Crested Caracaras In Springtime
You may enlarge any image in this blog by clicking on it. Click again for a full screen image.
It’s been several months since I posted images of one of my favorite subjects, the Crested Caracara. Each fall and winter Caracaras migrate up to the agricultural terrain between Phoenix and Tucson. Most of these birds appear to be youngsters in their first and second years. As winter ends, they return to their hot-weather homes. Many seem to head for the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation at the southern end of Pima County and I suspect that others wind up somewhere in northern Mexico. At any rate, their presence in agricultural country diminishes until the last of them has left around mid-April.
For that reason I really wasn’t expecting to see Caracaras as I drove around recently looking for subjects to photograph. However, a few days ago, I was driving on a rural dirt road when I saw a familiar looking bird perching in the road directly in front of my car. I stopped and made this image.
My heart beat faster when I realized that there were several Caracaras perched alongside the road. I allowed my car to creep along and as I approached the perching Caracaras I stopped and photographed them from my car’s open window.
Caracaras are among the most exotic birds living in southern Arizona. Although they are common in Mexico and throughout latin America they are rare in the United States. There’s a small population of these birds in southern Arizona, another small population in southern Texas, and almost inexplicably, a tiny population of them in central Florida. They are distantly related to falcons although they look nothing like falcons. They are large birds, about the size of a Red-tailed Hawk, but leaner in profile. They are opportunistic feeders, eating carrion but also preying on small rodents and insects. They have very long legs and can run with considerable agility. Caracaras are aggressive birds who will fight with other species for dominance at feeding locations, such as the carcasses of dead animals.
Normally, these birds are shy in the presence of humans. I was delighted that the individuals that I photographed, consisting mostly of yearling birds, were so cooperative.
Young Caracaras are mostly brown and beige in color. As they mature, their brown plumage becomes black, their pale beige necks turn nearly white, and they develop a speckled pattern on their upper breasts. The birds that I photographed were making the transition from juvenile to mature plumage. One bird among the group appeared to have adult or near-adult plumage and may have been a Caracara going into its third year.
I was thrilled to be able to capture one of the birds in flight as it passed to the side of my car. Caracaras are extremely strong fliers. They have very long wings in proportion to their bodies and one often sees them flying low, just feet above the ground.
After a few days I returned to the area in which I’d seen these birds. They were no longer perching on the road where I’d seen them. However, based on a tip that I’d received from a friend, I went to a second location nearby and encountered a flock of Black Vultures feeding on a carcass. A few Caracaras were mixed in with the vultures.
This final image not only depicts these birds’ typical feeding behavior but it shows the comparative size of the vultures and Caracaras. The vultures are much larger, but the Caracaras are more aggressive and invariably are the first to feed in a situation like this one.
One final comment about Crested Caracaras. If you look at all six of the images in today’s post you’ll notice that there is color variation in the skin that is situated between the bases of the birds’ beaks and their eyes. Some of the Caracaras have pink skin, one (the more mature bird) has orange-red skin, and the Caracara feeding with the vultures has bluish skin. What’s that all about? Well, Caracaras can change the color of their facial skin, supposedly depending on their mood. That poses a problem for me because I have no idea what moods the different skin tones convey. Evidently, the Caracaras know, and that’s what really matters as far as they’re concerned.
Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture preferred setting. The first five images shot at ISO 500 and f8. The final image shot at ISO 400 and f8. Shutter speeds varied from 1/800 to 1/1600.