Caracara Encounter – Part I
A couple of weekends ago I, along with a friend, René Clark, had the extraordinary good fortune to be able to photograph and to document an encounter between two juvenile Crested Caracaras. For me, Caracaras are “Holy Grail” birds, a species that is at the same time exotic, extraordinarily photogenic, and damn near impossible to photograph well. My experience has been that getting good photographs of one or more of these birds, with the limited equipment that I have, is almost indescribably difficult. Getting a series of photos of an interaction like the one that René and I documented is like winning the PowerBall lottery.
My story of the birds’ encounter is a bit long, and I have a lot of photos to show, so I’m going to tell it in two parts.
A Crested Caracara is a member of the falcon family. It is a very big bird, about the size of a Common Raven or slightly larger. It has an extraordinary appearance, unique among bird species in the United States. An adult is mostly black, but it has a salt and pepper (black and white) throat, a white neck, and a white head surmounted by a black crest. A Caracara has a huge, chisel-like blue-gray beak. Its most commanding feature is its face. From the eyes forward to the beak the facial skin is devoid of feathers. Most amazingly, the skin can change color, from pale blue, to pink, to orange, or to deep red, depending on the bird’s mood. A Caracara has very long legs and it is a good runner when it is on the ground. It has long, narrow wings and a long tail that is white at the base, but with a black stripe at the end. A juvenile Caracara is chestnut colored.
Caracaras are opportunistic feeders. They’ll eat almost any flesh, whether it be small rodents, carrion, lizards, or road kill. And, although they have a reputation of being strictly meat eaters, I’ve seen them eating pecans.
In winter, these birds form flocks in the vast agricultural flatlands northwest of Tucson, between Tucson and Phoenix. Sometimes 30 or more of these birds will group together. That doesn’t mean they’re easy to find. Far from it, the agricultural lands are vast and the flocks are small. Finding them is a matter of good luck.
René and I happened upon a flock that was in with a herd of sheep. A juvenile bird was busily feeding on the carcass of a lamb, and it ignored us as we crept close enough to photograph it.
The Caracara was greedily ripping chunks of flesh from the lamb’s carcass and gulping them down.
Suddenly, a second juvenile bird showed up and immediately engaged in a threat display intended, no doubt, to intimidate the first bird.
Notice that the second bird’s facial skin is pale blue whereas the first bird’s is a deep pink. I don’t know what emotions these colors signify but, clearly, the second bird was the aggressor in this confrontation.
The first bird quickly backed away from the carcass, leaving the second bird in sole possession of it.
The second bird then ignored its rival and pawed at the carcass, as if to inspect it.
Tomorrow I’ll finish this story and reveal the truly amazing behavior that the second bird engaged in after it had secured its victory.
Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 400 DO+1.4X Extender, ISO 640, f6.3 @ 1/1250.