By Tom Harvery
Travel time from:
- Austin - 8.5 hours /
- Brownsville - 13.5 hours /
- Dallas - 6 hours /
- El Paso - 9.5 hours /
- Houston - 10 hours /
- San Antonio - 9 hours
- Lubbock - 3.5 hours
Prairie chickens and other attractions are luring more travelers to Texas’ northern frontier.
Hurtling across the tabletop plains of the Texas Panhandle at interstate highway velocity, the typical traveler might conclude that this region contains a lot of flat nothing. The typical traveler would be wrong. Closer inspection reveals an abundance of wildlife, scenery and history on the High Plains.
Head northeast from Amarillo on Highway 60 to the Canadian River and you’ll find a land of hills, valleys and trees and, most importantly, water. Streams and ponds off the Canadian and Washita Rivers create green corridors. Groundwater feeds wells and prairie ecosystems.
I have come to see the lesser prairie-chicken do its famous spring mating display. That may sound funny, but seeing these birds strut and “boom” in dawn’s gray light on some of the continent’s last native prairie is a rare treat.
At 6:15 a.m., we arrive at Jim Bill Anderson’s ranch east of Canadian. The vehicles bump gently along the dirt road. About 1,000 yards from the bird blind, we kill the lights and engines and get out and walk. The stars burn in the heavens, still no trace of dawn.
Dick Wilberforce, an expert birder and guide, is leading Travis Audubon’s Jeff Mundy, BirdLife International’s Gerard Bertram of Boston and two chaps from England, all of them fit to bust with stifled excitement about seeing the lesser prairie-chicken.
Wilberforce is gentle and friendly, but he’s serious about not disturbing the lek, the patch of prairie where the birds gather for the big mating dance.
We slip into the blind, a 12-by-8-foot plywood box. There’s a row of chairs along window holes covered with flaps of fabric that you lift up to peep out. We wait, whispering, in the dark. The impenetrable blackness inside the blind slowly turns to gray. Dawn is coming.
The flock arrives in a flutter of wings, followed by the unmistakable cooing, burbling call of male prairie chickens. We gingerly lift the window flaps and peer out.
Like a curtain rising, the light grows and we start to see the shapes of chickens hopping about. They’re about a foot long from beak to tail feather tip.
The males face off, sitting inches apart, and puff out their distinctive cheek pouches, which bulge red-orange when full. After a few seconds, one or both will flap into the air. Others motor around like toddlers on a rampage, drumming their feet rapidly on the ground. This ritual is the prairie chickens’ famed “booming,” on which Plains Indian ceremonial dances were fashioned.
As the sun comes up, light bathes the rolling prairie, and the viewing just gets better and better. These birders have the latest, greatest spotting scopes, but you don’t need gear to see here.
Immersed in their mating display and clearly accustomed to the blind, the prairie chickens come within 10 feet of us. One bird flutters up on top of the blind. We can hear it scuffling around up there and calling.
The birders are blown away. They’d just been to Colorado to see the Gunnison sage-grouse, but there the birds were hundreds of yards away.
“The lesser prairie-chicken is a magic bird, incredibly rare,” says Alan Martin of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Britain’s largest conservation group, with more than a million members. “This is a special place where you can come and view them in close proximity. Texas is becoming an extremely famous birding site for international visitors. But most tend to go south to the Gulf Coast, and they’re missing out on wildlife spectacles such as this.”
While the prairie chickens’ mating ritual is the most spectacular wildlife viewing opportunity in the area, it’s not the only one. The Panhandle-Plains Wildlife Trail map showcases places to see burrowing owls, black-tailed prairie dogs and other natural wonders. The complementary Texas Plains Trail map features sites of historical significance.
In 1874–75, the U.S. Army subdued the Southern Plains tribes in the Red River Wars. The natives lost their homelands and were moved to Oklahoma reservations. The wild bison were nearly extirpated. The vast plains were opened to railroads, ranching, farming and settlement. This story is told in myriad ways in small town museums throughout the eastern Panhandle, each offering a unique piece of the puzzle.
Both tourism trails were recently completed in partnership with hundreds of towns, ranchers and other local partners — people like Janet Parnell, a fourth generation rancher who helped create the plains trail and supports the River Valley Pioneer Museum in Canadian.
“My great grandfather came to Mobeetie [35 miles south of Canadian] in 1884 as the first Presbyterian minister in the Texas Panhandle,” Parnell says. “He died in 1886 from pneumonia he got while fording a swollen creek. My great-grandmother sent her oldest son out to find land with wood and water. He found a section on the Washita River in the southern part of Hemphill County, where they lived in a little dugout until they could get lumber to build their house. It’s been said my great-grandmother was the first woman engaged in agriculture in the Panhandle.”
In 1886, the railroad came through and created Canadian, a crew-change terminal on the Santa Fe line. The town is named for the Canadian River, which has nothing to do with that big cold country up north, but gets its name from the Spanish word cañada, which I was told means “box canyon.”
Tourism is starting to bustle in Canadian, with plenty to do and see, and places to eat and stay. But it wasn’t always that way.
“This town was literally just about to blow off the map and die,” says Mundy, who’s been leading birding groups in the Canadian area for eight years. “Like so many farm and ranch communities around the state, it was losing its economic base. But a handful of citizens decided they would not let their town go down without a fight. They looked carefully and asked, ‘What can we do that will generate a livelihood for us and at the same time maintain the land in a natural state, the way we love it?’ Instead of ending up with a factory or railyard, they took a risk and turned to nature tourism.”
The result was the Texas Prairie Rivers Region, a 15-county tourism venture where private landowners allow public access to their properties. Since 2001, the organization has funneled $5 million in outside grant funding to private land conservation.
Canadian also used grants to renovate 16 historic buildings, reviving the town’s “Nineteen Teens” era look and feel. Down came overhead electric lines and 1950s light poles. In went red brick streets, 10-foot-wide sidewalks and ramps for wheelchairs and strollers.
On the town’s western edge is the restored Canadian River Wagon Bridge, a wood trestle bridge offering excellent birding along the scenic, tree-lined river. A 12-mile trail allows hikers and bikers to take the scenic route west from the bridge to Gene Howe Wildlife Management Area, Lake Marvin and the Black Kettle National Grasslands. A series of sidewalks and trails also connects the bridge with downtown.
The nearby town of Lipscomb is home to another showy bird: the wild turkey. A semi-urban flock sometimes gathers on the courthouse lawn, fostering a local T-shirt that says “Population: People 42, Turkeys 157.”
Luke Lewis is a former National Wild Turkey Federation biologist who has also served as the conservation director for the Texas Prairie Rivers Region. Today he’s leading local landowner Gary Jahnel on his first turkey hunt.
He builds a blind from downed tree limbs and we hunker down to wait, trying to stay motionless. A coyote trots by, sniffing the air, but no turkeys.
Finally, at dusk, a long line of about 40 turkeys led by old long-bearded gobblers struts past us, headed for trees by the creek. The flock never gets close enough for Gary to take a shot. The turkeys ascend to their roosts and then call it a night.
As we do the same, I look forward to sharing my experiences and encouraging more people to enjoy the amazing sights and sounds to be found in the northern tip of Texas.
Texas Prairie Rivers Region, (806) 323-5397,
Texas Plains Trail, (806) 273-0920, <www.texasplainstrail.com>
Panhandle Plains Wildlife Trail, (512) 389-4505,