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  • Writer's pictureVicki Wilmarth

McClellan Lake Birding and Camping

Red-headed Woodpeckers have found something they really like at McClellan Lake in Gray County (just off I-40 near McLean). I don't know if it is the tall cottonwoods, the abundant grasses and flowers or some tasty water bugs, but in the summer, the small US Forest Service lake and national grassland hosts dozens of these photogenic birds.

My husband and I camped at McClellan Lake over the 2021 Memorial Day weekend. The campsites are first come, first serve. Expecting a crowd, since everyone in America seems to have bought a camper during the pandemic and the campgrounds have been full ever since, we arrived early afternoon on Friday. To our surprise, we secured a lovely lakeside campsite with 30 (-ish) amp electric and water hookups on the quieter east end of the area for $15 per night. Even more surprising, the campgrounds remained only about 75% full over the weekend, even though the lake is popular with ATV riders.

On Saturday, birdsong woke Rohn and me long before the 6:30 sunrise. Recent abundant rains had helped to bring the lake level up slightly (although it is shallow and completely unsuitable for boats). The weekend temps never got above 75 degrees and it was cool enough to enjoy a campfire at night. This area was badly burned during a terrible wildfire 15 years ago, but the damage is hardly noticeable now. We really couldn't have asked for better weather and a more pleasant place to camp.

And the colorful summer birds were very cooperative with this amateur photographer.

Cliff swallows swarmed the lake shore to gather mud balls for their nests, which covered the top of the group picnic enclosure.

Yellow-billed cuckoos' guttural calls echoed off the canyon walls. Normally so elusive, it was easier to spot and photograph cuckoos at McClellan Lake than anywhere else I have tried in the Texas Panhandle.

Orioles, both Orchard and Bullock's Orioles, were singing and flitting all over the campground. The orange flash of the males was almost so frequent it was distracting. But the subtle beauty of the female Bullock's Oriole on a blooming yucca plant provided my favorite portrait of the weekend.

My favorite lazy afternoon pastime that weekend (while Rohn napped) was watching the Red-Headed Woodpeckers act like flycatchers. Instead of drilling into the many trees, some of the RHWOs perched on stumps, posts and even old campsite grills to find and then aerobatically chase bugs.

We also observed Wild Turkeys, ducks, Coots, Cormorants, Killdeer, Kingbirds (both Eastern and Western), Dickcissels, nesting Common Grackles and their noisier cousins the Great-tailed Grackles, Barn Swallows, Chimney Swifts, Black-Crowned Night Herons, Great Blue Herons, Eastern Phoebes, Blue Grosbeaks, Painted Buntings, and others. The only birds that I was surprised to have not spotted on this trip to McClellan Lake were Eastern Bluebirds and a bigger variety of Flycatchers.

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