Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Crested Caracara in New Jersey

Last Saturday while I was off birding elsewhere, Vincent Nichnadowicz discovered a Crested Caracara in a field at Grover Farm, a historic preservation site in West Windsor, New Jersey. The bird stuck around, and since then numerous birders have gone to see and document it. Yesterday morning I finally had a chance to see it. Getting there took more than twice as long as it should have, as traffic on US 130 was backed up for miles because of a truck accident that shut down the New Jersey Turnpike. By the time we got to the site, the caracara had already left its overnight roost on a utility pole and was foraging on the ground in a depression on the far side of the field. Its head was just barely visible above the alfalfa.

Eventually it did move around a bit more as it foraged. Several times it stopped walking to pick at something on the ground with its bill. Most of its body became visible when it walked up on the small rise in front of the depression, which allowed for more complete views of the bird and (relatively) better photographs. I think the one above is the best of the ones I took. In it, you can see the caracara's distinctive facial features — the orange base of its hooked bill, the black cap and crest, and the white face and neck. The tail banding is also visible. In the hour and a half that I watched it, I never saw it fly. This was the 300th bird species I have seen in New Jersey. Several other birders were present yesterday morning, including two who had driven down from New York City.

Crested Caracara is not a regular visitor to New Jersey. This species is normally found much further south, in southern Florida, the Caribbean, Texas, and south through Mexico, Central America, and northern South America. It prefers arid or semiarid open habitats, such as brushland or agricultural areas. There are two other caracara species from which it was recently split: Southern Crested Caracara and Guadelupe Caracara (the latter now extinct). Caracaras are placed within the family Falconidae. Unlike other falcons, they run after prey on the ground and scavenge instead of pursuing birds in the air. Caracaras will feed on carrion or garbage if those are available; otherwise they prey on a variety of small animals like rodents, amphibians, reptiles, and invertebrates. When they hunt on foot, they use their feet to turn over objects that might conceal prey.

This is not the first time a Crested Caracara has been reported in New Jersey, but it is still a potential first state record. Bill Boyle's Birds of New Jersey (which I reviewed here) mentions two previous records, neither of which was accepted by the New Jersey Bird Records Committee. The first was in Colonia in 1976 and was so tame that birders assumed it had escaped from captivity. The second was seen at Sandy Hook on May 5, 2007. In both cases, the NJBRC rejected the records because they were unsure if the birds were actually wild. Historically, Crested Caracara was considered a sedentary species, unlikely to travel much beyond its normal range. However, as Nate Swick and various commenters discuss on the ABA Blog, there have been enough sightings of the species across the continent in recent years to suggest that caracaras may be more prone to vagrancy than previously thought. Some local birders are speculating that this individual was blown north by the remnants of Hurricane Isaac. That may be true, or it may have flown here under different circumstances. Many birders from the area are seeing and documenting this bird's appearance and behavior so hopefully we will have a clearer idea of this individual's status than the previous two sightings.