The Eagles of Amarillo
As many as a dozen Bald Eagles call Amarillo home during the winter months, but they can go unnoticed unless you know where to look for them.
Many of us can recall the thrill of seeing a Bald Eagle in the wild for the first time. I was 22 years old, attending law school in Houston, and driving near Brookshire, Texas, when an eagle flew across the road towards a flock of Snow Geese in a rice field. I almost wrecked the car, then pulled over to just stare as the eagle circled and terrorized the Snow Geese. That was in 1985, when, in one of the great environmental success stories of the 20th century, the eagle population was first starting to bounce back from near extinction after we finally banned harmful pesticides like DDT in America.
But Bald Eagles are still a threatened species and are currently very susceptible to lead poisoning from eating waterfowl and other carrion that have been shot with lead pellets rather than the safer steel shot. The eagles also are rapidly losing habitat to suburban sprawl in Texas and water reservoirs to climate change. So we are lucky that there are several places in Amarillo that they can still be seen.
In West Texas, eagles think that Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs (tastes like chicken!) are a gourmet meal and so the best place to start looking for Bald Eagles in Amarillo is in one of our many large prairie dog towns. If the prairie dog town is near water, there is even a greater chance that an eagle might hang out there (apparently they like the taste of duck also). Lake Tanglewood may be the only place near Amarillo that Bald Eagles congregate for a strictly fish diet.
When scouting for Bald Eagles, I try to pull safely off of the road near a prairie dog town and then check with my binoculars all the high places (power poles, tree tops, windmills) where an eagle might perch. Eagles are reliably attracted to the exact same tree or the same pole year after year and can often be found sitting in the same spot for hours. I also scan the skies and look for stirred up birds, like ducks suddenly taking flight, to see if they have been buzzed by an eagle. If I see any large bird take flight, I immediately track it with my camera and start snapping photos.
If it is a windy day (and when is it not a windy day in Amarillo?), the eagles often can be spotted on the ground taking shelter from the wind or munching on a prairie dog. On February 8, 2020, I saw five Bald Eagles near the intersection of Masterson Rd. and St. Francis (near the Tyson plant and McGee Lake). One was on a power pole, but four of them were on the ground in the middle of a prairie dog town, including the one pictured at the top of this blog post (who was only a few yards off of the road and tolerated my presence for about 30 seconds before flying away). On breezy days like that one in February, you can usually spot other raptors also taking shelter from the wind on the ground. That day, I saw a juvenile Bald Eagle, a Ferruginous Hawk, and a Northern Harrier all sitting in a field within a few feet of one another. They looked like they had gotten together for coffee.
Here are some of the places I have reliably spotted Bald Eagles around Amarillo during the past two winters:
Bald Eagles also have been spotted and reported to eBird by birders this year at Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge, the prairie dog town just west of Randall High School (Sundown Lane and Bell), Whitaker Road near the Fritch Highway and in the prairie dog town east of Airport Boulevard (NE 3rd and Pullman Road), where there is a mated pair of mature Bald Eagles hanging out together.
Bald Eagles are notorious for sitting on the most distant power pole or flying just out of range of even the longest camera lens. So I have lots of bad shots of eagles from around Amarillo. But any time I spot a huge football shape in a tree or on a pole, I still try to get the picture of the eagle regardless of how far away he/she is because I just can't resist this magnificent bird.
As for Golden Eagles, I've never been fortunate enough to spot one in the Texas Panhandle. I've mistaken brown juvenile Bald Eagles for Golden Eagles, but since I always take pictures of the interesting birds that I see, I've been able to correct my mistake after blowing up the photo, studying it and realizing that the bird did not have the smaller bill or the golden nape which are reliable field marks for a Golden Eagle.
The only Golden Eagle in the wild that I have ever gotten a photograph of (below) was seen from a very long distance when Rohn and I were camping near Taos along the Rio Grande River.
Golden Eagles are not exactly rare in the Panhandle, but they are much less common than Bald Eagles. According to fellow Panhandle bird nerds, Lake Meredith, Palo Duro Canyon State Park and Buffalo Lake NWR are the most likely places in the Panhandle to spot a Golden Eagle.