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  • Writer's pictureVicki Wilmarth

Chasing Amarillo's Rare Birds

Updated: Nov 20

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 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 the most exciting of the rare visitor 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

All of these rare visitors 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. But why two Pacific water birds showed up 1000 miles east of their usual habitat is baffling.

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 Facebook page for 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.

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 chase. Yes, I know you all are seeing an fantastically photogenic Cattle Tyrant in Texas for the first time ever because they rarely 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! My blood pressure has kindly requested that I don't subscribe to statewide Texas rare bird lists any more.

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