A Chance Encounter with Caracaras

A Chance Encounter with Caracaras

Feb 10, 2017 ~ Going out for a day of birding and photography is always an iffy situation. Some days the light is perfect and then you can't find any birds. Other times the birds are plentiful and active but it is a Blinding Sunstorm™ and you know the results will be unsatisfactory due to harsh shadows. And then, thankfully there are the days when it all comes together.

We had such a day on Feb 3 in the Surfside area. Perfect light and we found Ospreys with fish flying overhead, a female American Kestrel on short poles who kept posing no matter how close we got, and an abundance of hawks. Late in the day we were on the back side of the auto tour at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge talking about what a successful trip it had been when Bill Maroldo spotted a Red-tailed Hawk in a small bare tree. But, before we could get out of the truck, he flew off. We proceeded on to a T-intersection and started a turn to the left.

FULL STOP!

OMG... What a surprise!
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 800

Not one but TWO Crested Caracaras on the side of the road! Bill backed up a bit and we held our breath. Caracaras mostly eat carrion, and these two had something tasty. It was unlikely to be road kill due to the lack of traffic on the auto tour. The occasional car travels slowly, looking for wildlife and any stray animal has plenty of time to get out of the way.

Caracara tearing into kill
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/6.3 ISO 1250

I was shooting over Bill's shoulder, but it is hard holding all that weight in such an awkward position. I wanted to get out but I was terrified they would startle and fly away. I carefully slipped out of the truck, stayed low and hidden. Slowly I raised up and braced the big lens on a bean bag propped on the hood.

They never seemed to notice.

Checking the unfriendly skies
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1600
sec f/6.3 ISO 2000

Now I could see both of them. While one Caracara worked on the carcass at the side of the road, the other seemed exceedingly nervous and continually scanned the sky.

Flycatching?
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1600
sec f/6.3 ISO 2000

He made several short jumps in to the air, turning and twisting.  My first thought was that he was catching insects in the air although I didn't see any. I could be right, as it seems they will eat almost anything:

Carrion, small animals. Feeds on a wide variety of smaller creatures, either captured alive or found dead. Diet includes rabbits, ground squirrels, skunks, various birds (plus their eggs and young), frogs, snakes, lizards, turtles, young alligators, fish, large insects. per Audubon

In any event, it made for some great action shots since his jumps were only a few feet in the air.

Airborne!
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1600
sec f/6.3 ISO 2000

The other one continued pick at the fresh kill. Our working theory is the Red-tailed Hawk we saw earlier had killed something, eaten his fill and the Caracaras were feasting on the leftovers.

Perhaps the nervous one was expecting the hawk to return?

Running!
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1600
sec f/6.3 ISO 2000

He was really putting on a show. I was speechless. This event rates up there with the day we found the Ospreys playing tag and the little Kestrel eating a mouse. And the light was good (overcast and evenly lit), the backgrounds were stellar (not cluttered with vegetation or limbs) and my new Nikon could handle high ISOs AND high shutter speeds. Additionally, the birds were ignoring us and no cars were coming to scare them off.

It doesn't get much better than this :-)

Attack!
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 2000

Sentry bird continued to hop around striking great poses but finally moved off down the road. I turned my attention back to the bird with the kill.

What can I say? They eat dead stuffs
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 2000

By this time the first bird had dragged the kill out of the grass into the road. Thank you very much! It was now easier to see the what he was eating. We couldn't tell much about it except it was fairly large, dark and looked like it had feathers not fur. It was fresh judging by the bright red blood.

Almost but not quite
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/6.3 ISO 2000

Maybe he was concerned about us being so close or didn't want to be spotted and have to share with the ever-present vultures, but he attempted to fly off with the kill. Obviously, it was a bit too heavy and he dropped it. Looking at the photographs on my computer, it is definitely a Coot, but it was hard to see at the time.

How do I know it is a Coot? Those feet are unmistakable.

Decisions...
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 2000

There didn't seem to be much left of the poor little Coot and evidently the bird decided it wasn't worth the effort. 

Leaving...
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 2000

With a couple of quick flaps he was gone. I followed him up into the sky but those photos don't compare with all these close ups. We got out and made some phone photos of the poor Coot:

Poor little Coot ~ Galaxy Note 4 photo

Poor little Coot ~ Galaxy Note 4 photo

Whew. What an adventure! From start to finish just a little less than 10 minutes passed. I got 165 shots and Bill got almost twice that.

Crested Caracaras seem to be spreading their range a bit further north as I have seen a few reports of sightings around northeast Texas. We see them all over the coastal area and I have seen photos in FB of small family groups, adults and juveniles in addition to single birds. Caracaras are year-round residents and we have a couple of good leads on nesting sites; we saw one carrying nesting material in December. They are fairly common sights overhead or on fence posts, but this was a real treat to find them on the ground in such an open spot.

Caracaras have been observed stealing eggs and even fledglings from nests. I saw a photo on FB of one carrying a TURTLE in its beak. They will even steal turtle eggs! From Google, I found some tantalizing hints that "when hunting larger prey two birds may work together". I saw a photo of a young Caracara eating a really large rabbit perched in a dead tree. I suppose it is possible these two snatched the Poor Little Coot from the side of the road and made off with him. Or, as we suspected, the Red-tail Hawk let them have his left-overs. Or the Coot just up and died from fright on the spot.

We just don't know.

Have you seen a Caracara? Sometimes they are mixed in with vultures on the side of the road. Do you feel sorry for the Poor Little Coot? One FB friend likened them to potato chips, everybody eats them... Let me know what you think in the comments below!

The Other Rookery at Rockport

The Other Rookery at Rockport

Spoonies at Surfside are Showing Signs...

Spoonies at Surfside are Showing Signs...