My Holy Grail Bird
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Every nature photographer has certain “Holy Grail” species, birds or animals that he or she loves to photograph but that are difficult or nearly impossible to find, let alone photograph well. My ultimate Holy Grail species remains the Mountain Lion, but that’s a story for another time. Suffice it to say that I am still waiting for the day when I am able to photograph one of those big cats.
But, as for birds, the Crested Caracara is definitely a Holy Grail species. These cousins of falcons are common throughout much of Mexico, Central, and South America, but they are rarely seen in the United States. There are tiny populations of them in southern Arizona, in southeast Texas, and in Florida, but even there, these birds are few and far between.
A very small population of caracaras inhabits the desert near Tucson. In winter, these birds occasionally visit the agricultural flatlands where they tend to forage in small flocks, often in the company of ravens. They are hard to find and harder to photograph. Typically, caracaras will move out of camera range whenever they are approached by a photographer.
A couple of weeks ago I got very lucky and was able to take some photographs that I’ve been longing to take for years. I was out driving with my friend Carl Jackson in the agricultural flatlands near Tucson when we spotted this young caracara in juvenile plumage perched on a pecan tree. I assumed the bird would fly as we approached it but, to my great delight, it hung around for quite a while, graciously permitting us to take its portrait.
No doubt, this is an odd looking bird, with its bald and pink face, its huge chisel shaped bill, and its long, skinny legs. Caracaras are big birds, as large as Red-tailed Hawks, and their appearance is to say the least striking. As this bird matures, its brown and buff plumage will be replace by black feathers, with a speckled black-on-white breast and a white throat. That bald face will remain, however. Believe it or not that facial color changes with the bird’s emotions. Pink is sort of neutral. When a caracara is really excited its face turns a deep blushing red.
As is the case with this adult caracara, which I photographed in late 2013. It was zealously guarding its “prey,” a pecan, from other caracaras when I took this picture.
Images taken with a Canon 5Diii, 400 DO. The first two images were taken with the aid of a 1.4X extender, “M” setting, ISO 400, f6.3 @ 1/1000. The third image was taken without an extender, ISO 320, “M” setting, f6.3 @ 1/1000.