The world is changing faster than ever before, and it is plain to see that some species are doing better than others with the shift. Specialized species are the first ones to suffer, creatures that rely on a particular food source must follow said food source, wait it out, or perish. Others which are adaptable are generally better suited to life alongside humans, as we are usually the catalysts for change. Over the past few years I’ve enjoyed observing one of our particularly resourceful raptors, the Yellow-headed Caracara.
This lesser-known relative of the falcon family doesn’t sport any particularly attractive characteristics, adults are buffy-yellow overall, with brown wings and tail. Juveniles are many more shades of brown. It’s not the fastest bird in the world, nor is it the most powerful. Its rasping call is akin to fingernails on a chalkboard. But hot damn these birds eat anything!
Young birds have been known to eat fruit. Lizards, snakes and any small animal is fair game for this bird. They will also eat carrion, inclusive of roadkill. They will go through trash and pick out edibles. I’ve seen them sitting on the backs of cattle, picking off ticks and other invertebrates. In April of this year a local tour guide reported that she observed an adult Yellow-headed Caracara fishing, as Ospreys/Bald Eagles/Black-collared Hawks etc do. Back in 2012, I observed the same behaviour, but had no idea that this was previously undocumented!
Many species of Caracara are rather scheming birds, and our Yellow-headed Caracara is no exception. They generally do not eat other birds, as a result, their presence does not generally strike fear into the feathered hearts of their neighbours. This complacency leads to the Yellow-headed Caracara being allowed much closer than say, a Peregrine Falcon that’s known to take down other birds. (The presence of any falcon is enough to send most birds into a panic)
At the crack of dawn one morning, we came upon this juvenile Yellow-headed Caracara ripping open a Short-billed Dowitcher. Arriving on the scene after the fact leaves it open to interpretation. But let’s examine the facts. Dowitchers spend the night on exposed mudflats, resting with other migratory shorebirds. Within a flock like this, once one bird recognizes a threat, they will sound the alarm, and the entire flock will take evasive action. Yellow-headed Caracaras are common in the area, and being preoccupied with other food sources probably lulled the visitors into a false sense of security. It’s likely that this bird was taken out in the darkness. It’s likely that the Caracara attacked on foot, as many species do.
Either way, this provided us photographers with some excellent subject matter on that morning 🙂
Their diversity in food preference has led to their status in Trinidad being upgraded from “Rare” to “Common”. In Tobago, where there are no vultures, the Yellow-headed Caracara has readily assumed the role of chief clean up – after colonizing the island in the late 1980’s.
A bird with a more selective palate – and an even more interesting means of securing a meal – is the fascinating Magnificent Frigatebird. When I was still in school, I used to spend many hours outside, gazing at the soaring Frigates overhead. I marveled at how they’d travel at varying speeds in varying directions, without ever even flapping a wing. Sometimes, these large birds would fly lower than usual, allowing me the opportunity to differentiate between male and female. As I got older and learned more about them, I only became more enthralled by their very existence. They have the largest wing to body length ratio of any bird. They eat fish without ever coming into contact with the ocean. Most of their meals are stolen from other hardworking seabirds though.
Magnificent Frigatebirds also follow activity under the surface of the ocean, and will follow hunting fish to capitalize upon any boldfaced escape attempts. Flying fish “fly” out of the water to escape larger predatory fish – only to fall comfortably in the lap of waiting Frigates, as can be seen on this gripping clip shot a couple miles off the northeastern corner of Tobago.
Anyway, the distinctive silhouette of faraway Magnificent Frigatebirds is what originally sucked me into the void of observing birds in their element. Regret it I do not 🙂