For "nature nerds" and others, playing a game of "count the hawks" is a fun pastime on scenic drives and winter is a great time since there is an abundance of them here during this time and they’re easy to see with the leaves off the trees.
Northeast Texas is home to a multitude of hawk species. Some are year-round residents, and others live here only seasonally. Still others yet are migrants, just passing through on the long trip north or south.
Hawks all fall into the "raptor" category, which simply means "bird of prey" — no vegetarian birds here. Eagles, owls, falcons, ospreys, kites, and others also fall into this category. A raptor is easily identified by its strong, sharp talons and sharp, hooked bill. Those traits, in addition to their incredibly keen eyesight and exceptional hearing, make them the ultimate hunting machines.
The hawk family is further broken down into buteos and accipiters. Buteos are typically hawks of the open country and the ones folks are most likely to see. They have broad wings and short tails that allow them to soar on thermals as they scan for their (typically) mammal prey. The most common and readily identifiable hawk in northeast Texas is a buteo called the red-tailed hawk. These large hawks will eat nearly anything they can get their claws on, including road kill, although rodents make up the largest part of their diet.
These equal-opportunity hunters dive on prey from a perch or a hover, as well as from the circling soaring pattern for which they are known. Spotting a rat or a rabbit from 500-plus feet away is no problem for a red-tail on the hunt.
Red-shouldered hawks are probably the second most common northeast Texas buteo, and as the name says, they can be readily identified by the rusty-red coloration on their shoulders. Unlike their red-tailed (and other buteo) cousins, red-shouldered hawks are equally happy hunting in open country or the woodlands. Not only do they perch and pounce like many of the hawk species, they also "course" in a low search pattern in open areas, looking for telltale prey movement.
Accipiters are woodland hawks, characterized by slim bodies, short rounded wings, and long tails that enable them to quickly maneuver through trees while they are in hot pursuit of their songbird prey. A hawk picking a bird off of a feeder, is most likely an accipiter. Two accipiters common to northeast Texas, especially in the winter, are the cooper’s hawk and the sharp-shinned hawk. Although they are somewhat difficult to tell from each other, one way to help tell them from the soaring buteos is that accipiters commonly use a "flap and glide" flight pattern. These birds are masters of the sneak attack where they sit on a hidden perch and then quickly dart out, dodging and weaving through trees to chase down a passing bird or mammal.
There are other raptors that are allowable for points in a friendly game of "hawk patrol" although they are not actually hawks. The tiny bug-eating kestrel falcon is always a plentiful points-earner in the wintertime. Likewise, the cool hair-do crested caracara, sometimes known locally as a "Mexican eagle," is a favorite, although it’s a closer relative of a vulture or falcon than an eagle. When crossing over lakes be on the lookout for fish-hunting bald eagles and ospreys as well.
With more than 30 species of hawks and their close relatives recorded in Texas, there’s plenty of windshield birding to amuse for many miles on down the road.