Cars cruise in the sky from 183 to Mopac then brakes squeal as commuters try to make the turn for hamburgers. A train roars, its cargo creaking angrily as it disturbs a flock of red-winged blackbirds. A kestrel alights on a telephone wire with a mouse and begins to eat. The nearby pigeons look nervous. Gadwalls quack nervously. There’s a northern harrier lurking nearby, no cause for alarm but certainly says something about the neighborhood. A coot, seeing two humans armed with fishing poles makes for the middle of the pond. Err, lake. The big puddle I’m looking at through my binoculars at the northeast corner of 183 and Mopac is a lake. Lake Fail it’s called on ebird, and it’s my new favorite place to bird in Austin.
I can’t say what made this place come to be, but I am thankful it exists. There are no sidewalks around it save one at its end, but as I clutch my binoculars trying to spot the ruby crown of a kinglet, I realize that the concrete I stand upon was far more likely poured for the convenience of big mechanical earth movers that might need to dredge this place or bulldoze the impressive mass of vegetation at Lake Fail’s southern end. Another square of concrete on the east side of the pond gives us a pretty good view of the area. I have no idea this one concrete’s purpose, but use it to keep clear of fire ants as my friends count gadwalls and I scribble notes.
Lake Fail is a natural place hidden in plain sight. Seen by millions, known only by a select few: the couple fishing, a man grinning shirtless who waves at us, probably happy to see our binoculars point somewhere besides his torso. My wife Raquel and my good friend Tam are here as well, lured here because of promise of a canvasback. Personally I was hoping to see marsh wren that refused to come out into the open last time.
I can’t say who was more out of place in this forgotten pond, the birders, the sunbather, the fishermen, the ducks, but we all came here for more or less the same reason. We came seeking nature, be it the kiss of the sunshine, the nibble of a fish, or the song of bird. Often we plan these wild trips to Bastrop state park, The Guadalupe Mountains, The Grand Canton! But it’s not always that practical, especially with a three month old son. And besides, everyone knows birds can survive in those places, they’re out in nature after all. For me, there’s something special about the surprise of these forgotten places tucked in the corners of the urban sprawl. I relish the least grebes that live in the pond at the triangle, the yellow shafted northern flicker at Laguna Gloria, the ridiculous number of species at Hornsby Bend. I find these creature’s existence despite the rampant urbanization, resilient, brave, arrogant even. They’re here for the same reason I am, all those ‘natural’ places are just too far. More convenient to make do here in the city, in a backyard, a drainage ditch, a swath of forest that’s not worth developing. This is the nature that I am most familiar with, and the nature that surrounds most of us most of the time. It is a nature that, while often lacking the brilliant assortment of species in those Great Natural Places, still holds pleasant reminders that the natural world is not going anywhere. The population of creatures at Lake Fail is thriving because they are forgotten. They need no rules established to protect them, just to left alone.
I will to return to Lake Fail to do science, to study its humble coots and pied-bill grebes, its clandestine marsh wren and harrier. I want to see what sort of creatures survive here, if it’s a long term residence to them or if it serves the same purpose the area does for humans, just a flyover. I want data on the resilience of these birds and thanks to CAMN, I know how to get it for myself. And hey, this second best of all about studying this bizarre urban puddle (the first being the marsh wren) is once I’ve finished with my counts, a hamburger joint is on the other end of the parking lot.
Happy volunteering y’all! And no matter where you go outside, be it your backyard or Big Bend, don’t forget your binoculars.