sedge wrens and warblers.
"The main (appeal) is the incredible diversity," said Burr Williams, executive director of the Sibley Nature Center. "It's a place that's like 150 miles east of here. It's the only place in Midland County where people can walk and feel like they're in a forest."
The property is owned by the city and leased by Benchmark Energy. Both entities have allowed birders access to the site for years. However, access to non-members is restricted and requires written permission from Benchmark Energy officials.
"Everybody in my group has signed a lease with them, it's really not open to the general public at this point in time," said Donna Kelly, editor of the Midland Naturalist's monthly newsletter.
Williams said local naturalists have been maintaining a roughly 1-mile long trail through the dense vegetation off and on for almost 15 years, but some members would like to see a permanent, paved trail installed to provider easier access. Kelly said it can be pretty difficult to navigate the terrain following a heavy rainfall.
During a visit Tuesday, Williams relayed to the City Council that Midlanders Elaine Magruder and Paul Davis Jr. have indicated they are willing to privately fund a study to create a birding park.
Phase one of the plan would be the installation of a paved trail and future expansions could include the development of camouflaged blinds, either on stilts or in trees. Williams said the blinds would provide birders and wildlife photographers a place to operate where they would not be molested by the numerous fire-ant beds scattered throughout the habitat.
According to Rosemarie Stortz, a member of the Midland Naturalists, a birding park would not only be a boon for nature-lovers, it may also be an engine for tourism. Stortz said there used to be a large number of out-of-town tourists that stopped in Midland while en route to the Big Bend area in order to visit evaporative ponds on the edge of town that were once highly populated with diverse species of birds. Following changes to the city's drainage plans, the ponds dried up, the birds stopped coming and so did the tourists, Stortz said. However, developing the wetlands could bring some of them back, she said.
"There's a lot of money to be made in bird-watching and cities that develop things like the I-20 Wetlands could (bring in a lot of people)," Stortz said, noting on a recent birding expedition to the Rio Grande Valley there were birding enthusiasts from as far away as California and Pennsylvania. "It's a hobby that becomes an obsession nowadays."
While development of the wetlands area would have some benefits, Stortz said she also has some concerns about what increased traffic could do to the habitat. The Midland Naturalists has been collecting trash dumped at the site for years, and more visitors would likely result in more pollution. Stortz said trespassing paintballers have also been a nuisance in the past and Williams said opening the site to the public could potentially increase the risk of wild fires.
"There are all kinds of birds, butterflies and dragon-flies out there... our concern is if it becomes so public that all that's done away with," Stortz said. "But some of our group of people who (cut the trails) are getting older and can't do that much longer. It would be great if it were developed, as long as it didn't ruin what our group does."
Monette Burke, director of community services, said Magruder and Davis are in the process of acquiring the services of a designer from Austin who is familiar with birder parks and that the city will continue to discuss the possibility of cooperating in the venture once a more concrete proposal has been developed.
"It's something the city would like to see developed," Burke said.