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  • Writer's pictureVicki Wilmarth

Chasing the Panhandle's Rare Birds

Updated: Apr 4

Pacific Loon in Amarillo at Southeast Park on November 4, 2023

Birdwatchers and birders are generally different types of people. Huge numbers of people are birdwatchers, including approximately 48 million Americans, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Birdwatchers are generally casual observers of birds. They genuinely appreciate the beauty of birds and are fascinated with their behaviors in the wild, but they aren't travelling to find birds they don't normally see. I am a birdwatcher in my own suburban Amarillo backyard, where I can sit on my patio and watch the antics of a hummingbird or a Downy Woodpecker for hours.

Patiently birdwatching a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird in my Amarillo backyard

Birders, on the other hand, have turned birdwatching into a competitive sport, even if sometimes they only compete with themselves. Birders enjoy keeping counts, a life list, geographic totals and enjoy sharing and comparing with other birders. Birders are known to chase down birds over miles of endless roads and across state lines, or even to jump on a plane to see a vagrant bird. If you have seen the movie, The Big Year, you are familiar with the ultimate birders who try to see as many bird species as possible in a 12-month period in one geographic area, such as one state or the continental U.S.

I fit into the birder category because my family tells me that I might be a bit competitive. I like to keep eBird lists and I am always on the lookout for a new "lifer". I secretly enjoy seeing my name among the top 10 birders in Potter and Randall Counties on eBird. I don't have enough time, money or loose screws to do a Big Year, but I certainly am interested when someone spots a rare bird nearby that I haven't seen.

Surf Scoter at Thompson Park in Amarillo on Halloween 2023

In the fall of 2023, the Amarillo area hosted several rare birds--ones that don't reside in the Texas Panhandle or even migrate through on a regular basis. A Surf Scoter was spotted in the ponds at Thompson Park on October 28 and stuck around for about a week. Many birders were able to get a good look at this diving duck that is supposed to spend its summer breeding season in the Arctic and its winters along the Pacific Coast. Barrett Pierce actually spotted two Surf Scoters at Thompson Park, but I felt privileged to even see just one and add that species to my life list.

Tricolored Heron in Carson County in October 2023

Another coastal bird, a Tricolored Heron, hung out for a few days on a playa lake just northeast of Washburn at the beginning of October 2023. Ben Sandstrom reported seeing the heron, normally a Texas coastal resident, mixed in with some egrets on a farm-to-market road playa. The next morning, my husband Rohn and I drove to the spot and immediately found the heron feeding in the tall grass with seven Snowy Egrets, a couple dozen Cattle Egrets (now called Western Egrets), 75 White-Faced Ibises, and some other shorebirds.

The Tricolored Heron is hard to spot among Ibises and an Egret

Possibly one of the most exciting of the rare visitors to Amarillo in the fall of 2023 was the Pacific Loon that stayed at Southeast Park for more than a week. Peggy Trosper and I tracked him down on November 4 so that I could add another lifer to my list after Sherry Adkins and Craig and Janice Allen had discovered him. The lake at Southeast Park is not large, so seeing the Loon anywhere on the lake would have been exciting. But this bird was definitely ready for his close-up. He often swam near and even under the fishing pier, giving birders great looks at him. He had excited photographers pulling in their zoom lens to their shortest lengths to capture every feather and water droplet. Kathy Durrett laughed that the Pacific Loon became the most photographed bird in the Panhandle once his picture was initially posted on the Birds of the Texas Panhandle Facebook page.

Pacific Loon at Southeast Park in Amarillo

But the fun didn't end in November with the Pacific Loon. In the beginning of December, a rare (for Texas) Pine Grosbeak was spotted at Lake Palo Duro near Spearman in the northern Panhandle. The next day, Barrett Pierce and I drove up there and found the beautiful bird almost immediately in the well-kept Dedication Park on the dry side of the dam. Normally found in Canada, Alaska and the northern Rocky Mountains, Pine Grosbeaks are known for being relatively tame, and this one was no different. We were able to get close and take plenty of pictures while the reddish pink finch munched on hackberries and willow leaf sprouts.

Pine Grosbeak at Lake Palo Duro

During the 2023 Christmas Bird Count that covered Palo Duro Canyon, Lake Tanglewood, and nearby playas, Tom Johnson, Hap Hamous and Bill Bordelon spotted another visitor from the far north, a Long-tailed Duck, who was turning lazy circles in a small pond near River Falls subdivision. She only stayed there for one day, but one day was all we needed for her to be an exciting addition to that bird count. Long-tailed ducks log the most time underwater of any duck, diving as deep as 200 feet and staying submerged three to four times longer than they spend on the surface. She probably was dissatisified with a muddy Texas pond that was only a couple of feet deep, so she didn't stay long.

Long-tailed Duck on a playa near River Falls subdivision in December 2023

Finally, in early December, a big brown immature gull that had been hanging out a Southeast Park in Amarillo since the beginning of November, was positively identified as a Yellow-footed Gull when Janice Allen posted a picture on the North American Gulls Facebook page. This species of gull lives exclusively around the Gulf of California in Baja, Mexico. But this first winter bird made the journey to Amarillo to spend a couple of months living with (and stealing fish from) the local Ring-billed Gulls. The Amarillo bird is the first ever sighting of a Yellow-footed Gull in the State of Texas, so he became quite a celebrity. Every day in December, birders from around the state scanned the pier and lake at Southeast Park with their binoculars, hoping for a sighting. And usually, the bird bird cooperated. I checked on him about once a week, just to make sure he was still around (and to assist downstate birders with identifying him). He was present for the 2nd annual Tascosa/Seyffert Christmas Bird Count, which covers much of the city of Amarillo. Excitingly, he was the only Yellow-footed Gull reported in the United States across all of the 2023 Christmas Bird Counts.

Yellow-footed Gull trying to steal a meal

All of these rare visitors, except the Pine Grosbeak, appeared to be immature birds. The informative Cornell University website, All About Birds, explains. "Some birds, often juveniles, disperse northward after the breeding season in what is referred to as post-breeding or vagrant wandering. This is especially common with some herons and ibises." That could easily account for the Tricolored Heron's appearance in the Panhandle of Texas this fall. But why three Pacific water birds showed up 1000 miles east of their usual habitat is baffling. Almost as crazy is trying to figure out why the birds who are happier in the frozen areas of North America, like the Pine Grosbeak and the Long-tailed Duck, spent any time this winter in the Texas Panhandle.

New birders often ask me how to find out about rare birds in our area. The two best sources that I am aware of are eBird and the birding pages on Facebook, including our own Birds of the Texas Panhandle. We now have about 3500 members on that Facebook page, and many local birders are very generous in letting the members quickly know when an exciting bird shows up. Other good FB pages to check include Birds of Texas, Texas Chase Birds, Texbirds, and Birding Texas.

eBird sends out rare birds alerts to those eBird members who have requested those notifications. I get email alerts from 15 Texas Panhandle counties and Lubbock County whenever a birder reports a bird that eBird's algorithim considers rare. I also get an email list from the whole state of New Mexico of every rare bird spotted the day before. Because of the small number of birders in New Mexico, that list is not too overwhelming and many counties in New Mexico are close enough to warrant a day trip to see a rare bird, such as the Cape May Warbler that hung out at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales in the winter of 2022.

Cape May Warbler at ENMU in Portales, NM in February 2022

The Texas rare bird eBird alert, on the other hand, is just an exercise in frustration for a Texas Panhandle bird nerd. The state is so big and is such a magnet for rare birds, but most of them are located too far away for me to often chase. Many of them show up on the border with Mexico and on the Texas coast. Yes, I know you all are seeing an fantastically photogenic Cattle Tyrant in Texas for the first time ever because they never are spotted north of the Panama Canal. But Corpus Christi is 650 miles from here, I have a full-time law practice and I don't own a private plane! As much as I would love to take off for South Texas every time another incredible rarity is reported, my respect for my mental health requires that I don't subscribe to statewide Texas rare bird lists any more.

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