PHOTOS BY VICKI WILMARTH AND JAMES HAMOUS
Amarillo attorney Vicki Wilmarth admits she has been known to, in her words, “sneak out of the office” on a random weekday afternoon. She might head to Southeast Park or the secluded Rick Klein trails, located across the city from her office near The Colonies.
“Fortunately, I am my own boss,” says this longtime employment and business transactions lawyer. She keeps binoculars and her camera in the car for those quick getaways.
What coaxes her away from her world of employment contracts and severance agreements? Wilmarth admits she’s pursuing a wily adversary.
This one has feathers.
“Everybody has a nemesis bird,” she says. “Mine is a Long-Eared Owl. Somebody saw one near Rick Klein Sports Complex over the last month or two. I am very itchy when I know there’s a bird nearby of a species I have not seen.”
Wilmarth is a birder. And in the Texas Panhandle, she’s far from alone.
She is one of the founders and administrators of Birds of the Texas Panhandle, a private Facebook group with nearly 3,000 members. She’s also an instructor at Amarillo College’s eight-week “Birding in the Texas Panhandle” continuing education class, which opened in March and quickly reached maximum capacity.
Birding is, perhaps surprisingly, very popular in the Texas Panhandle, and continues to take flight among local residents.
“Amarillo is sitting on a flyway through the middle of the U.S.,” Wilmarth explains. North American birds travel from north to south in the winter, but don’t cross the Rocky Mountains. As a result, this funnels a lot of birds through this area. “We get wonderful migrants coming through in spring and fall,” she says. The migration begins in mid-March and continues through June, bringing hundreds of unique species to the sheltered canyons and playas of the Panhandle.
These might be Orange-Crowned Warblers, Bullock’s Orioles, rarely seen Vermilion Flycatchers, and rainbow-hued Painted Buntings (an especially colorful species that draws birders to Palo Duro Canyon from across the state every summer). Local birders flock to destinations around Amarillo and throughout the Panhandle hoping to spot these birds.
Some, like Wilmarth, intend to photograph them, as well. She and her husband, Rohn, are both photographers with a passion for the outdoors. Those interests attracted her to birding several years ago. “We are national parks fans and have a camper, so we spend a lot of time outside in nature,” she says. “There are places, like the Panhandle of Texas, where you’re not going to see big mammals. What we do see in the Panhandle are birds.”
As she photographed birds, she found herself wanting to know what she was seeing. She bought a field guide to help identify the species. Before long, she’d caught the worm, so to speak. “I think of myself as a photographer first who, just in the past five years, has taken on birding. I really enjoy it,” she says.
Most weekends in the spring or fall will find Wilmarth hiking around bodies of water in the Panhandle, camera in hand. “The Texas Panhandle has a treasure trove of neat places to bird,” she says. Palo Duro Canyon is at the top of most birders’ lists, but that’s not the only good destination. “There are smaller, more unexpected places like Rita Blanca Lake near Dalhart, Lake Fryer outside Perryton, and Lake Meredith. If it’s got water, it’s got birds,” she says.
She’s seen fish-hunting Ospreys at McDonald Lake near John Stiff Park. She’s photographed American White Pelicans at Southeast Park. And both inside the city and outside—like at McGee Lake behind Tyson Foods—she’s watched Bald Eagles who stop here during the winter months. “They come around November 1 and are gone by March,” she says of the patriotic bird of prey. “They usually go nest and breed in areas north of here.”
But the Long-Eared Owl continues to elude her. “I’m a naturally competitive person—that’s probably why I’m a lawyer—and there’s definitely a competitive element to birding. We keep lists of records. I definitely know how many birds I have seen in each county I have birded in. I know which ones I’m missing. There’s a challenge to it that’s a lot of fun.”
Dr. James “Hap” Hamous is a fellow birder who helped launch the local birding Facebook group, organized the AC class and who has been active in the birding community for nearly four decades. A retired clinical pathologist, Hamous met Kenneth Seyffert upon arriving in Amarillo in the 1980s. He describes the late Seyffert—a former president of the Texas Panhandle Audubon Society and founding member of the Texas Bird Records Committee—as the “guru of birding” in the Panhandle. Seyffert’s meticulous research led to the publication of the guidebook Birds of the Texas Panhandle in 2001, and Hamous spent more than 15 years learning from him.
Also a photographer, Hamous is drawn to birding for the conservation elements, the interest in data and record-keeping—he’s involved in annual Christmas bird counts with the Audubon Society—and the human drive for collection. Like accumulating rare coins, collecting bird sightings fulfills that compulsion or habit.
“It’s like finding or seeing rare things. You want your collection to be complete,” he says. “There are a lot of people who’ll say ‘I want to see a White Wagtail’ or ‘I want to see a Bluethroat.’”
Hamous has taken multiple trips to indulge his birding passion, from a 16-day Alaska excursion last summer to spending spring migration on the Texas Gulf Coast. “I’m a scientist by training,” he says. “I just like being outdoors and love nature. I also like fly fishing. I can’t decide whether to take pictures, look at birds or catch fish.”
He and his friend Thomas Johnson, another retired physician mentored by Seyffert, have been birding together since the 1980s. “Tom and I will go birding sunup to sundown,” he says. Hamous recognizes that not everyone sees the value in, for instance, tramping around Thompson Park or Lake Meredith looking for a flash of color, but the value of any experience is always relative.
“Take golf, for instance. You break it down to the basics and you’re chasing a ball around a pasture so you can drop it into a hole after hitting it four times. That doesn’t really make sense,” he says, grinning. “But golfers are very enthusiastic about it.”
Hamous and his fellow birders are just as passionate. “From afar, [you think] why the hell are those two guys out there with binoculars in 40-degree weather looking at birds? Well, it’s fun. I learn stuff. I don’t know that I can explain all the reasons, but I just like it.”
Eyes on the Sparrow
“Birds are fascinating when you look at them,” Micah Schulze says. A seventh-grade English teacher at Randall Junior High, he’s in his 10th year as an educator but has only been birding since he moved to Canyon a few years ago. The house he rented with his wife and young family had large kitchen windows. After seeing two cardinals one day, Schulze decided he wanted a bird feeder. “I liked the visual entertainment of it,” he says.
Before long he was googling “birds in my backyard” so he could identify the birds enjoying his feeder. Then he became immersed in YouTube videos. Then he bought a field guide. He found himself borrowing his father-in-law’s binoculars and taking them to Palo Duro Canyon so he could watch and identify the birds there.
Schulze realized he’d become a birder. “A lot of people don’t notice birds and I used to be one [of those] who did not. But when you intentionally are looking at them, you notice how striking they are,” he says. “When you can go out and see birds and identify them, there’s a celebrity effect.” He recently spotted a White-Breasted Nuthatch. “I had never seen one, and when I saw it in person it looked fake. It’s like seeing a celebrity in the flesh. It doesn’t seem real.”
Schulze isn’t a photographer, but he keeps track of the birds he’s seen and makes sure to tell his students about them. He hopes they’ll become interested. “With birds, you get away from everything. For a student, the drama and ordeal of figuring out where you are in the world—you can put all that aside for a moment. You can step into a natural environment and see beauty. The more you see it, the more you’re aware of it. You can just sit there and see each individual bird in the moment,” he explains.
With a young family, he’s not able to travel or “chase birds” like more established fellow birders, but Schulze has already embraced the mindfulness and conservation mindset that drives this community of hobbyists.
Wilmarth confirms it. “When I see a bird and am trying to identify it, that’s all I can focus on,” she says. “I’m trying to figure out if the bird has a spotted breast or a striped breast or a plain breast.”
The photographic aspect puts her equally in the present, as she manipulates the settings of her camera to follow a bird flitting from light into shadow. Outdoors, attentive to the details of the natural world surrounding her, she finds an escape from professional responsibilities.
“You have to be outside and personally active to see the birds,” she points out. And you have to step away from a desk and an office. “As much as I love my clients, I have to get away from that sometimes. It takes me away from my job and my worries and puts me in the moment.”
In and around Amarillo, the local birding community is having its own moment, as locals pay attention to the feathered residents who share our skies and landscape.
A couple years ago, Wilmarth noticed tiny, bright-yellow Wilson’s Warblers in her backyard. “I said something to Anette Carlisle, who’s a big birder, and I said, ‘I can’t believe it. I’ve never had these in my backyard.’ And Anette said, ‘Yes you have. You just didn’t notice.’ It really is a matter of seeing things through new eyes.”
According to Kenneth D. Seyffert’s Birds of the Texas Panhandle, avian life is abundant in this region. Around 600 species of birds have been observed in Texas, and sightings of approximately 400 of them have been confirmed in the Panhandle, from massive Great Blue Herons to tiny Black-Chinned Hummingbirds.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates around 45 million Americans are birders, a hobby that expanded during the pandemic as people began spending more time at home and paying closer attention to their neighborhoods.