Playa Lakes are the Lifeblood of the Texas Panhandle
Updated: Dec 16, 2019
Playa lakes provide water, food and shelter to migratory and local birds and have become one of this bird nerd's favorite destinations.
The first places I visited when I started birding in 2019 were two playa lakes in Randall County. One was on Sundown Lane at I-27 and the other was on Helium Road west of Hillside Christian Church. That's where I first saw elegant Black-necked Stilts and American Avocets. Clown-like Killdeer populate almost every playa lake in the Texas Panhandle, and they soon became familiar friends. Red-winged blackbirds suddenly appeared beautiful when studied more closely in the grasses surrounding a playa. And, of course, my favorites, the hawks, are always flying around playa lakes because of the abundance of prey.
One memorable afternoon in August, I noticed a huddle of large brown birds at the Raptor Prairie Dog Town playa in Moore County. I couldn't see them clearly until they were buzzed by a Northern Harrier. I took pictures of them in the air and finally identified them from the photos. It was a group of 50+ Long-Billed Curlews, a new bird for me and one which generated one of my first rare bird alerts (because it was unusually early for them to have returned to the Panhandle) from my eBird checklist. That experience made me love playa lakes even more.
Playas are just shallow, usually circular wetlands that dot the landscape all over the Panhandle. Texas Parks and Wildlife says there are 19,000+ playa lakes in our area. They are critical to recharging the Ogallala Aquifer, which is our only groundwater resource in the area. However, playa lakes are ephemeral. They dry up and then a great rain (like the 7" we received during the first week of October 2019) will bring them back to life. Unfortunately, climate change, short-sighted soil and irrigation practices, drought and urbanization have adversely affected many of our playas to the point they may not recover. For example, the huge Cactus Playa just east of Etter was locally famous for hosting thousands of migrating waterfowl every year. It is merely a puddle these days.
The Helium Road playa that I spent so much time viewing in the Spring of 2019 (because it was really convenient to my office) has already been damaged beyond repair to make room for a traffic loop around the west side of Amarillo. I won't be birding there in 2020 because the birds are going to find a more hospitable playa.
There is a helpful map of playa lakes online, organized by state and county. But here a few that I check out as often as possible. I just try to remember to be very careful when stopping to bird on busy streets like the I-40 frontage roads.
East side of intersection of Sundown Lane and I-27 in Amarillo
Westline Road Playa: west on FM 2219 (Lair Road) to the edge of the Randall County line.
Sampson Road Playa: about 2 miles due south of I-40W on Sampson Road.
I-40W Playa: on the south frontage road of I-40W between Bushland Road and Blessen Road.
I-40E Playa: behind the truck wash at I-40E and Lakeside (southeast corner of that intersection).
Greenways Park in southwest Amarillo.
Raptor Prairie Dog Town: FM354 x CR2202 (Moore Co.--west of Hwy 287 about 3 miles).
Here are some birds that I have spotted at various playa lakes in our area: