Hawks of Utopia

redtailedhawk
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You may wish to just scroll the pix and skip the drivel and drudgery of the discussion. You probably will once you start reading anyway... unless you can't sleep.

Here we will show and discuss the hawks of Utopia. Raptors. Birds of prey. Talons and tearing beaks. In the bird world, high-end top-of-the-food-chain predators. The main groups are Eagles, Falcons, Buteos, Accipiters, Harrier and Kites. Also nocturnal raptors, owls, are included here. And some things that are technically are raptors and sorta resemble them, but are more closely related to storks, the local cleanup crew, the Utopia Air Force, vultures. First we will bore you to tears with some hawk talk. Which feel free to skip if not of interest.

It should be noted, that contrary to some folklore, most hawks and owls eat mostly snakes, mice, and rats, and therefore you should consider them most beneficial to have around. A couple are grasshopper specialists, so also very beneficial, and a few are small bird eaters. Owls are better rat and mouse catchers than man or cat could ever be. All birds of prey are "double protected" by federal law which means your butt is going to be in a sling if you get caught harming one.  :P   Surely folks understand the value in vultures cleaning up all the roadkill. It is a job most would not take, much less with the zeal of a missionary.

Raptor ID can be tricky. Adults are fairly easy, but, immatures are fairly non-descript and similar at a glance. Most take well over a year to acquire adult type plumage. Then there are those hawks that come in light and dark morphs. Which can mean almost anything in between might happen too. Most of the hawks here that are dark morph are Swainson's, but I have seen dark morph Red-tailed, Broad-winged, and Short-tailed here too, just to keep you alert.

There is a technique though that will cut through most of the ID confusion every time. The three S's. The most important thing to learn about raptor ID, and in all bird ID, is size, shape, and structure. The 3 S's. Toss in a little bit of behavior (habits) for good measure and it's all over but the shoutin'. You do not need to see the shaft streaks and feather fringes to ID species. Most good birders can ID Black vs. Turkey Vulture at a mile with ease. Details of plumage are not being used for that.

Almost all raptors with a very few exceptions (small buteos) can be identified by size, shape, and structure at a distance greater than any detail of plumage can be seen. Each type has a unique way of making a living, and a unique structure for that. Subtle differences in wing and tail shapes are structural and learnable. Paying attention to the fine details, Swainson's Hawks are not shaped and structured like Red-tails or Rough-legs, and none are like a Ferruginous. And so on, with virtually all of them. Learn the size, shape and structure. The silhouettes. Hawk watchers ID them at a mile away and further. At the very limit of conjecture as those Cape May Jersey boys said. By size, shape and structure. Sometimes with some habits (behavior) thrown in. Regardless of light or dark morph, or in between, a Swainson's is shaped and structured like a Swainson's, a Red-tail like a Red-tail, and so on, first time every time, all the time, with almost every one of them, no kidding. As long as you ignore this, there will be mis-ID's. Once you learn it, there will be none. It is like magic. The 3 S's.

Utopia and vicinity has great raptor diversity. Below is the main 'hawk' section from the Utopia Bird List page, slightly modified. See that for interpeting any details missing here. Twenty eight species of diurnal raptors is a spectacular showing! With one exception it is just about all the raptors possible in the U.S. The big miss is Rough-legged Hawk which surely has been here, but were far more common this far south in winter 30 and more years ago, than currently. My closest and only area record is off Hwy. 90 west of Sabinal, over a decade ago.

Here is the local Utopia and vicinity hawk list with some minor notations. The list gives the species name followed by some indication of its local status and abundance. What, when, and how often, some with locations or dates, especially for rare types.

Osprey - occasional migrant, once 1 wintered on stocked trout; outfished whole town
Swallow-tailed Kite - accidental July 30, 2009 at Seco Ridge
White-tailed Kite - rare spring & summer; pastures, Seco Ridge
Mississippi Kite - occasional migrant spring or fall
Bald Eagle - very rare late fall and winter; Seco Ridge, Cypress Hollow
Northern Harrier - low density winterer over pastures
Sharp-shinned Hawk - uncommon fall to spring (October to April)
Cooper's Hawk - local in summer, uncommon fall to spring; breeds
Northern Goshawk - very rare winter or spring; March 2014 near UR; Feb.-Apr. 2016;
     March 2017, Dec. 15, 2017 (ph.) in town; May 2, 2019 (ph.)
Roadside Hawk - accidental Jan. 30, Feb. 1 & 8, 2015, UP and nr. UR again in April
    seen again Dec. 2015, and again Oct. 2016, presumed one returning bird.
Gray Hawk - accidental Aug. 14, 2011 at UP; sight report near V'pool; ph. at LMSNA Apr. 2017
Common Black-Hawk - accidental in summer; Seco Ridge; once at LMSNA in 80's
    *most (near all?) LMSNA reports are mis-ID'd Zone-tails
Harris's Hawk - rare transient mostly fall to spring; nests north of Sabinal
Red-shouldered Hawk - uncommon resident; breeds, scarce in winter
Broad-winged Hawk - rare in spring, rare in fall; BRED at LMSNA 2015, 16, & 17!
Short-tailed Hawk - very rare spring early summer; UP, Seco Ridge, LMSNA; X in fall (ph.) Sept. 29, 2016;     a pair @ LM for all of Apr. of 2017
Swainson's Hawk - uncommon migrant spring or fall, often in flocks in fields, or on thermals
Zone-tailed Hawk - uncommon spring to fall, rare in winter; breeds
Red-tailed Hawk - uncommon resident (fuertesi), other types (E. & W.) in winter; breeds
     a) Harlan's Hawk - rare in winter
Ferruginous Hawk - accidental in winter & spring; Seco Ridge; BanCo - M.Killough photo;
White-tailed Hawk- accidental - sight report Jan. 1, 2017 4-5 mi. SSW of Utopia.
Golden Eagle - very very rare in winter
Crested Caracara - uncommon resident; breeds
American Kestrel - common to uncommon fall to spring
Merlin - rare fall to spring, mostly in winter
Aplomado Falcon - accidental thrice late summer to fall; Seco Ridge Sept. 2006 after Lane fallout; Aug 8, 2012;
Peregrine Falcon - rare migrant; usually soaring high overhead
Prairie Falcon - very rare in spring and fall; Seco Ridge, golf course

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Now we will show many of them, particularly the more regularly seen types, with some discussion of local status and ID for most. Which will hopefully help you sort one out. Without buggin' me.    ;).  

The main groups within the generalized broad 'hawk' category are Buteos, Falcons, Eagles, Accipiters, Kites, and Harrier. Placing a bird in the correct group is a good first step to making a correct raptor identification. Good crack birders usually know which group it is in, instantly on sight. That is your mission, should you choose to accept it.

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We will start with buteos (long u like Buick, all vowels long, was how I learned it and how virtually all birders and ornithologists prounounced it in the 60's, 70's, and 80's). These are the typical hawks most folks think of when they think hawk. They usually appear to have a substantial body, long broad wings, often with fingers at the tips if soaring, have a broad but not too long tail, and often are seen soaring or sitting on a pole or in a tree.

Red-tailed Hawk is probably the most common hawk locally. It is the hawk most used by central casting for soundtrack hawk screaming whistles, even often as they show a Bald Eagle.

redtailedhawk


Our resident Red-tailed Hawk are the fuertesi subspecies of the southwest U.S. They are very pale creamy white and barely marked below, without the heavy belly band of Eastern Red-tails, and no dark morphs of western Red-tails, but those types do both occur here as winterers. The dark or black along leading edge of inner wing (patagium) is on almost all Red-tails, and none of the confusing congeners show it. So learn that first.

Below is a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk (of our local fuertesi subspecies). The tail is banded and not red for over a year after fledging. Note how it shows the dark patagium (inner leading edge of wing) of almost all Red-tails. Also note a bit of a belly band like Eastern types, which it loses as it matures becoming creamy white and fairly unmarked below, save the odd fine streaks here and there.

fuertesredtailedhawk


Fuertes' Red-tailed Hawk

Our resident race, subspecies fuertesi, the Fuertes's Red-tail, is named after the great American bird artist Louis Agazziz Fuertes. Check some of his bird painting out. This Red-tail is very clean (but creamy) white below compared to most of the various types of Red-tailed Hawks. Only Krider's type is whiter below, but it does not typically occur here. It is actually more snow white, whereas our Fuertes is distinctly creamy off-white.


Red-tailed Hawk

This is a dark morph Red-tail with mostly chocolate underparts, and upperparts. These are a western subspecies and origin. Our fuertesi, and the eastern Red-tail only come in light morphs. These dark morphs are rare here in winter, note they are brown, not black.

Our local resident Red-tails, like our resident Cooper's Hawks are heavily invaded from the north by others of their species in winter. Of wintering Red-tails that are not our resident breeders here (non-fuertesi Red-tails), the standard eastern type with belly band is the default most common type here by far.


Harlan's Hawk

This is a Harlan's Hawk, which was, and should be, its own species. Some ornithologist taxonomist knuckleheads lumped it into Red-tailed Hawk during one of their lumping phases/crazes. It is black, without a red tail, so obviously a Red-tailed Hawk? The leading expert on them has petitioned to have the erroneous lump undone to no avail. Proving again you can't fix stupid or stubborn.

I see them not quite annually, more often down around Sabinal though, and considering how little I run roads they surely are annual in the area. The lump in the throat is a full crop, from a good meal. There is a very very rare light morph of Harlan's, which I have seen once here.


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Red-shouldered Hawk is probably the next most-seen hawk locally after Red-tailed. It is probably the most heard hawk here though. It was a long time ago called Red-bellied Hawk for the fine red bars on underparts. Fairly noisy, it is often heard.

Red-shouldered Hawk


Red-shouldered Hawk

Note bold black and white barring on wings and tail, and that white tail bands are very narrow, half the width or less, compared to the black ones.


Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk is often seen around town or along river, and nested at the park in 2019. Note the boldly black and white barred tail and wings. Rufous barred underneath and rufous shoulders make it quite a stunning beauty, in case the screaming isn't enough. Usually along or near watercourses. Breeds here, but most depart and only a very few around in winter.


Red-shouldered Hawk

This is one of the juveniles from the Utopia Park nesting in 2019. It takes most hawks over a year to acquire adult plumage. Almost all start out mottled brown above with often messy dark streaks, spots, and-or chevrons on pale underparts below.



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Zone-tailed Hawk is the another fairly regularly seen buteo here. It is a southwestern U.S. specialty and many visitors from eastward have it high on their wanted list. It is the black buteo here. Small numbers winter, many more are here in breeding season. Usually it appears to have one big white band on the tail from below (gray from above). There are 1 or 2 narrow thin white bands closer to the body, inside the obvious big broad white band, which are often hidden or hard to see, save when tail well-fanned. One narrower inner band means male, two narrow inner bands and it is a female.

Zone-tailed Hawk

Zone-tailed Hawk - sorry, dark and underexposed but you can make out the white band on the tail, those are the yellow feet to the right of that, and note the barring on the primaries (wing tips). It is hard to get the settings right when you are flying.



zonetailedhawk

This is an imm. Zone-tailed Hawk that wintered, often roosting at the park.



Zone-tailed Hawk

Zone-tailed Hawk is often seen over town in spring and summer. Black with yellow bill and feet, usually appears "one-banded" on tail. This causes many false claims of Common Black-Hawk. Note Zone-tails shape is much like a Turkey Vulture. If your bird does not have the shape and structure of a Black Vulture (super broad wings with almost no tail) it is not a Black-Hawk. Black-Hawk is shaped like Black Vulture, Zone-tailed Hawk like small Turkey Vulture. So not even close. As different as Turkey and Black Vulture.


zonetailedhawk

This is an immature Zone-tailed Hawk. Note tail does not have a thick snow-white band, but is pale with lots of fine dark bands. The wings are just starting to molt into adult feathers. At inner primaries note just inside the growing-in feather are two with broad black tips. Those are new adult feathers. All flight feathers on the wing will look like that when it finishes replacing the original juvenile or immature feathers. Once present, that thick black frame on trailing edge of wing is an outstanding obvious long-distance character for ID, ensuring that it is not a Turkey Vulture which is silver to the trailing edge. Here, the sun shining through center of tail tells us it has also dropped a central rectrix (tail feather) or two as well.


zonetailedhawk

This is a Turkey Vulture (upper left) and a Zone-tailed Hawk (lower right). The Zone-tailed is noticeably smaller in direct comparison, but this is not obvious when alone. Note the TV has a mere wart of a projection in front of wing line for a head. The ZT has a big thick hawk neck and head that projects forward of wingline. One orig. frame, no photoshop.


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Harris's Hawk is another southwestern specialty hawk many visitors want to see. It is only a scarce transient locally here but which might be seen any month of the year. They nest on the first hill on Hwy. 187 a few miles north of Sabinal, and anywhere in the brush country to our south, but not up here in hills. The adults are beautiful dark chocolate with rufous or chestnut shoulders and thighs. Note white base and tip of tail.

Harris's Hawk

Adult Harris's Hawk, sorry for the tight crop.



Harris's Hawk

Ken Cave took this great photo of a sub-adult Harris's Hawk. THANKS for letting us share your beautiful photo Ken!



harrisshawk

The camera dial had moved off of my standard settings so the image is messed up, sorry. But I liked it anyway for what it showed. This is a sub-adult Harris's Hawk. The barred feathers are those of an immature. The solid colored ones (rufous and brown) are those of an adult bird. Tweeners allow you to see how the molt actually progresses (taken Sept. 7, 2018). And taking photos gives you a chance to study it at length, leisure, and detail not possible in a flyby view. Sure there were imm. and adult feathers, but which was which specifically? A picture says ten thousand words.


Harris's Hawk

On a pole they just look dark, but brown not black, note white undertail coverts, base and tip of tail.


Harris's Hawk

They are denizens of the brush country here. Have seen that family group hunting thing where 5 of them (adults and young) herd a rabbit until one takes it. Fascinating skilled co-operative behavior.



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Swainson's Hawk is strictly a passage transient that migrates through. Some few seem to nest near Uvalde in the brush country sometimes. Some years we get decent numbers, other years only a few. These are the ones in flocks that work fields for grubs, mice, grasshoppers, and even follow tractors. I have seen single flocks of 500 going over in October, smaller numbers in spring flocks. They come in light and dark morphs, the chocolate ones are beauties. A flock of full-sized hawks in a pasture here are these.

Swainson's Hawk

Swainson's Hawk - a "normal" light morph bird. Always note the white wing-linings with dark flight feathers and pointed wings.


Adults have a dark breast and head with pale throat.
Swainson's Hawk



This is an immature about a year old in spring. Swainson's Hawk
Note white wing linings and dark flight feathers, pointy wingtips.

This is another immature about a year old in spring.

Swainson's Hawk
This is a tweener, an intermediate morph that is admixed of pale and dark below. They can be pure chocolate too. Note besides underparts, wing linings are not pure white and also mottled with dark.
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Broad-winged Hawk is a small compact buteo, but which still has the classic buteo shape. Until a few years ago it was only known as a passage migrant here. Rare in spring and fall, sometimes small numbers seen but usually singles. Then 2015-17 a pair nested at Lost Maples SNA. The nearest nesting is Austin, and only fairly recently, and scarcely, there. So a tremendous leap west, and into habitat fairly different from what most think of a Broad-wing nesting habitat which is extensive deciduous woods.
broadwingedhawk

Adult Broad-winged Hawk at Lost Maples SNA in April. Note crisp black frame to tip and trailing edge of underwing. White bars on tail are broad, equal to black bars, not much narrower as Red-shouldered Hawk.


broadwingedhawk

Juvenile Broad-winged Hawk, wondering why I just have
to take its picture when it is all wet and trying to dry out.


Broad-winged Hawk   Broad-winged Hawk

This is a begging juvenile Broadwinged Hawk at Lost Maples SNA
the first nesting in Bandera Co. and likely the furthest southwest
nesting ever for the species. Taken August 1, 2015 through binocs.



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I don't have a decent Short-tailed Hawk photo, despite having seen about 8 of them here in twice as many years. Lost Maples is where they are most often seen locally, but there are records at Concan, and I have had a few around Utopia, including an April adult at Utopia Park, and a fall immature just south of town.
Short-tailed Hawk

A pitiful poor docu shot of an imm. Short-tailed Hawk in Sept. just south of town. Still trying to improve on my worst docu-shot ever. This was taken with a Sony Mavica on a floppy disk, ROFL. Next I will chisel an image in stone.


That is it for buteos.
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Harrier is in its own group, unlike any other hawks.
northernharrier

Nothern Harrier, formerly called Marsh Hawk, often drifts slow and low over pastures and fields dropping quickly on anything tasty. They have a white rump or uppertail covert area above. Adult males are all gray with black wingtips and trailing edge and absolutely beautiful. The female and immature are brown. They are present in small numbers in winter, possible Oct. to March, but mostly present November through February.



northernharrier

This shows the white rump or uppertail coverts at base of tail. Standin' on a wingtip. They are deceptively fast when going after prey. I saw one flush a flock of meadowlarks and calmly grab one as it was climbing in a failed escape attempt.


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Accipiters are bird hawks. These are the ones that take sparrows or Cardinals and even doves, around your house. They are smallish hawks, with shorter rounded wings and long tails for twisting and turning through vegetation at high speed. They use surprise attack as their m.o. The birds most often called 'chicken hawk' are accipiters. They will be an ID problem, until you learn them. Females are bigger than males but the biggest female Sharp-shinned is still smaller than the smallest male Cooper's.

All three types in the U.S. have been seen here, two types are regular, the Cooper's Hawk, and Sharp-shinned Hawk. The Goshawk is accidental here. Of our two regular types, the bigger Cooper's is the one that nests here in small numbers, some are residents. Many more show up for the winter from northward. The smaller Sharp-shinned is only here in the winter, generally Oct. to April. The 'Sharpy' is the small tiny one, barely bigger than a robin if just considering body size. The plumages of 'Coop' and 'Sharpy' are very similar. Adults are gray above with rufous barring below. Immatures are mostly brown above, vertically streaked brown on white below. Coops are way bigger than Sharpys.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk, adult male. Adult Cooper's Hawk very similar with gray upperparts and rufous on underparts, but much larger and longer tailed.



sharpy-dove

This is a Sharp-shinned Hawk with a White-winged Dove. Both clock in at 5 oz. The Sharpy ate an ounce or two, and then could fly off with the rest for tomorrow. It is a second fall or second winter Sharpy, just over a year old in a tweenage plumage. It shows the horizontal red bars coming in on underparts but still has an immature tail. Eye color has changed to adult-like, upperparts were admixed gray and brown, more gray overall.



sharpshinnedhawk

This is an immature Sharp-shinned Hawk. These bird eaters
take lots of birds all winter, sparrows, Cardinal, and even
dove. Especially the smaller males appear barely bigger than
a Robin. A handy book gives 10 inches for Robin, 11 for Sharpy.
Don't let their size fool you, they make up for it with attitude.
I watched one march on foot into thick brush after a rabbit (!)
once, which had to be over twice its weight. Brown above with
brown vertical streaks on breast and underparts.



cooper's hawk

An juvenile Cooper's Hawk, like imm. Sharpy, with brown vertical streaks on underparts, brown above. But almost twice as big. Note long tail unlike buteos.

Cooper's Hawk

This is an adult Cooper's Hawk at our birdbath. Always have a thick bush or stick pile next to the bath so birds have a place to dive into just in case. Like adult Sharp-shinned, horizontally barred reddish below, gray above with darker cap, but much larger. Small numbers nest locally, the 'Sharpy' is only here fall to spring.


goshawk

This is one of the Northern Goshawk I have seen locally. They are a huge accipiter, big as a full-sized hawk with a ridiculously long stovepipe of a tail (when closed). Those are the long undertail coverts in front of base half of tail. You do not think 'accipiter' when you see one, they are sooo big. I have seen a surprising number of them here, a handful at least, in winter and spring.



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Falcons are mostly bird eaters except the small Kestrel. Falcons are now said by taxonomists to be most closely related to Parrots! Well, I will give them the similarity in beak, but am having a hard time getting past that. American Kestrel is the only common falcon here. Save the Caracara, which is a falcon, despite not looking like any of the things we think of when we think falcon. Typical falcons have very pointed wings, longish tails, and have a dark anti-reflection mark below eye that football stole. They are faster than a speeding bullet when stooping on prey. Unlike accipiters which use surprise and operate in and under cover, falcons are birds of more open areas, where sheer speed wins the day.

I don't have a Peregrine pic below, so will tell you something about them. Most of the Peregrine Falcon I have seen here are migrants moving overhead five hundred or a thousand feet up. They are about annual. I did have one stoop on the doves in my yard pecan once though. Also saw one stooping at Seco Ridge, doing about 100 mph, and it reached out a fist and clobbered a migrating Monarch butterfly in a sky full of them. Just for practice I suppose. Often big falcons kill with the sheer impact of that fist, its a real neck-snapper at 100 mph.

Kestrel

American Kestrel, the falcon everyone has seen, but didn't know it was a falcon. Formerly called Sparrow Hawk. Pointed wings. Our smallest falcon at 9-10", yet I have seen them suck down a whole Cotton Rat (Sigmodon)! Primary prey is grasshoppers, a smaller part mice, and even small birds. You might see them hovering, from where they drop quickly on prey. They are here fall to spring.



Kestrel

The female Kestrel has brown wings above not gray like male (above).



Merlin

Merlin - a small fierce bird eating falcon. This is a western darker type, photo not from here. They are present fall to spring, small numbers winter locally. Ours are either light blue-gray (males) or brown (females and imms.) above. We have the beautiful (males) Prairie Merlin (ssp. richardsoni) here.



Prairie Falcon

Prairie Falcon - a large pale sandy-colored falcon, quite rare here, semi-regular in winter in the brush country and ag fields along Hwy. 90. I have seen a few here around Utopia, in fall, and spring, but never for very long.



This is our un-falconlike falcon. Which might be the truest falcon, the Crested Caracara. Formerly called Mexican Eagle, but it is not an eagle. It often feeds on carrion with the vultures. They are white in every direction, or, at all 4 corners. There are white patches out near tips of wings, and white at base of tail, and at head and neck.

Crested Caracara

Crested Caracara



Crested Caracara

A pair will allopreen (mutually preen each other, like parrots), and are called a pairacara.



Crested Caracara

They can quickly change red color of the facial skin. This one is all jacked up. Caracara is a resident breeding species locally, and has been surely for a couple decades at least, much longer per some locals. Most older field guides do not map them here.



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Kites are unfortunately scarce here, as in general their flight appears lighter than air, and are great fun to watch. There are two types seen semi-regularly here. Mississippi Kite is a migrant with narrow windows of occurrence in spring and fall when you might see them. White-tailed Kite is an irregular visitor and sometime temporary resident. They are usually seen singly, rarely two might be together. They are phenomenal mousers, hovering in place over pastures or fields. They might be seen any month of the year, whilst I can go years without seeing one. Then a pair may be around for a few months, and so on. I would call them enigmatic. I have one Swallow-tailed Kite record in late July, plus there was a recent (April or May) record in Concan. They are accidental here. It is a very rare vagrant to the Edwards Plateau in spring and summer.

Mississippi Kite

Mississippi Kite is our most numerous kite, which isn't saying much. It is mostly gray with white on the head as an adult, immatures with much white and streaked below. It is scarce, but some pass through each year. They are somewhat falcon shaped with pointed wings and long tail. They seem to be helium filled, and are unbelieveably bouyant and graceful in the air. They are big on dragonflies, taken in flight. Did you ever try to catch a dragonfly? Sometimes 10 or 20 might be seen in a loose flock. Late April to mid-May is best, when rain around, again in September possible.


Here is some of that size, shape, and structure. It can really be handy in bad light.

Mississippi Kite

Mississippi Kite

Mississippi Kite



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White-tailed Kite

Here is a rearview of a White-tailed Kite. Note the black shoulders,
white tail, gray upperparts, grayish and white head, is white on underparts.
For a while it was called Black-shouldered Kite. Sorry for the pixelylated pic.



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We have rare occurrences of both Bald and Golden Eagle here. Generally high overhead soaring, passing through. Once I did see an imm. Bald in the Cypresses at Cypress Hollow. Both have been seen around Lost Maples. I have seen both at Seco Ridge, and south of town a couple miles. Late fall to early spring is the window to see one. The eagle roost on Hwy. 1340 west of Hunt is a great place to see Bald Eagle in winter.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle - an adult pair at the eagle roost on 1340 W. of Hunt



Bald Eagle

The winter roost is on the cliff face around the east end of Boneyard (Draw) Crossing of the Guad. River, they are visible from the road, bare eyed, better with binocs, and very well with telescope. There is one of those TPWD wildlife viewing signs at a pullout on the road at the site.


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Vultures (next 2 below) are not closely related to hawks, only vaguely resembling them. They are not buzzards. Actual Buzzards are hawks in Eurasia, a buteo. I realize many learned to call vultures, buzzards. It is likely not the only thing you learned wrong? It is not too late to learn it correctly. They are vultures. They are allegedly according to the expert taxonomists, really nearest short-billed and legged storks !!

As useful as a bird can be, they are our cleanup crew. Which with the level of roadkill here is critical work. Unfeathered heads are great for looking around inside a carcass for a morsel. Turkey Vulture (birders often call them TV, I also use BV freely for Blacks) can find a carcass strictly with sense of smell. Black Vulture seems to watch the TVs, and then be more aggressive at the food they find. These two are structured quite differently. Compared to larger TV, BV appears chunky, stub-tailed, and broader and shorter winged. BV has a very distinct fast flap flap flap followed by a glide for a flight pattern. TV soars with wings in a shallow open 'v' dihedral. TV does not do the fast series of flaps like the BV.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture is not resident here, local breeders arrive in February, mostly depart by Oct.some few to early November. Trains of migrants going to and from elsewhere can be seen in Oct. and Nov., and in spring. Some TV's winter along I-10, and south along Hwy. 90 just off the plateau in the brush country (where more roadkill). Those are almost certainly not our local breeding birds which are absent for the most part for four months or more. Note the unmarked silvery flight feathers on underwing contrast sharply with the black wing-linings, and run the whole length on trailing edge to tip. Adults have red head.


Turkey Vulture

This is through the window in the yard. Here in Texas you can't count it on your yard list until you get one on the ground. You may need bait.



Black Vulture

Black Vulture - the Utopia Air Force
Some are resident in the valley, they are slightly more cold tolerant than the Turkey Vulture. Note the silvery white flash on underwing is at the tips of wings, not the trailing edge. Head is black. Learn that fast flap and glide progression and you can tell them at a mile.



Black Vulture

This is how one often sees Black Vulture here, on carcass cleanup duty.


Turkey and Black Vulture

Turkey Vulture (left) and Black Vulture (right).



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That is it for diurnal raptors and vultures for now. Here is a quick look at the nocturnal raptors, owls.

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We have 4 regular types of owls here. Great Horned, Barred, and Barn Owl, and Eastern Screech-Owl. Barn is mostly a spring and fall migrant, that raspy screech heard overhead in the dark. Great Horned, Barred, and Eastern Screech-Owl are residents here.

Of our two resident large owls, Barred and Great Horned, Barred is only along river corridor or pecan bottoms, Great Horned is widespread. Barred has brown eyes and a yellow bill. Great Horned has yellow eyes and a black bill. So they are easy to tell apart, just with eye or bill color. Great Horned has cinnamon facial disks and big ear tufts, Barred owl has no cinnamon in face or ear tufts.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl breeds adjacent to, and is often in the park.
Please please do not use tapes to bother it.


Barred Owl

Barred Owl


Barred Owl

Barred Owl, dark eyes, no ear tufts, yellow bill.

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Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl - called tiger of the night sky, they can even take skunks they are so big, quiet, and fast. This is a juvenile still with down, but able to fly. It's horns aren't so great yet. As in adult note the yellow eyes, black bill, and cinnamon facial disks.

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Eastern Screech-Owl

Eastern Screech-Owl (falconer's bird in this photo).

The only locally resident SMALL owl is another world-class mouser. Mostly you just hear their soft trilled calls, sort of like a toad trill. Actual screeching owls are invariably begging young of the large owls, Barred or Great Horned, or Barn Owls flying over at night. Our Screech-Owls are the "south Texas- northeastern Mexican" form or race, subspecies mccallii. I have named it the Tex-Mex Screech-Owl. They make some calls I have never heard from any other type of Screech-Owl. Begging the question, are they really Eastern Screech-Owls? They do calls that could fool the best experts into thinking there was a Saw-whet Owl around, and a perfect Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl call too. I have never heard such a thing about Eastern Screech-Owl. I got chiggers 20 times to prove it.

Eastern Screech-Owl

If you look closely you can see the heads of a couple baby Screech-Owls poking up in the hole in the snag.


Eastern Screech-Owl

Here is a sleepy adult mccallii Tex-Mex Screech-Owl. Tryin' not to let you see he is watching you like a hawk.



So those are the common regular owls, nocturnal raptors. Surely there have been Burrowing Owl here, but I have no record in 16+ years of looking. I have heard a few Long-eared Owl though. I have also heard things out there which I don't know what they were. So many mysteries, so little time.

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One last hawk word... about the non-hawk with hawk in its name. You may have heard of Nighthawks. They are not hawks. They are nightjars or goatsuckers (they do not suck goats), a wholly different group of nocturnal insect eaters, and not whatsoever related to hawks. It just sounds like they are. They are active dusk to dawn mostly. Our breeder here is Common Nighthawk, the Lesser is rare, it breeds in the brush country. You probably have seen the Common Nighthawk display flight which is a long steep dive with a booming 'whoosh' at the bottom of dive as it turns back skyward. Often right over the female. Didn't want anybody to think I missed a hawk, and hope to prevent those emails.  :)
Common Nighthawk

Sorry only a poor silhouette photo of Common Nighthawk. More size, shape, and structure for you.


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We hope you enjoyed your tour of the hawks of Utopia. Will dig around for some more pix to add and fill in holes. Maybe even fix some grammar. The page was updated in August 2020.


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