Birding Hot Spots in the Texas Panhandle
For a new birder, one of the most difficult challenges is figuring out where to find interesting birds to watch. Over the last two years, I have "discovered" several favorite spots to look for birds in or near Amarillo and I am always happy to share this information with anyone who asks.
Birding spots are not static. Some past favorite places, such as an Amarillo playa lake on Helium Road just west of Hillside Christian Church, have been decimated by progress (the new Loop 335 went directly over that former playa). Drought conditions in 2020 made other playas dry up so that no birds frequented them, i.e. the playas on either side of Sundown Lane near Randall High School in Amarillo.
In 2020, I birded every single day and recorded 366 eBird checklists as fulfillment of a New Year's resolution. Most of those birding experiences during 2020 were within Amarillo, or driving distance of Amarillo, because COVID-19 definitely limited my travels during part of the year. As a result, I spent more time exploring local gems.
So in no particular order, here are the places that I have enjoyed birding in 2019 and 2020 and what I've learned from birding those places.
In or near Amarillo:
Palo Duro Canyon State Park: My favorite spots in the park are the bird blind directly behind the Trading Post (especially with the new water feature and deer-proof feeder), any trail along the creek (particularly the area behind the campsites in Hackberry Campground), and the drippy faucet and hidden picnic tables in Soapberry Day Use Area (I use a recording sparingly to call in the Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers, Painted Buntings and Black-crested Titmouse here in the summer). But anywhere without a lot of people where there are trees and water at PDCSP can be birdy (meaning the Lighthouse Trail is the worst for birding because it has neither and is always crowded, not to mention dangerously hot in the summer).
Thompson Park: Thompson Park in north Amarillo was particularly exciting during the fall migration in 2020. Birds spotted then included Black-throated Green Warbler, Vermillion Flycatcher, Sora, Cordellian Flycatcher, Northern Waterthrush, Yellow-breasted Chat, Lazuli Bunting, Townsend's Warbler and several other species of vireos, wrens, hummingbirds and flycatchers. There are three ponds with a creek running in between. I like to bird Thompson Park by walking along the creek, looking into the trees, weeds, sunflowers, cattails, etc., for birds. When I reach one of the ponds, the water birds can be observed clearly. There is a Great Horned Owl nesting near the playground and creek at the south end of the dog park pond and in the summer of 2020, there were two GHOW fledglings hanging out in the large cottonwoods nearby.
McGee Lake: The Tyson Foods packing plant at St. Francis and Masterson Road owns the surrounding farmland, including McGee Lake, which takes up several acres on the northwest side of that intersection. The land around the lake is completely restricted, so there is no way to actually walk along the lake shore and count the birds. That is probably a good thing for our health because Tyson regularly dumps who-knows-what byproducts from the plant into and around that lake. The area stinks and in the summer is overrun by flies. But the birds must like the nastiness, because there are 1000's on and near the lake, particularly between November 1 and April 1. I need a scope to identify anything but the bigger birds on the lake (Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese, Canada Geese and Ring-Billed Gulls are pretty easy to spot, but the ducks are harder to distinguish). But I go to Lake McGee mostly for the raptors. Mature and immature Bald Eagles call this area home during the winter (there have been at least 5-6 regular eagle residents during both winters that I have birded McGee). Scores of Ferruginous Hawks, Northern Harriers and Red-tailed Hawks, along with the occasional Rough-legged Hawk, hunker down in the prairie dog towns on windy days or perch on the power poles and irrigation sprinklers on calm mornings. In the summer, Burrowing Owls and their adorable, fuzzy offspring can be reliably spotted near McGee. In the fall, 100's of Swainson's Hawks wait on every fencepole while gathering to migrate together to South America. For more birding, I usually also drive the nearby farm roads: Parsley, Bertrand, Webb, El Rancho, Lakeside, Whitaker, and others.
Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge: This should be a fantastic place to bird because it has trees and is always deserted. But water is a big problem here. This was a popular recreation lake in the 1960's and 1970's and the premiere local birding spot at that time. Now it is a completely dry lakebed with a crumbling dam at one end. When our area has received normal moisture, I've found raptors, quail, pheasant, flycatchers, shrikes, woodpeckers, owls, sparrows, warblers, thrashers, wrens and more at BLNWR. But on the 2020 Christmas Bird Count, after a year when we had 2/3 of our usual rainfall, my husband and I only spotted 14 species of birds in several hours of looking, even with access to the restricted areas of the refuge. Like most of the national wildlife refuge system, Buffalo Lake is starving for funds, maintenance and water and is therefore not my first choice of places to birdwatch.
Honorable Mentions: Southeast Park in Amarillo and Southeast Park in Canyon, Medi-Park in Amarillo (particularly the brushy western edge of the smaller north pond), Greenways Park playa, Amarillo International Airport prairie dog town, Wildcat Bluff Nature Center, and MBY (my average suburban backyard, which in 2020 has hosted two Cooper's Hawks fledglings, Yellow Warblers, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Red-breasted Nuthatch, two Broad-winged Hawks, a wintering Broad-tailed Hummingbird and a Carolina Wren, along with our usual backyard bird visitors like cardinals, doves, jays, sparrows, pine siskins and a few hummingbirds).
Palo Duro Canyon State Park (first 3 or top row depending if you are on desktop or mobile), Thompson Park (second 3 or second row), McGee Lake (third 3 or third row), Buffalo Lake NWR (fourth 3 or fourth row), and MBY (last three or last row).
In the other 24 counties of the Texas Panhandle, there are many places to bird, some of which I hope to discover while achieving my 2021 New Year's resolution, which is to bird every county of this area (my ultimate goal is to spot 100 species in every one of these counties, but that will take much longer than just 2021). I don't pretend to be an expert on all of the secret places located in this 25,000-square-mile area (which is larger than the state of West Virginia), but here are some of my favorite spots that I have birded over the last two years.
Other Texas Panhandle birding spots (it is all about where you can find surface water here):
Lake Meredith: The huge National Recreation Area near Fritch has recovered from its disastrous low water level, which peaked after the drought in 2011. It is now a reliable birding spot, where I mostly go during the warmer months because of a wicked wind in the winter. My favorite places to check for birds at Meredith are Bugbee Canyon (where I find water, shore and tree birds), Plum Creek (where nesting Cactus Wrens were spotted in August), McBride Canyon (bird the roads for fun birds like Upland Sandpipers that I saw in June, and then hike Mullinaw Trail to see a variety of woodpeckers), and the very remote Dolomite Point (where Western and Clark's Grebes dance in the late spring and herons and egrets nest). Many of these areas, particularly Dolomite Point, benefit from a spotting scope and rattlesnake precautions.
Lake Rita Blanca: This former state park in Dalhart is an out-of-the-way birding treasure. When I have a whole Saturday to drive to the northwest Panhandle to bird, this is where I enjoy going for the morning, followed by an afternoon visit to Rita Blanca National Grassland (where I check the Thompson Grove Picnic area and Alkali Lakes). Lake Rita Blanca attracts numerous water birds. I have seen every kind of duck and teal that visits our area, sandpipers, avocets, stilts, terns, ibises, cormorants, phalaropes, herons, egrets and more here. The woods on the path around the lake host a large variety of warblers, flycatchers, orioles, sparrows, grosbeaks, raptors, swallows, and raptors. I saw my first Yellow-billed Cuckoo and my first Great Crested Flycatcher in the underbrush near Trailhead #2 (where I like to park and then walk around the south end of the lake). Another good path to search is from Trailhead #3 north to the Pavillion. I rarely see more than one or two other people on the paths here, even on beautiful weekend mornings.
Greenbelt Lake: The east end of this recreational lake near Clarendon is crowded in the summer with RVs, boats and summer residents. However, I enter the west side of the lake on FM 3257 and hit the Salt Fork Campground, where the birds hang out along the sandy shore and the weedy river bottom. I then double back and approach Kinkaid Park from the west. I often see many birds from the roads and walking along the shore in this area. I stop and pay the $5 fee for lake access at the Lakeside Marina bait shop of Hwy. 70, but I normally do that at the end of my birding because that's when I arrive at that east side of the reservoir and there is no pay opportunity anywhere else. During the off-season, you may feel like you almost have all parts of the lake to yourself, but for some reason, I've never seen as many water birds here in the winter as I do at Meredith, Rita Blanca or even Thompson Park.
Lake McClellan: Less than 30 miles from Greenbelt, just off I-40 in Gray County, is this strange, little U.S. Forest Service recreation area. Sometimes it has water, and when it does, I've seen a Great Blue Heron rookery, dozens of young Pied-billed Grebes and Black-Crowned Night Herons, other shorebirds, grosbeaks, phoebes, mockingbirds, raptors, etc. McClellan must have the largest concentration of Red-headed Woodpeckers in the Panhandle. There are inexpensive campsites that are rarely full here. And for those that like ATVs, there are apparently some very popular trails for off-roading. The nice thing is that the four-wheelers stay on the far west side of the lake and the birds and campers are mostly on the east side, so all can coexist peacefully.
Honorable Mentions: Caprock Canyons State Park (Lake Theo attracts some birds and the State Bison Herd is fun to watch and photograph), Lake McKenzie (most of the lake shore is high above the lake surface, so the birding is not ideal but you can still see raptors and water birds), Copper Breaks State Park (not technically in any of the 26 counties of the Panhandle, but this park near Quanah in Hardeman, one county south of the Panhandle, has amazing dark skies for astrophotography and several good ponds for birding), Lake Fryer/Wolf Creek Park near Perryton (I haven't visited this beautiful area since I started birding in earnest, but it is one of my favorite places to camp and I remember seeing a nice variety of birds there the last time we stayed), and Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge (in the winter, this is THE place to see 1000's of Sandhill Cranes at dawn or dusk on one of the three ponds on the refuge).
American Kestrel at Lake McClellan, Horned Grebe at Lake Meredith, and Red-tailed Hawk at Greenbelt Lake.
I'd love suggestions from fellow bird nerds about other places to bird in the Texas Panhandle. I'll also add more to this list as I (hopefully) bird all 26 Panhandle counties in 2021.