Monday, 26 December 2016

Crazy Chase Season 2016 - there's more! Crested Caracara anyone?

My last post about rarity chasing adventures left off at the night of November 26/27, probably around 1 am. Let's not forget my rules for chasing rarities this fall. I am planning to do a Big Year starting on New Year's Day 2017, so in an attempt to practice relaxing to help prepare I decided that I would only chase rarities very far this fall if:
1) The bird is new to my Ontario list.
2) The bird is really, really rare and I may not have a chance to chase another one next year.

Two and a half days passed before I left again for another crazy chase, this one being much crazier than the last couple combined...

The photo that started it all. Captured and posted to Facebook by Chris Eagles
It all began with a guy named Chris Eagles at an MTO (Ministry of Transportation Ontario) aggregate pit near Wawa, Algoma District, on the east coast of Lake Superior. He noticed a funny looking hawk-like bird picking through some fishing scraps near his work site on November 28. It seemed accustomed to the nearby workers and machinery so he got close enough to capture an identifiable photo with his cell phone and posted it on his Facebook page. Joanne Redwood, a birding friend of mine, happened to come across this photo on November 29 and immediately shared it with the Ontario Birds Facebook group. Why? It was a wild Crested Caracara in Ontario!!

Our initial view of the Crested Caracara upon spotting it at sunrise
I was one of the first birders to notice her reposting of Chris's sighting and immediately began asking him questions and planning my route to Wawa. I posted Chris's sighting on his behalf to the Ontbirds bird alert then called a handful of close birding friends to see if they too were interested in chasing it. Within a few hours we had plans for two full vehicles to make the journey. I immediately got in touch with Josh Vandermeulen of Niagara, Henrique Pacheco of Toronto, and Steve Charbonneau of Erieau. Steve would have normally opted to travel through Michigan as it would save him and I nearly four hours each way, but he had just forfeited his near-expired passport in order to process a new one less than an hour before I called him! This worked out well for all of us, because I had already arranged to meet Josh and Henrique on the Ontario route. I met up with Steve in Kent County in the evening and we picked up Josh in Guelph and Henrique in Toronto on our way around Lake Huron. To get therein about 13 hours we drove non-stop except for food and fuel, while keeping in touch with our friends Barb Charlton, Tyler Hoar, and David Pryor who were also en route from the Toronto area. The seven of us arrived at the outskirts of Wawa by sunrise. Steve, Henrique, Barb, and I planned on looking for as long as three days for this rarity, but the others needed to pin it down the same day or they'd head home empty-handed.

Crested Caracara up in a Black Spruce tree
We checked the places it had been seen the day before like the entrance to the MTO pit and the lawns of various nearby businesses - no luck. Josh, being familiar with the villages surrounding Wawa, suggested we try searching the small First Nation village of Michipicoten. Half an hour into our search we had already stumbled upon a Northern Shrike, my favourite of the world's bird species, as well as flocks of Common Redpolls and Evening Grosbeaks. If I recall correctly, Josh made a left hand turn as we rolled into the town and casually exclaimed "There it is." I think Josh was in shock! We were so fatigued and expecting a lengthy search that it took the rest of us a few seconds to realize what was going on! The car irrupted with sounds of excitement, inappropriate language, and very slow camera shutters due to the early morning light.

Liftoff! Crested Caracara taking off for a lawn after realizing it can't peck through a driveway
  Barb, Tyler, and David rolled in shortly after we called them and we all celebrated this special sighting. While we watched it, the Crested Caracara pulled a few worms from the soil and ate some food scraps on a lawn before flying into a spruce tree. Tyler, knowing how much this species loves eating roadkill and garbage, tried to coax it back out of the tree by tossing the following on the ground: 1. his orange hat, 2. his own body, 3. a road-killed Gray Squirrel he found earlier. Even birds with the filthiest of diets like vultures and caracaras have standards, so obviously it didn't go for Tyler's bait! ;) It eventually flew down to a driveway so we hopped back in the cars and enjoyed it through the windows. I find that birds are most nervous when they see our legs and feet, so we didn't want to risk scaring it away.

Crested Caracara head-on view reminds me of Secretary Birds from Africa!
The other three started their trip back south and Steve, Henrique, Josh, and I stuck around for another half hour, immortalizing this visitor in the form of very sharp close-up photos. We left for home by mid-morning, stopping a couple of times to enjoy the scenery seeing as this was Henrique's and my first visit to Lake Superior. We ended up seeing two more Northern Shrikes along the way and had a very energetic and fun time driving back after such a successful chase. I was back home, barely awake, just after midnight.

We saw three Northern Shrikes that day! This one was photographed in Leamington in October 2015
Some readers might be wondering why we assume that this individual is naturally wild and not some released falconry bird or somehow transported here. I suppose there is little to know way to be 100% sure that any raptor, common or not, is an escaped pet or of questionable origin, but this is not a desirable species to falconers, and random long distance vagrancy in Crested Caracara is not without precedence. There are three prior records in Ontario, contributing to a total of as many as 15 records across Canada (depending on which separate records might be the same bird), 11 of which occurred in the last six years. This would be only the eighth ranking northernmost record for this species, so it's clear that they have a pattern of far northbound vagrancy, especially in recent years.

Ontario's beautiful mountainous scenery - Alona Bay, Lake Superior (Algoma District)
I think this sighting of a Crested Caracara is probably my most exciting bird sighting in Ontario to date, maybe aside from some self-found rarities. It is from very far south of Ontario, is a very large, colourful, and unique looking species, and was teasing us for months while it was fed and photographed by many birders in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan from July until mid November (The finer details of its plumage strongly suggests that this is the same bird that had been watched nearby in Michigan for months). From what I gather, this was the first time a Crested Caracara has ever been photographed and chaseable in Ontario and only Ontario's fourth ever documented record. We are very excited to have been the group who spear-headed chasing it! It was pleasing to see reports of other birders re-finding it for days after us, and it sounds like it was present in Michipicoten until the evening of Tuesday, December 6.

I can't get enough of these Crested Carcara photos!
It's now a few weeks later and my heart still pounds harder every time I think about that adventure. I have no doubt that I would have been racing up there with Alan if things went a little different this year. I miss him.

Good birding!



  1. I look forward to following your Big Year. I'm still upset that I missed this awesome bird. When you're 13 apparently school comes before mega rare birds :)

    Good birding,
    Quinten Wiegersma

    1. Hi Quinten, thanks for the encouragement! I know from experience that it can be painful seeing everyone's reports of chasing a mega rarity and not being able to go but I promise that being at school is worth your while! Realistically you'll probably have another more viable chance to chase a caracara in Ontario in the future. Keep up the good birding!

    2. Yeah, I guess school is quite important. I did actually have plans to chase it only a few days after it left. Apparently it has been re-found west of Lake Superior. Maybe there's still a chance for more Ontario birders to see it!