County Listing Guide in the Southern High Plains
Published with permission from Peter Keyel, revised 01/26/19
With the exception of Lubbock, the South Plains are very underbirded. This means there is a paucity of hotspots, many rarities go unfound, and ebird tools are less helpful than in other counties. It is also an opportunity to find new birding locations and learn how to identify good birding spots. In general, most of the region is private property, with either no access, or only access from the road. Fences, signs and purple paint on trees/fence posts/etc all indicate “No Trespassing” in Texas, and the laws strongly favor landowners over trespassers. Many of the roads shown on Google maps may be private, so it is best to scout areas and have backups in case your planned route doesn’t quite work. In general, assume that TX highways, Farm-to-Market (FM) and Ranch-to-Market (RM) roads are paved, while most county roads are dirt. These can rapidly become impassible following rains, and may remain too muddy to navigate even a few days after heavy rainfall. Be careful out on county roads because AAA towing stipulates towing with “standard equipment”, which is usually from the nearest paved road. If you are half a mile down a dirt road, that will not help you. In 2016, I had better success with the Geico emergency roadside service included with my car insurance because they arranged for a 4x4 tow to extract my vehicle from mud about a mile down a dirt county road. If other insurance companies offer roadside emergency services, it is worth checking if they will tow from dirt roads. A final birding challenge is that much of the habitat is cotton fields, oil/wind land and ranching. The upside is that even small copses of trees can prove to be great migrant traps on the right day.
To find birding spots on your own, the main two draws are trees and water. Trees are most concentrated around towns, and birding the alleyways and streets can yield some good migrants or rare passerines. Outside of towns, some homes may have planted a large number of trees for privacy or as wind breaks. Birding these places should be done carefully, as people are wary of strangers lingering around. Google satellite images can help reveal large concentrations of trees. Finding reliable water is trickier. Water levels fluctuate based on rainfall, and some counties may be wet when others are drying out. Google maps does not reliably show wet areas, and not every playa may be filled under most conditions. It is possible to use Landsat imagery can show currently wet playas (within last 16 days), though some playas worth birding may only be a few pixels wide. Sewage ponds often have embankments, so observers may need to stand on their vehicle to see in to the ponds, though treatment ponds are otherwise typically good sources of water. Feedlots often have ponds visible from the road as well. Small draws (eg places that have a creek in very wet years) often hold passerines even when dry, and may be worth stopping to bird. The caprock edge is also typically better habitat.
While expert birders may get 90-100+ species in a single day of birding in most of these counties, it is probably better to expect that it will require several trips to get 100 species. For example, it took me ~10 trips to Cochran and Lamb in all seasons to get those lists barely over 100. For difficult counties, you may need to bird in all 4 seasons and hope for good migration days. Migration in the Southern High Plains is either very good or non-existent. Generally, it seems under good migration conditions, the birds mostly fly over without stopping. When fronts stall them in the area, the lack of habitat concentrates them in a few areas, which can give excellent species diversity. Migration can feature Eastern, Western or both Eastern and Western species so some species groups may require more consideration in the region than elsewhere (eg east Texas) due to the overlap of many similar species. Some species common in the eastern parts of Texas are much rarer in the Southern High Plains, so birders should be aware of different potential ID challenges. See “Similar Species” for more information.
Amarillo and Lubbock are the closest “big cities” and will have the most reasonable gas prices. Once you get out of those cities, gas prices will typically increase by 10-50 cents/gallon. Small towns may not even have a gas station, and restaurant choices tend to be extremely limited. While hotels are available in smaller towns like Muleshoe and Brownfield, most of these counties are within 1-1.5 hr drive from Lubbock. RV or tent camping is available in most counties and will provide a better shot at night birds.
I found it helpful to have target goals for different groups of birds. The breakdown that follows is not monophyletic, and the taxonomists reading this may cringe, but it helps make things manageable. The target numbers are based on the average number of species I found across these counties with county list totals 100-120. Consequently, in some counties, you will exceed certain targets easily and fall short in other counties (Belted Kingfisher is easy in Lubbock, tough in Cochran). Passerines account for only 47 of the species because of the challenges in finding good passerine spots on the correct day of migration. In general, waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors, flycatchers, sparrows and icterids are all reasonably diverse.
Misc Waterfowl includes loons, grebes, cormorants, pelicans, boobies, etc Diurnal Raptors include vultures, hawks, osprey and eagles but EXCLUDES falcons and owls Cuckoos include Greater Roadrunner, Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Black-billed Cuckoo Parid/parid-like birds are nuthatches, creepers, chickadees, titmice, kinglets, gnatcatchers Small taxa include anis, Monk Parakeet, larks, Verdin, pipits, starlings, waxwings, Phainopepla Finches/HOSP include finches, crossbills and House Sparrow
- Bailey County
- Cochran County
- Crosby County
- Floyd County
- Garza County
- Hale County
- Hockley County
- Lamb County
- Lubbock County
- Lynn County
- Terry County
- Yoakum County
Potentially Challenging Species in the Southern High Plains
Geese Snow/Ross are both present, so individual geese must be carefully examined. Large flocks of Snow will often have several Ross’s Geese mixed in.
Cackling/Canada: Lesser Canadas are prevalent, as are Cackling. Bill shape (short and stubby) and bulging forehead on Cackling are the best fieldmarks. Dark breast, neckbands and size are not reliable. Cackling Geese tend to form less ordered flocks in flight.
Hybrid Geese are a particular challenge in the Southern High Plains. Any “dark” or “blue” phase Snow/Ross’s Goose should be carefully scrutinized to rule out hybridization with Canada/Cackling. Key features present in hybrids are weird bill shapes, aberrant dark feathering on the head, and most especially lack of white frosting on feathers on the body/rear of the goose. The presence of a dark tail band in flight may also be a helpful ID feature. Please photograph these birds and post to ebird with your best determination of parentage. To assign parentage, check size relative to other geese, presence/absence of a grin patch and bill structure.
Swans Although Tundra Swan is more common, both swans are rare to the region and should be carefully examined.
Ducks Most ducks present the usual challenges, though the Mallard complex requires special care here. Domestic mallards are present at most in-town playas year-round. All extremely weird looking ducks (except domestic Muscovies) are most likely domestic Mallard offspring or hybrids. Domestic mallards have heavier bodies than wild mallards. Mexican Duck can also occur in the region, and must be identified with care, as hybrids are more common in the region. Main points to check for Mexican Duck are yellow bill (on male), and lack of a curly tail. To rule out hybrids, check tail color (gray/brown on Mexican, any white is a Mallard trait), chest/body contrast (reddish tones in the breast is a Mallard trait), extent of black around the bill (Mexican may have a small black gape spot) and speculum (thin white is Mexican, thick white Mallard, black borders with very thin white is Mottled). Speculum shots are particularly helpful for evaluating Mexican vs Mottled Duck. For other ducks, Greater Scaup is rare, but possible. Scoters and Long-tailed Duck are very rare. Common Merganser is more common than Red- breasted Merganser, but both occur. For females, look for the white chinstrap on Common Merganser.
Cormorants Most cormorants in the area are Double-crested Cormorant, but Neotropic Cormorants do occur. Neotropic Cormorant may be identified by shape (smaller, darker head), lack of orange in the lores, deeper “V” shaped gular patch, and in some cases, the white V bordering the gular.
Night-herons Both Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned occur in the area, so care should be taken in separating juveniles. Black-crowned is more common.
Hawks In winter, Red-tailed Hawk is the most common hawk, but Ferruginous Hawk can look similar. Both Harlan’s Hawk and Rough-legged are also possible, so identify dark raptors with care. In summer, Red- tailed and Swainson’s Hawks are the most common buteos. The usual care should be taken with accipiters, especially in winter.
Shorebirds The usual care should be taken separating these birds. Least Sandpiper is the most common peep. Baird’s Sandpiper occurs far more regularly than White-rumped Sandpiper, but the latter can occur in large flocks in the region. Greater Yellowlegs is more common than Lesser Yellowlegs, but both occur. Long-billed Dowitcher is the default dowitcher in the area.
Hummingbirds Most Archilocus hummingbirds are Black-chinned Hummingbirds, but Ruby-throated Hummingbirds regularly occur at a low density and tend to be more common later in the season. Separate by wing shape, relative tail projection past tail, size and shape of bill and amount of green on the crown. Rufous, Broad-tailed and Calliope Hummingbirds also occur in the region at lower densities.
Woodpeckers Golden-fronted Woodpecker is the default Melanerpes woodpecker, but Red-bellied Woodpecker occurs often enough that Melanerpes should be checked for extent of red on crown and nape and tail pattern. Yellow-bellied and Red-naped Sapsucker both occur in the region, as do sapsucker intergrades. Check multiple ID points, including whether the red throat has a black border and if the barring on the back is one messy column or two neater columns. Flicker intergrades are also common in the region as are both parents, though Red-shafted generally outnumbers intergrades and Yellow- shafted. Yellow-shafted traits include red on nape, black malar, brown face, yellow shafts, while Red- shafted traits include red malar, grey face, red shafts. Intergrades mix and match these field marks and may have yellow, red, or orange shafts.
Flycatchers Both eastern and western Empidonax flycatchers occur, though Alder Flycatcher and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher are very rare. The default Myiarchus flycatcher is Ash-throated, but Great-crested Flycatcher can also be present at low densities during migration. Western Wood-Pewee is the usual pewee, with Eastern Wood-Pewee very rare. Get recordings if you hear/see an Eastern Wood-Pewee. Western Kingbird is most common, but Cassin’s Kingbird may also occur. Couch’s/Tropical are both very rare to the region.
Corvids Chihuahuan Raven vs Common Raven is extremely difficult. White shafts on neck feathers and very long (>1/2 of bill) nasal bristles help for Chihuahuan. Grey shafts of neck feathers and deep croaking helps for Common. Size comparisons to nearby raptors are also very helpful, since Chihuahuan is the same size as Harriers/Buteos while Common is noticeably larger. Habitat is not always reliable because Common Ravens are reported from many counties, even away from the Caprock. In general, Chihuahuan Raven is more abundant and the more likely species. American Crow is locally common, forming large winter flocks (sometimes with Chihuahuan Raven) in Terry, Lynn and Hale counties, but seen far less often in counties like Lubbock (third week in October is the optimal time to find a passing American Crow in Lubbock county).
Swallows Cliff vs Cave vs young Barn Swallow should be identified with care. All three swallows are possible.
Shrikes In winter, both Northern and Loggerhead Shrike may be seen. Identify shrikes with care.
Wrens Bewick’s Wren is more common, but Carolina Wren occurs west to Lubbock.
Bluebirds All three bluebirds are possible in winter. Females can be very challenging to separate. Look for the extent of orange, placement of orange (Eastern has orange on sides of throat) and whether the belly is grey (favors Western) or white (favors Eastern). Primary projection and bill shape can also help separate Mountain from the other two.
Longspurs Chestnut-collared, McCown’s and Lapland Longspurs all occur in the region. ID by rattle and amount of white in the tail.
Warblers Both western and eastern species occur, so special care must be taken for some species that are easy elsewhere. Townsend’s Warbler is more common than Black-throated Green Warbler, but both may occur. Black-throated Gray Warbler is far more likely than Blackpoll Warbler. Audubon’s Warbler is more common than Myrtle, but both occur, as do intergrades. For males, the amount of black in the auriculars and breast and extent of white in wingbars is helpful. Check for yellow in throat patch (Audubon’s) and if the throat patch extends past the eyes (Myrtle). Both Painted and Slate-throated Redstarts are casual to the region. ID by amount of white in wings.
Sparrows All three Spizella sparrows (Clay-colored, Chipping, Brewer’s) occur regularly in the region. White- throated Sparrow is rarer than White-crowned Sparrow. Most White-crowned Sparrows are Gambel’s race. Dark-lored Interior/Eastern birds are rare, but regular. Both Song and Lincoln’s Sparrow occur.
Grosbeaks and buntings Both Rose-breasted and Black-headed Grosbeak occur. Females/young males are challenging to ID. Look for the bicolored bill and amount of streaking on the breast to separate. Similarly, Painted, Indigo and Lazuli Buntings occur. While male buntings are easy to tell apart, females are more challenging.
Meadowlarks Although Western predominates, Eastern occurs regularly. Western Meadowlark, but not Eastern Meadowlark, may “chuck” when flying away. ID without voice is quite challenging, especially in winter, because of feather wear. Amount of white in the tail is not reliable. In western counties, Lilian’s Meadowlark is also possible.
Grackles The smaller grackles in the Great-tailed Grackle flocks are usually female Great-tailed Grackles, not Common Grackles. Common Grackles tend to keep to themselves and are best ID by voice (the nasal ker-chee is diagnostic) and two-toned body.
Goldfinches When they overlap, some Lesser and American Goldfinches can be challenging to ID, especially in winter. Lesser Goldfinch has yellow undertail coverts and a greener back while American Goldfinch has white undertail coverts and a browner back.