Bald Eagles Nesting in the Texas Panhandle
Updated: Aug 2
This young eagle is big deal—he/she is 3-month-old Bald Eagle born at Lake Fryer near Perryton in Ochiltree County in 2022. Why is this young eagle so important? Because with only a couple of exceptions, Bald Eagles haven’t nested in the Texas Panhandle in over 100 years. They winter here, but then our Bald Eagles historically fly north in the spring to nest and raise young, returning to the Texas Panhandle in November.
But in the 21st century, a few eagle pairs have started staying here year-round and nesting here. The most notable nest occurred in Dallam County in 2004-2009 (for a fascinating read and study of an unusual pair of "prairie" nesting (not near water) Bald Eagles, check out Texas Tech wildlife biologist and raptor expert Clint Boal's research).
Before Clint Boal discovered the Dallam County nest in 2004, the last historical record for a nest in the Texas Panhandle was from Potter County in 1916. After that, Americans spent most of the 20th century decimating the Bald Eagle population through habitat loss, hunting, and especially the use of pesticides like DDT. Once the United States banned the widespread use of DDT in 1972, Bald Eagles slowly recovered. There were only 417 nesting pairs nationwide in 1963, but in 2021, the nationwide count was 71,467 nesting pairs.
Even as Bald Eagles recovered and expanded their territory, most of them did not find the dry Texas Panhandle to their liking for nesting and raising families. Other, wetter parts of Texas, such as the Gulf Coast, regularly hosted nesting Bald Eagles in the spring and summer. But not the High Plains.
But in the last few years, there have been summer reports and pictures of mature Bald Eagles (mature = five years or older and sporting the classic pure white head and tail) near lakes of the northern Panhandle, particularly Lake Marvin in Hemphill County, Palo Duro Lake in Hansford County and Lake Fryer in Ochiltree County.
I photographed a summer Bald Eagle when we camped at Lake Fryer over Labor Day weekend in 2021. I searched for a reported nest, but never located it and I never saw a juvenile Bald Eagle that weekend. So I assumed that the eagle that I did spot was a solo summer vagrant eagle.
However, in 2022, I had better luck finding more than summer vagrants. I photographed two nests with young eagles in our area. The first was at Clayton State Park (okay, it is in New Mexico, but only about 20 miles from the Texas Panhandle and conditions are very similar). There is a beautiful nature trail on the northwest side of the lake. At the very end of the nature trail, Rohn and I came upon a huge nest with one fledgling and two mature Bald Eagles nearby. The fledgling appeared to be about three months old, meaning he/she was probably born at the end of February 2022.
A ranger at Clayton Lake State Park confirmed that this is the first year for eagles to nest at that park and that the pair only had one eaglet. It appears from their "dirty heads" in the photos that the parents could be fourth year eagles, so this would be the first year that this pair was mature enough to reproduce. That means that they built that huge nest during the winter of 2021-2022. Eagle pairs often return to the same nest year after year, adding to and improving it each time. So it will be fun for Panhandle birders to look for this pair again during the winter and spring of 2023.
The second Bald Eagle family that I confirmed in 2022 was actually located in the Texas Panhandle proper (which is defined as the northermost 26 counties of Texas). The owner of the Lobo Cafe in Wolf Creek Park (the Ochiltree County park that encompasses Lake Fryer) told me exactly where to look for the nest on the far west side of the park. He confirmed that there was one young eaglet. He also said this was not the first year for nesting Bald Eagles there, but I could find no official reports of successful earlier nests at Lake Fryer on eBird, TEXBIRDS or in any Texas Parks and Wildlife information.
The first weekend in June 2022, I got up early and drove two hours to Lake Fryer from Amarillo. I searched along the creek where I had been directed, but couldn't find the nest. This was frustrating, because a six-foot wide nest constructed of branches an inch in diameter and four feet in length should be obvious. Instead of finding the nest, however, I finally found the bird. The high pitched keening of a hungry young eagle echoed down the creek walls as he/she flew to a large cottonwood tree.
Once I spotted the juvenile Bald Eagle, I finally found the nest tucked behind all of the trees where I had been searching. I was able to walk onto a sand bar in the creek and finally get a good look at the eagles' huge home.
While I was watching the nest and the fledgling, who continually complained of hunger, one of the parents flew right over me to bring him/her a half-eaten fish. I stepped back into the shrubs to try not to bother the parent and allow the mature eagle to land and feed the fledgling. Unfortunately, I may not have been quick enough and the parent flew off without stopping.
I decided I had upset the balance of nature enough, so I snapped a couple more pictures of the young eagle and moved on.
I haven't had time to return to Clayton or Perryton since I saw the eaglets in June. They should be fully independent at this point, having spent 4-12 weeks after fledging learning to fly well and hunt on their own. Research shows that juvenile eagles often stay within a mile of the nest until late summer, but then they may travel hundreds of miles away. Eagle family groups do not travel or stay together. So we may never see these 2022 nestlings again.
But there is a strong possibility that the mature Bald Eagle pairs will come back to these successful nesting sites near Clayton and Perryton and produce more High Plains eaglets in 2023.