It was going to be just another day of birding for Dale Wilde at Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, in the height of July. The vacationing 53-year-old from Columbus, Ohio, was out at the crack of dawn, exploring the park’s rugged backcountry when she saw a brown-capped head bobbing in a pine tree just 50 yards away. Instantly she knew it was a Crested Caracara—the first ever recorded in Alberta.
“I was shocked to see a Crested Caracara so far north,” says Wilde. “I knew immediately this must have been a rare occurrence.”
Wilde flagged down a tour van stuffed with other tourists and pointed out what she saw. The driver, tour operator Joe Urie, thought he’d seen the bird a few days earlier, but questioned whether there could really be a caracara so far north. Now it was confirmed. And he got proof with a video of the bird jumping from branch to branch.
Wilde watched the falcon for about an hour, snapped a long series of photos with her 600mm zoom lens, and then continued on her birding expedition. She later reported her encounter to the Alberta Bird Record Committee at the Royal Alberta Museum, where it was officially accepted as the province’s first caracara.
So how did the distant land of Alberta end up with a caracara? Listed as threatened in the state of Florida in 1987, the species has experienced a gradual decline in the in the state as a result of habitat loss and hunting. However, it remains common along the southern U.S. border, where it’s sometimes known as the “Mexican eagle.”
Alberta’s surprise visitor was likely a vagrant, says Christian Artuso, the Manitoba program manager for Birds Studies Canada. Scavengers, or part-time scavengers like Crested Caracaras, which also pursue live prey, have a long history of wandering outside their normal range: There have been nearly a dozen sightings in California. This year, caracaras have also been recorded in Seattle, Washington, and British Columbia.
“Local, short-term conditions such as drought or habitat change in core areas of the southwest, and/or population dynamics may have resulted in these western vagrancies this year,” Artuso says.
Based on photos of the bird, Artuso predicts that the displaced caracara was a young one—probably no more than a year old. “The breast pattern is halfway between a spotty juvenile and a barred adult, the browner tones of the plumage, the yellow legs, which would be pale bluish-grey in a hatch-year bird [a bird that was born this year], plus the admixture of coloration in flight feathers,” are all helpful clues, he says.
Whatever the reason for this orange-faced outsider’s visit, its presence made quite a stir among Canadian fans. Apparently the caracara remained in its hideout in the trees for about a week and was even reported feasting on a grizzly bear’s leftovers by one of the park’s rangers. But once the bird’s whereabouts went public on social media, photographers and birders converged, probably causing it to flee to parts unknown.