Thursday, 1 December 2016

Crested Caracara in Wawa(!)

Crested Caracara is a species that for many years few Ontario birders seriously expected to see at some point in their lives. You could count on one hand the number of birders who had seen one in the province - heck, you would only need 3 or 4 fingers.

But in recent years there have been more and more extralimital records of Crested Caracara, particularly north along the eastern seaboard, as well as west into California and up the Pacific coast all the way to southern British Colombia. Numerous states and provinces have added Crested Caracara to their respective lists in recent years, including New Jersey (2012), Nova Scotia (2013) Delaware (2013), Maine (2014), West Virginia (2014), Alberta (2015) and Georgia (2016). I'm sure there are more than a few states/provinces that I have missed. There are a number of old records of Crested Caracara north of their range in North America, however many of those had been rejected on questions of provenance (concern about whether they were wild birds). Crested Caracara seems to have an established trend of vagrancy and perhaps some of these old records should be re-examined. It has been surmised that vagrant Crested Caracaras likely originate from the more numerous Texas populations, though a relatively small population is found in central Florida and could be the origin of some of the records from southeastern states.

Crested Caracara - Michipicoten, Algoma District, Ontario (November 30, 2016)

Ontario even has three prior records, though unfortunately none of these birds were very chase-able. All three records occurred in July, what is typically one of the slowest months of the year for rarities in Ontario. The first was a dead bird found by a lighthouse keeper at Victoria Island, Thunder Bay in 1892; the second, a one-day-wonder only seen by a lucky few on Pelee Island in 1994; and the third, a bird that was observed in the remote First Nations community of Fort Albany for 10 days in 2002.  So when a fellow by the name of Chris Eagles posted a photo of an unknown bird visiting his work site in Wawa, Ontario on November 28, and the photo was seen by a friend (Joanne Redwood, a Hamilton-area birder), identified as a Crested Caracara and posted to the Ontario Birds Facebook group, more than a little excitement was created. Unfortunately the site where Chris had seen the bird was off limits to the public, but the following day he observed it again at the aggregate pit and later it was seen on the lawn of a nearby restaurant. Despite the fact that the bird was not "pinned down" to one location, I quickly began making plans to chase the bird with several other people including Jeremy Bensette, Henrique Pacheco and Steve Charbonneau.

Steve and Jeremy met me at a carpool lot near Guelph late on Tuesday evening, then we picked up Henrique and prepared for a long night of driving. Steve drove most of the way, even though all three of the co-pilots were sound asleep at various points! By 5:00 AM I took over in Sault Ste Marie, and dawn was just breaking as we approached Wawa to begin our search.

We briefly examined the entrance to the aggregate pit, followed by a check of the restaurant property where the bird had also been viewed. We were without luck here, though a Northern Shrike was fun to see. I decided that driving the streets of the small community of Michipicoten would be a good bet, and set off down the familiar road to one of my favorite birding spots of the area. Not five minutes later I was pretty shocked to see a long-legged, black and tan bird with a dark cap walking on a lawn. I guess I was a little casual in pointing out the bird and it took a few seconds for the other guys to clue in that I was serious and indeed the caracara was no more than 50 feet from us!

first views of the Crested Caracara - Michipicoten, Algoma District, Ontario (November 30, 2016)

We frantically took our first few photos of the beast (such as the above photo), attempted to get a hold of the other carload of birders in the area, and posted a quick message to Ontbirds. Finally I was able to call David Pryor, and in minutes Tyler Hoar, Barb Charlton, and David roared up. At this point the caracara was roosting in a tree (digesting the multitude of earthworms it had pulled out of the ground, no doubt), but provided great looks for everyone. We were more than a little excited.

from left to right: Steve Charbonneau, Henrique Pacheco, David Pryor, Barb Charlton

Crested Caracara - Michipicoten, Algoma District, Ontario (November 30, 2016)

Tyler attempted to entice the bird out of the tree first with a road-killed Gray Squirrel, and then by offering up himself to the carrion-loving bird. It did not seem interested!

Tyler Hoar baiting the Crested Caracara

Eventually the caracara decided to resume its feeding, preferring to slurp down the numerous earthworms found in the lawns and on the driveways. It tolerated our approach by vehicle, allowing us a minute or two of point blank photos.

Crested Caracara - Michipicoten, Algoma District, Ontario (November 30, 2016)

Crested Caracara - Michipicoten, Algoma District, Ontario (November 30, 2016)

While David, Tyler and Barb soon left to embark on their long journey home, the four of us (Steve, Jeremy, Henrique and I) stayed for another half hour or so, as the photographic opportunities were just too incredible to pass up. Using the car as a blind, the caracara paid us no mind as it continued to pull out earthworms from the nearby lawns.

Crested Caracara - Michipicoten, Algoma District, Ontario (November 30, 2016)

A Crested Caracara had been present in Michigan for the last few months and there is speculation that this may be that very bird. Like many out of range Crested Caracaras, the Michigan bird was first spotted in mid-summer, and was seen by many birders as it frequented the town of Munising from July 1 to November 12, 2016. Looking at photos of the Munising bird from November 12, it appears to have very similar feather wear on the wing coverts and sure looks like the same bird.

Crested Caracara - Michipicoten, Algoma District, Ontario (November 30, 2016)

It was a very successful chase for us, and I wish good luck for everyone driving up to look for this bird. Crested Caracaras, despite being a species more associated with Central and South America, can be very hearty and have been known to survive extreme cold. If it wishes to continue to eke out an existence in Wawa it will have to make its way over to the nearby landfill where there will be a constant "food" supply all winter. The bird seemed healthy enough during our visit - maybe it will finally figure out which way is south and move to a more hospitable climate before winter really arrives in Wawa.

14 comments:

  1. You're two closer to 400 and neither of them were on your list!

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  2. Great photos and an interesting post! Thanks for sharing.

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  3. Wow... So majestic! Thank you for the trek to photo and share this beautiful Caracara & educate us while doing so!

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  4. Excellent! The caracara invasion has begun...

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  5. Love the "bait" pic

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  6. Wow-that's fantastic. We saw Caracara's while in Patagonia but never dreamed we would see them here in Northern Ontario

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    1. For sure, it is a pretty strange thing to see a Crested Caracara perched in a Black Spruce! The ones in patagronia are a different species that looks very similar - they are called Southern Caracaras.

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  7. I did enjoy reading your description of the efforts you and your friends went to to see and photograph this lovely bird. Great photos.

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  8. Hi Josh,
    Do you know what became of the bird in Wawa?
    Cheers!

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    1. Hi Wendy,

      The bird was last observed on December 5, right around the time that a big snow storm arrived. I have not heard of any reports of it since.

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