Big Country Loop
Lake Fort Phantom Hill
In Abilene, at the intersection of I-20 West and TX 351 (Exit 288), go north on TX 351 for 0.5 mile to FM 2833 on the left. Follow FM 2833 north along the lake shore where it provides several points for birding and for closer access to the shoreline, 9.6 miles. Where it reaches FM 1082 turn left for 1.9 miles to boat ramp.
At the first boat ramp, look for gulls, terns, cormorants and ducks during the winter. Look for Mountain Bluebird at the lakeside picnic areas. In spring, migrating songbirds can be seen in the thickets surrounding the lake’s edge, and the shoreline attracts migrating shorebirds. Summer nesting species include Curve-billed Thrasher. Be sure to check the area just above the dam for gulls and waterfowl. Ospreys feed along the dam. In spring, wildflowers attract nectar-seeking butterflies such as Variegated Fritillary and Red Admiral. Check the rocks along the waterline for Blue-fronted Dancer.
Fort Phantom Hill and Seabee Park
Fort Phantom Hill: Located 12 miles north from I-20 at Abilene on FM 600.
Fort Phantom Hill is one of the most pristine historic sites in Texas. It was one of the second line of forts laid out in the early 1850s to protect the westward-moving frontier of Texas settlement. Originally known as the “Post on the Clear Fork of the Brazos,” the fort was occupied by the US Army from 1851 until 1854. Today, Fort Phantom Hill is part of the Texas Forts Trail, a 650-mile highway tour of historic Texas forts in West Central Texas. It is open to the public daily from dawn until dusk for visitors to explore and study the remains of the old fort. Flocks of Lark Bunting and a variety of sparrows feed here in winter. Ladder-backed Woodpecker occurs here and Lark Sparrow and Bullock’s Oriole nest here in summer.
Seabee Park: Return to FM 600 and go south for 7.8 miles to Seabee Park.
Painted Bunting, Bullock’s Oriole, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Western Kingbird and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher nest here in summer. The open parklands provide opportunities to spot grassland birds, roadrunners and other wildlife. Continue to the back of the park to a boat ramp and seasonally wet area for additional species.
Will Hair Park
In Abilene, at the intersection of I-20 and Hwy 83, head east on I-20 to FM 600 (Exit 286C) and go south 1 mile. Turn left at the T-intersection on TX 351/Ambler Ave. Park is on the right after 0.1 mile.
This excellent 25-acre park produces good numbers and varieties of birds due to the creek that runs through it and the hardwoods that line the creek banks. In spring, check the many fruiting mulberries in this riparian corridor. Harris’s, White-crowned, Song, White-throated, Field, Vesper and Savannah Sparrows are easy finds in winter, and flocks of American Goldfinch and Clay-colored Sparrow are also here in early spring. During migrations, check the hardwoods for migrating songbirds.
Abilene Zoological Garden And Nelson Park
From I-20 in Abilene, exit Loop 322 South (Exit 390). Go 1.7 miles and exit at TX 36 West. Take a right at the stop light and follow signs to the zoo.
The zoo contains a wetland and a small area planted with native grasses. Resident Black-bellied Whistling Duck can be seen in relative proximity, and during spring migration the wetland attracts a variety of shorebirds. Check the two large ponds in Nelson Park for uncommon species among the Ring-billed Gull and Forster’s Tern. Waterfowl also inhabit both ponds, and the cottonwoods that surround the edge of the second lake provide good cover for spring migrants, as well as nesting habitat for Bullock’s Oriole, woodpeckers and flycatchers. Black-crowned Night-Herons nest in the willow and cottonwood groves along the edge. White-faced Ibis and Yellow-headed Blackbird have been recorded during migration. Surf Scoter and Peregrine Falcon, both rarities for Abilene, have occurred here. The vegetated margins around the ponds should be searched in warm weather for dragonflies such as Widow and Roseate Skimmers, Variegated Meadowhawk and Familiar Bluet.
From I-20 in Abilene, exit Loop 322 South (Exit 390). Go south for about 5.2 miles and exit on Maple St., turn left, and go 0.9 mile to the entrance on your right. The sign is small and easily missed: watch for the ball fields on your right.
A favorite birding spot in the Abilene area, Kirby Lake provides habitat for a variety of birds and occasional rarities such as Long-tailed Jaeger, Red Knot and Red Phalarope. During winter a good day can produce 7 or 8 species of sparrow, Cactus Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher and Pyrrhuloxia. Spring migration fills the mesquite brush that surrounds the lake with passerines, and the shallow lake itself hosts migrants such as Baird’s and Pectoral Sandpipers, Wilson’s Phalarope and Franklin’s Gull. Eared Grebes in breeding plumage also occur here in spring. Scope the cattails that border the lake for Yellow-headed Blackbird, which migrates through this region in dense flocks. Snowy Plover, and less commonly, Black-bellied Plover, can be seen at the lake during migration. Bell’s Vireo and Verdin nest here, and Merlin are occasionally seen.
Abilene State Park
From US 277 and FM 89, take FM 89 east 7.4 miles to park entrance on the right.
Abilene State Park marks a point where the grasses and mesquite of the Rolling Plains meet the oak and juniper characteristic of the Edwards Plateau, resulting in a diverse mix of habitats and wildlife. Plant and bird species of xeric western ecosystems integrate with those that occur more commonly in mesic eastern communities. Elm Creek adds a riparian pecan-elm-black willow mix, as well as the wetland features normally associated with a stream. Mississippi Kite, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and 3 species of wren—Cactus, Carolina and Bewick’s—commonly nest here during summer, as do Painted Bunting and Summer Tanager. Reptiles at the park include Red-eared Slider, Texas Earless Lizard, Texas Spotted Whiptail and Great Plains Rat Snake. Amphibians such as Blanchard’s Cricket Frog, Eastern Green Toad, Texas Toad and Plains Leopard Frog occur here as well. The park offers wildlife observation and photography opportunities for White-tailed Deer, Cottontail Rabbits, raccoons, armadillos, foxes, squirrels and a large variety of birds.
From US 277 and FM 89, take FM 89 east 6.4 miles to Abilene Dam Rd. on the left, which provides multiple lake access points. This site is gated and managed by Abilene State Park. Visitors must check in at Abilene State Park to pay the park fee and request the daily gate code.
Lake edges are productive habitat for migrating shorebirds such as American Avocet, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Wilson’s Phalarope and Great Blue Heron. The lake’s appeal to migrant waterbirds depends on water levels—the lower the water levels, the greater the area’s appeal. Dowitchers and sandpipers begin showing up as early as late February. Once across the dike, there is a nice pullout from which you can set up a spotting scope. Farther along the road there are numerous places to stop, get out and walk closer to the edge of the lake for better viewing. The hills that surround the lake contain dense, mature stands of juniper, providing good habitat for woodland birds. All 3 bluebirds—Eastern, Western and Mountain—have been seen here. Common and Hooded Merganser winter here and Painted Bunting and Blue Grosbeak nest here in summer. Lake Abilene provides an excellent opportunity to see both woodland species and shorebirds that are attracted to the wetland. Waterfowl can also be seen here throughout the winter.