A Caracara Afternoon

 Said to be named for the sound of their call, Crested Caracaras (Caracara plancus) are a common sight along the upper Texas coast: perching in tall, isolated trees, soaring flat-winged and low across mud flats and fields, or chasing grasshoppers on the prairie. Easily mistaken for hawks and often termed ‘Mexican Eagles’ by locals, they’re actually classified with the falcons, despite displaying some distinctly non-falcon like traits.

One of those traits is an inclination to walk as well as to fly. I often see them on refuge roads; what made this sighting unusual was the presence of a pair. I stopped some distance away, certain that moving closer would cause them to fly, but when I stepped out of the car, they didn’t move.

With nothing to lose, I began walking toward the pair. As I did, they moved closer together; the one on the right sat down and the one on the left stood up, but they didn’t fly.

Remembering the classic rule for stalking — ‘Stop often ‘n’ set frequent’ — I moved up the road toward the birds, a few steps at a time. As I did, both stood or sat a number of times, until they joined one another at the edge of the road.

Studies have confirmed the difficulty of visually identifying Caracaras as male or female. Although some slight differences in external characteristics such as larger wing length and bill depth may indicate a female, the degree of variation and overlap make reliable gender identification in the field impossible.

That said, the behavior of this pair suggested that the standing bird was the male. Caracaras are solitary birds, joining only with their mate during the breeding season, so it seemed obvious that this was a bonded pair.

When the bird I assumed to be the male drifted to the other side of the road while his mate stayed seated on the warm gravel, I continued to walk toward them, remembering a piece of advice I once read: if your lens can’t get you close enough, keep walking. Eventually, the tolerant pair allowed me to approach closely enough for some nice portraits. (Click any photo for more detail, but especially the next two.)

Their tolerance  came to an end when I returned to my car and continued my journey to the refuge exit. Willing to accept a woman on foot, they clearly saw a metal box on rubber tires as a threat, and chose to leave for a more congenial spot, where I presume they continued to enjoy the sunshine undisturbed.

 

Comments always are welcome.

73 thoughts on “A Caracara Afternoon

    1. They surely are. The first time I saw one, I thought of toucans, or some other tropical bird. In a way that makes sense, since their territory tends to be south of San Antonio, through south Texas, Mexico, Central, and South America. It’s interesting that they’re non-migratory. Once they’ve found a congenial spot, they tend to settle in; pairs will use the same nest year after year.

    1. I wish the photos had been a bit sharper, but hand-holding a camera while walking isn’t optimal. On the other hand, the closer I got, the more I could retract the lens, and the longer the birds stayed put, the more confident I became that I didn’t have to hurry my shots. Both made those last shots better. I think I could have moved even closer, but there didn’t seem any reason for it, so I just backed off.

    1. According to this sightings map, your chances of seeing one in California are slim to not-at-all-likely. On the other hand, should you travel to South America, your chances improve dramatically. I always enjoy seeing them; I hope you get the chance one day.

    1. They can be a little hard to spot, and they’re easily confused with other birds. They like to hang out at the tops of dead trees, and sometimes they’ll mix with vultures, since they also feed on carrion. In flight, they don’t soar like a vulture, though: they tend to cruise low to the ground, with their wings held flat. I laughed at this line from a Wiki entry: “This bird is known for having very direct flight. It does not soar for leisure.” It does seem to enjoy basking on the roads, though.

        1. Roads do have some advantages. They can be warmer and drier than grasses, and it’s easier to catch insects along their edges. There may be even more advantages that I can’t think of, because I’m not a Caracara!

    1. I think I could have moved even closer to the birds, but once I was in range to get decent photos, there was no need to push things. I was lucky that no one else was on the roads that afternoon; if another car had come along, that would have been the end of it.

      With Valentine’s Day tomorrow, I played with “CaraCara Mia” as a title, but figured that would be unnecessarily opaque. I did make a wonderful discovery while I was poking around. I went back to listen to Jay and the Americans’ original recording of “Cara Mia” and discovered a PBS concert in 2011 with 72-year-old Jay Black performing his hit. Amazing.

  1. Beautiful captures, Linda. Such a coincidence to see this post, as just last night I started reading ‘A most remarkable creature : the hidden life and epic journey of the world’s smartest birds of prey’ by Jonathan Meiburg. Apparently, it is an understudied genus. Like eagles, they are carrion eaters, so not a popular bird thus far for study.

    1. They do tend to hang out with vultures and will feed on carrion, although they’re true omnivores who will hunt live prey or eat grains. In the spring, I’ve watched them hunt grasshoppers by running after them. It can be quite a humorous sight. I certainly never would have guessed that they’ve been placed with the falcons. The good news is that they’re far more approachable than our Kestrels!

  2. I gasped when I saw these photos, Linda. In over 30 years of birding, I have seen less than six caracaras, and they were skittish and far away. What a fortunate experience that they allowed you to get close, and your stealth and experience in approaching paid off. I studied each photo here, really a treasure to see them so close. That last one of the female is absolutely stunning.

    1. I’m thrilled to have offered you a chance to see these birds a bit closer, Jet. When I looked at the range and sightings maps for California, I found one good reason that you’ve seen relatively few of these birds; they just aren’t in your state.

      It certainly was fortunate that the birds were so accepting, but it was even more fortunate that no one else was on the auto route that afternoon. It isn’t every day that I can abandon my car in the middle of the road and take off walking, especially at such a slow pace!

    1. Some months earlier, I’d seen a pair of Caracaras working a mown and muddy section of the refuge for insects; I wonder now if it might have been the same pair. It might be. I’m going to keep an eye out to see if they’re nesting in the area. It would be great to watch them raise a family.

    1. One way to spot them in the sky is their way of flying; they don’t dip and tip back and forth like the vultures. They tend to soar, with their wings held level. I know they’re in your area; I’ve seen them several times at the Attwater Preserve, and I’ve seen them between Needville and Boling-Lago. They’re one of my favorite birds, just because of that striking appearance.

  3. What a pretty pair! They almost look like they’re wearing black wigs! I’ve never seen one of these, even when I lived in Texas, so thank you for introducing us.

    1. You’re right! Some people describe those black head feathers as ‘caps,’ but I think ‘wigs’ is even better. They do roam as far north as DFW and even into Oklahoma, but they aren’t nearly so common there. The closest sighting to your current location I could find was the boot heel of Missouri: down on the Missouri/Tennessee border. I guess to see one you’re just going to have to come south — although there aren’t any sightings in Mississippi,either. To combine birds and beaches, it’s going to have to be Louisiana or Texas! Come on down!

    1. That makes sense. I’ve seen them around El Campo, Eagle Lake, and the Attwater Refuge, too: very much the same kind of environment. I’m so glad you have the opportunity to enjoy them!

  4. I have seen two in my pasture here at the edge of Fredericksburg. How lovely though to get a long, close up look with your photos. You certainly deserve the NPSOT award that you won!

    1. What a kind thing to say, Paula. I was both astonished and honored to receive that award — not to mention being motivated to improve my blog even more.

      I can’t remember seeing Caracaras in your area, but they certainly have been reported throughout the counties surrounding you. It’s nearly time for my early spring trip to Willow City; I’ll watch for the birds there. I go elsewhere for bluebonnets, but I try to visit the Loop every quarter, just to watch the changes through the seasons.

  5. What a great encounter!

    I’m wondering if the weather was cold, or had been the night before. The resting bird may have been trying to warm up on the sun-soaked road.

    We’re lucky to have a good-sized resident population of Crested Caracara and at present they’re busy with nest construction.

    Clearly they identified you as a “friend”. My experience in similar situations has been “LOOK OUT! HERE HE COMES! FLY AWAY!”

    1. When I checked the weather history, I found that the temperatures on the day of my visit in early December were quite warm: 68F at night, and 79F in the day. Still, it could be that the warmth of the road was attractive to them. On the other hand, I have other photos of them on the roads of both the Brazoria and Attwater refuges: sitting on the road, chasing (and catching) grasshoppers, and so on. Mysteries abound!

      I read about your Florida Caracaras, and was happy to see that they can be found in the counties surrounding you. On the other hand, now I’m completely confused. Do we have two species? Yours seem to be known as Audubon’s crested caracara (Polyborus plancus audubonii) and is listed as threatened by the USFWS. On the other hand, all the sources I could find for ours (Cornell, Audubon, etc.) agree that our C. plancus isn’t threatened, and may be expanding its territory. Hmmmm…. Well, one thing is certain: both are Caracaras, and that’s good enough for me!

  6. What a great post, Linda and wonderful captures of these magnificent birds. I like your description of your slow meander towards the birds, as not to disturb them too much. That’s a real trick in bird photography, I think.

    I think I’ve spotted a Caracara over my neighborhood here in north-central Austin. I’ve seen “it” or “them” several times. Seems odd, but after all, birds do have wings!

    1. I started honing my stalking skills with armadillos. Someone told me that, if I kept behind the critter and kept downwind, I could almost literally walk right up its tail. It’s true! But birds aren’t blind, and they don’t keep their noses in the leaves, which makes things harder. One tip I was given was to move only when they aren’t looking — even harder. With this pair, such tricks didn’t seem necessary — slow and steady was all it took.

      It wouldn’t surprise me at all if you’d seen Caracaras. There’s plenty of open, natural area for them in your area, and the various sightings maps have plenty of entries.

    1. In Florida, the nest sites are usually 8-50′ above ground level, in the top of trees like live oak, cabbage palm, or acacia. Here, I’ve seen them take over a couple of platforms originally meant for Ospreys, too. The nest is constructed of sticks, weeds, and general debris. New nests are a couple of feet in diameter, but since they’ll rebuild on top of old nests, they can get pretty large, and probably are easy to spot.

    1. As the saying goes, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. The more I think about how unusual it was to not see a single other car that afternoon, the more grateful I am. If someone else had shown up, I would have had to go back to the car and get moving — flushing the birds away. Sometimes, things do work out. It was a special experience, there’s no question about that!

  7. Beautiful photos, Linda. Like Eliza, I wanted to mention the book “A Most Remarkable Creature” which I finished reading in December. The author is convinced that Caracaras are among the most intelligent birds and shares stories that corroborate that claim. I would love to see one in the wild, but will have to south in order to do so.

    1. I’m so glad you and Eliza mentioned that book. It’s at my library, and I’ll put a hold on it. I’m eager to read it, and compare my experiences with the birds with what the author has to say. I hope you’re able to see them, and at the same close range. I have some other photos I believe I’ll publish/republish, particularly since so many haven’t seen them in the wild. They can be unbelievably handsome.

    1. Those head feathers don’t only look like hair, they remind me of 1950s slicked-back hair. As for the beak, I found this interesting: “Unlike other birds of prey (like hawks, owls, and eagles), falcons use their tomial tooth — a triangular tooth on the underside of their top beak — to kill their prey, rather than their talons. The tooth is used on animals’ necks, severing their spinal cord.” Lethal, indeed.

    1. That’s one of the tips I picked up along the way: to make sure the eye is in focus. In this situation I didn’t spend a lot of time messing with camera settings, but I did use one-point focus for a couple of images, and it worked out fairly well.

  8. It’s an interesting encounter. Usually the opposite is true. Humans are perceived as a threat and a car is not. Birders often use their car as a blind for that reason. It may have just been coincidence that the birds left when you started to drive your car again, and they were ready to fly off anyway. Years ago, in Texas, I remember going to a chicken processing plant, (I can’t remember where) and they dumped the entrails and other discards outside, and there were hundreds of Crested Caracaras (and other species) attendant on the feast. It is a handsome bird.

    1. I often use the car as a blind on auto routes, and have had that ‘other’ experience: the birds are perfectly content to be photographed from the car, but if I so much as crack a door open, they’re gone. In this case, I was parked such a distance from the birds that starting the car, and even beginning to drive down the road, didn’t bother them. It wasn’t until I was nearly on top of them that they decided to retreat: quite reasonably, given the fact that there wasn’t room on the road for both the car and their feathery selves!

    1. I really like the combination of blue and orange in their beak, too. The blue is a little more pale here than I’ve sometimes seen it. I suspect it might become more vibrant at the height of the breeding season.

    1. I think ‘endearing’ is just the right word. I sometimes feel a little discouraged when I compare my photos with those taken by the pros with the high-end equipment, but in this case, I felt a little ‘something’ different about these photos, and I was satisfied with them. I finally decided it was the interaction between the birds. They were so aware of one another, and seemed almost unaware of me. It was something to see, that’s for sure.

      1. Like so much in life and art, photography is a process. I haven’t caught birds well at all, because I’m not quick. But your photos have given me the idea of stalking, which means one is prepared…

        1. If you happen to have, or can get from the library, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she has a chapter on stalking that’s wonderful. It’s hardly a how-to manual, in the sense of a list of tips, but it certainly taught me a good bit — some of which I put into practice with these birds.

  9. What a treat! Beautiful birds.

    Oh, my Dad would have loved an opportunity to see Caracaras. I know he slammed on brakes and pulled off the road once, with Mom in the car, as he’d spied some kites. They were driving on a 4 lane highway from Sumter to Columbia. He called them Florida kites but I think the proper name is Swallow Tailed Kites.

    1. Here’s a page with good illustrations of the various kites, falcons, and etc. in your area. I’ve only seen one kite: a white-tailed. The Swallow-tailed can appear in Texas, but only in the very eastern part of the state, along the TX/LA border.

      Your dad and I would have gotten along just fine. I’ve been known to slam on the brakes myself, although I tend to do it for flowers rather than birds. I’ll say this: when I do make those sudden stops, I never forget them. A friend who goes out with me from time to time laughs when I start saying things like, “See that ditch? That’s where I saw the first spider lilies of 2019!”

    1. They were so accomodating; it was a delightful experience. So much could have made the encounter impossible: another raptor, traffic on the road, even their own nervousness. But everything was just right for some photos, and a lot of enjoyment.

  10. That is exactly what I do in situations like that. Take what you can get as you approach, hoping for tolerance enough for a closer portrait. What a handsome bird!! Love them! Yeah with the big herons and egrets the male and female can be hard to distinguish as difference in size can be hard to ascertain in the field and many behaviours the same. The only time I am dead sure is when the male climbs on top when mating with his Valentine!!

    1. When I first started trying to photograph birds, I often lost my opportunity because I dallied too long. Eventually, I discovered that (especially with the flitty little birds) burst shooting was the best approach: shoot first, and sort later. My camera only can whirr along at 4 fps, but that’s generally enough for still shots.

      I have an embarassment of birdie riches just now. I’ve recently gotten decent photos of Killdeer, Wilson’s Snipes, and both American and Least Bitterns. There are going to be more bird posts than usual in the next couple of weeks!

  11. Linda, your story and photos are beautiful – wow what a glimpse you gave us – closer and closer and closer! Would you believe that this species lives here in Ecuador as well? That splotch of orange pairs well with the other colors – an earthy colored attire.

    1. I certainly do believe this species is part of your world. South and Central America, along with Mexico, is their native territory, even though they’ve crept northward a bit. They’re found mostly in Texas and Florida, but even there they tend toward the southern parts of our states, which explains why so many people haven’t seen them — or, sometimes, haven’t even heard of them. I still think of your toucans when I see them, because of that colorful beak.

  12. To me these have an almost regal appearance. I’ve heard of these birds but never seen them. I’m glad to see this pair allowed you to approach them. The fact they continued to put up with you speaks to how well you approached them. Very nicely done!

    1. In profile, they remind me of the eagles used in heraldric design; that may be part of the reason they seemed regal to you.

      In truth, they aren’t the ‘flightiest’ birds in the world. If there’s a bit of protective distance around them, they’ll often stay put. I thought for a minute about trying to get even closer,but decided against it. I was going to have to make them fly one way or another, and I decided it was better to do it with the car than on foot. I don’t know what I would have done if they’d insisted on being shooed away like chickens!

  13. Of course, I’ve never seen a Caracara since I haven’t been to their home grounds but wish that I could after seeing your shots. That last one is gorgeous and lucky you that they allowed your closer approach.

    1. They’re big, beautiful birds, and do look rather eagle-like in flight, although the wing markings are different. A few years ago, a pair nested on a platform that had been put up for ospreys; I’m going to watch for activity there this year, just in case.

  14. What fun looking birds! It’s always interesting to me when such striking birds are commonplace elsewhere – if one showed up here it would cause quite a stir!

    My favorite photo is the second one – he looks like he’s heading purposefully over to her inquire about her car’s warranty. Ha!

    1. I love your interpretation of that second photo! Given the number of offers I’ve recently received to warranty everything from my car to my coffee maker, it makes perfect sense.

      Speaking of birds stirring things up, we had (and may still have) a flamingo that showed up on the Texas coast. It had escaped from a Kansas zoo, came down here for some sunshine, and ended up hanging out with the whooping cranes for a while. Texas Parks and Wildlife staff got some photos, and I’m sure others did, too. You can see it here.

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