Finding a Zone-tailed Hawk in Texas is all about being in the right place at the right time. You can control your location, but timing is trickier. There’s always an element of luck in birding, and especially so with Zone-tailed Hawks. The good news is that if you have the right information, you can seriously improve your chances of seeing this fantastic raptor.
The best places to see a Zone-tailed Hawk is at known nesting locations that mating pairs keep coming back to year after year. These locations include South Llano River State Park in Junction, Heart of the Hills Fisheries Center near Kerrville, and Colorado Bend State Park. During the winter these hawks are reported along the Rio Grande River, especially around Laredo, just south of Falcon Lake, and at major birding sites around McAllen such as Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.
The Best Places to See a Zone-tailed Hawk
Colorado Bend State Park
True to their nature, Zone-tails at this state park are nearly always along or near the river. You can spot them between late March and October. There are numerous reports from just across the river from the campgrounds, both soaring and in the trees.
Heart of the Hills Fisheries Center
The fisheries center is located right on Johnson Creek, northwest of Kerrville. There is a known nesting site here on the canyon wall just across the creek on the south side of the property. Mid-March through late September is the time to see the hawks here. Sign in a the front office before entering the property.
South Llano River State Park
Nearly all reports from Early April through June, although the hawks are likely present into September or October. There are several eBird reports from August, September, and October to supports this assumption. Sightings have been from the Park Office, campgrounds, along the river, and multiple along the stretch of highway within 2 miles of outside the park.
Fort Lancaster Scenic Overlook
The scenic overlook is along the TX-290 “Sheffield Loop” south of I-10, between Ozona and Fort Stockton. Nearly all hawk reports are from April and May, likely because that’s simply when most birders are traveling and passing by this area. Zone-tailed Hawks are likely in this area all summer.
This an overwintering area for Zone-tailed Hawks. November through early March is the best time to go. Nearly all reports are along the Rio Grande River on the western and southern border of the city.
The Las Palmas Trail & Zacate Creek hotspot has by far the most sightings of any single location, but Zone-tailed Hawks seem to use the river in this area as a flyway, so it’s possible to see them anywhere near the river.
Lake Casa Blanco International State Park on the east side of Laredo also has numerous sightings, and could be a good back up spot if you dip along the river.
Falcon State Park and Salineño
This area is another overwintering area for Zone-tailed Hawks, so they are seen here almost exclusively in winter months. Mid-November through early March is the best time to go.
At Falcon State Park, these hawks have been seen at the park entrance, along the entrance road, and north of the campsites.
At Salineño Wildlife Preserve, hawks are spotted flying across or up and down the river. Look for both adults and juveniles here. Finding a good spot to sit and camp out for the better part of a morning could yield some fantastic birding here along the Rio Grande River, with Zone-tails being only one of the possible prizes.
What You Need to Know
If you’ve ever seen a Zone-tailed Hawk, or have done any reading on them, then you’re aware of just how much they look like a Turkey Vulture. The light band in the tail, plus the yellow beak and legs can give them away, but these features don’t usually stand out unless the bird is really close. If you’re on the hunt for a Zone-tail, my advice is to assume ALL Turkey Vultures are probable Zone-tails until proven otherwise. Start double checking everything big and dark flying over, and scan vulture kettles carefully since Zone-tails will sometimes mix themselves in with a soaring group of vultures.
HawkWatch International says Zone-tailed Hawks are raptors “of riparian areas, mountains, and arid hills of the Southwest canyon lands. They nest in large trees along creeks, in cactus in open desert, and sometimes on canyon walls.”In Texas they are most often found near creeks or rivers in semi-arid, hilly areas.
They are not totally restricted to water ways however, as there are plenty of reports in the hills and canyonlands of central and west Texas without nearby water.
Can you identify a Zone-tailed Hawk? Or more importantly, can you separate it from a Turkey Vulture? Identifying one in the wild is more difficult than looking at photos on the internet, but photos are a great places to start. Here’s what you should be looking for:
The white tail band. This is a big giveaway IF you can see it. But it’s surprisingly difficult to spot at a distance, especially in challenging lighting situations. Look for it, but don’t count on it being that easy.
All black head (unlike an adult Turkey Vulture) with a yellow beak. Believe it or not, the yellow beak is often easier to spot than the white band in the tail. Don’t count on the Turkey Vulture’s red, bald head to give them away either. The red on vultures is often difficult to see and requires the right light.
Bright yellow legs and feet. If they’re tucked in to the body you might not see them. But if they’re hanging down just a little, it’s a pretty big give away since vultures don’t have yellow anywhere on their whole body.
Just a little more slim than a vulture, often with a slightly more “aggressive” body shape in flight. It’s hard to explain, but it makes sense when you’re actually looking at one. Think fighter jet versus glider.
When soaring on a heat thermal, Zone-tails fly in smaller, tighter circles than Turkey Vultures. Not dramatically so, but just enough to be noticeable. If you see a large dark bird suddenly go in to a dive low to the ground, that’s almost always a hawk hunting. Vultures rarely go in to a fast and low dive.
Young Zone-tailed Hawks look even more like Turkey Vultures than the adult hawks. The yellow on the beak and legs is really going to help you out in those situations. Make sure you study both young AND mature hawks before going out. Especially during the winter months.
See if you can pick out all of the field characteristics to ID the bird in this video:
What We Don’t Know: Current Knowledge is Limited
Observer selection bias – a statistics term that basically means data is limited by where and when observers are available. The effect of this with birds is we can be led to assume there are higher numbers around cities, when really that’s probably not true. It only looks that way because there’s exponentially more birders near cities than in low population rural counties, so there’s more reports of everything, both common and uncommon birds.
There could be five times more Zone-tailed Hawks in the Trans-Pecos region of west Texas than in Central Texas, but an eBird range map shows more reported hawks within 150 miles west of San Antonio and Austin than anywhere else in the state. Is that really where most Zone-tails are in Texas? Maybe. But there sure are more birders there than further west, so that’s where the reports are coming from.
We actually don’t know where the majority of Zone-tailed Hawks are in Texas, there just isn’t enough data. An example of observer selection bias in action here is the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend. If you look at the eBird range map you make think “Wow, look at all the reports of Zone-tailed Hawk in the Chisos Mountains basin. That must be a great spot to see them.” The reality may easily be that the basin is just as good as many other places to see a Zone-tail, but because the Chisos get all the love from visiting birders, that’s where the reports get concentrated. I’ve personally visited the Chisos Basin six different times, usually spending the better part of a day there. I actively look for Zone-tailed Hawks each time I’m there. I’ve seen a grand total of one. It’s not quite the gold mine of hawks that eBird makes it appear to be.
The truth about Zone-tailed Hawks is our knowledge of their distribution and life habits are limited. They are definitely an understudied species. In fact, only one major published research paper exists on this species in Texas, which is by Matteson and Reily in 1981. Distribution throughout their range seems to be spotty and localized, and they are considered uncommon everywhere in their range.
Eyes to the Sky
Finding a Zone-tailed Hawk is never a guarantee, which is makes seeing one all the sweeter. For most birders, getting this species on your life list often requires persistence. Several trips to suitable habitat or known nesting locations may be required. But don’t let this discourage you! If anything I hope it ignites your curiosity and inspires you to get out there and find more Zone-tails to add to our limited data set, and for you to add it to your list of awe-inspiring and jaw-dropping bird encounters.