Wildlife and the natural world are tricky to notice in the day to day bustle of our lives. You can easily go through your day and not really think about it, even though it surrounds and permeates our lives. When someone mentions wildlife or nature many people think of parks or monuments. In the Texas Panhandle, we are lucky in that we have a few major “natural” exhibits such as Palo Duro Canyon, Caprock Canyonlands, and the Canadian River; however, nature extends well beyond these artificially defined boundaries. I guarantee that if you were to look out your window, you would notice wildlife at nearly every moment of the day. Everything from birds and squirrels, to insects and reptiles.
Even within our biggest cities, nature thrives despite so much of human existence being centered around changing the environment to best suit us. We build houses with climate control, plow under fields to plant our crops, drain marshes to make way for roads and buildings, cut down forests to make our raw building materials, mine the earth to acquire iron and precious metals, so much of what we do is ultimately to change the environment to suit us. For the most part, humans do not have a desire to cause the destruction of nature. How do we as a community not only protect our nature commonwealth but help preserve it for generations to come? I believe there are a few simple steps people can take in their own communities to honor our commonwealth of the natural world, but first you have to identify it.
In addition to those “easy to identify” natural wonders as I mentioned before, we also have some that are “not so easy” to notice features that you most likely see every week if not every day! One of the first are our playa lakes. You may be very confused as we do not have very many lakes in the Southern Plains! Playas are a naturally occurring low spot in our land that has a clay soil bottom and will fill with water when we have a wet spell and dry up when the rains cease. They occur all over the Texas Panhandle with estimates ranging from 25,000 to 30,000 playas just within the area. Amarillo and Lubbock both have playas within city limits, many of which hold water constantly and have been made into ponds for water runoff. If you’ve ever flow on an airplane during a wet year, you have probably noticed the hundreds of little “ponds” from up in the air. Those are playas and they provide habitat for many species of plants and animals, some of which you won’t find anywhere else. These include many aquatic plants such as bulrushes and duck potato as well as invertebrates like fairy shrimp, tadpole shrimp, and snails. Amphibians, reptiles, mammals and a huge number of waterfowl also rely on these playas as habitat.
Another natural feature worth mentioning is the large number of birds we see throughout the year. Our area is right in the middle of the Central Flyway, it is one of the major migration paths birds take during the year. You combine that with our playas and it leads to a very rich, revolving biodiversity of birds! We have our year-round residents and we have migratory birds that only come through twice a year.
The last feature I will mention is our grasslands. We have the Rita Blanca Grasslands in the northwestern portion of the Panhandle as well as the Muleshoe and Buffalo Lake Wildlife Refuges. They are home to unique birds, reptiles and insects as well as grass species and many wildflowers! Our grasslands are hidden gems, you just have to be up for the challenge of finding their sparkle!
In our busy lives it is hard to take the time to really focus on nature, however, if we do it will greatly enhance our well being. Nature offers the opportunity to connect with our roots as humans and with each other! Many of the conservation issues we face are complicated but if we begin to take the time, even once or twice a year, to engage and enjoy nature–it will not only enrich our lives but help us make responsible choices and balance our needs with the needs of our natural world.
Justin Trammell earned an undergraduate degree in wildlife biology, and currently operates a Tir Bluen farm with his wife, Whitney (www.facebook.com/tirbluen).