The Eagles of Amarillo
Updated: Jan 12
More than 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 and fowl 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. 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.
During the winter of 2021-2022, it was not uncommon for me to see at least a dozen Bald Eagles gathered near McGee Lake at one time. One day I saw seven eagles lined up on a center pivot while another seven or eight scavenged together in a newly-plowed field nearby.
Here are some of the places I have reliably spotted Bald Eagles around Amarillo during the past three winters:
Bald Eagles also have been spotted and reported to eBird by birders 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 you can often see eagles as you drive to the airport. I've also seen them fly through Thompson Park, John Stiff Park and Greenways Park, but they don't tend to stay in those more populated, busy areas.
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 whenever 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. My philosophy is to take thousands of eagle pictures and eventually I'll have some I like!
As for Golden Eagles, I've only spotted one in the Texas Panhandle. Barrett Pierce suggested I search for them on FM 767 between Channing and the New Mexico state line. Low and behold, I briefly saw one and got one unsatisfactory picture. But the telltale golden nape was visible and I got to watch the stunning raptor fly, so I wasn't disappointed.
Like most people, 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 to see for more than a couple of minutes was seen from a very long distance when Rohn and I were camping near Taos along the Rio Grande River. He was munching on a crow or magpie that he had taken down. He stayed in that one area for over 45 minutes, despite the fact that he was constantly being bombarded by magpies and crows while he dined.
Golden Eagles are not exactly rare in the Panhandle, but they are much less common than Bald Eagles. According to fellow Panhandle bird nerds, besides deserted country roads like FM 767, if you want to see one, Lake Meredith, Palo Duro Canyon State Park and Buffalo Lake NWR are the most likely places in the Panhandle to spot a Golden Eagle.