Crested Caracara
Davenport Landing, Santa Cruz County, California
25 September 2002
Joseph Morlan

Photos © 27 September 2002 by Calvin Lou.
Today, Robbie Fischer and I decided to try for the Crested Caracara which had been seen along Swanton Road near Davenport Landing, Santa Cruz County. It was first noted by Madeleine Clyde on 21 September and seen off-and-on since. We arrived to find a large number of interested birders staking out two likely pastures at the south end of Swanton Road where previous sightings had been. However dense fog made viewing difficult and by the end of the morning most people had left. Robbie and I were having lunch at the upper pasture when Shirley Murphy called via cell phone to alert us that she, Ryan DiGaudio and Cindy Cummings had just glimpsed a distant bird which was probably the Caracara. We arrived a few minutes later, but the bird had disappeared. Eventually it reappeared atop a fence post near a group of cows about a half mile south of the south end of Swanton Road. Cindy Cummings drove down to get closer to the bird and attempt to take photos. Robbie and I decided to join her and after climbing through poison oak up a bluff on the east side of Highway 1 across from mile post 30.12, we were rewarded with closer views of this interesting bird. Nevertheless heat waves across the open field made observation of fine details impossible. Additional photos and detailed discussion of issues surrounding this record may be found at Don Roberson's site. Additional photos of this bird by Roger Wolfe are here and another image by Kathy Robertson is here.

The following description is based on notes made at the time:

A large raptor with a thick white neck, black cap, dark body and long tail. At closer range through the scope we could make out the long yellow legs as the bird stalked around on the ground in the manner of an overgrown chicken. The red skin on the face was clearly visible and it contrasted with a large hooked, blue-gray bill. The dark cap extended back onto the pale nape forming a point and once it was raised forming a distinct crest. The white areas on the neck and upper breast could be seen to actually be a pale cream color and fine dark-brown barring was evident across the lower chest extending around to the lower nape. The black belly became a rich tawny-brown color at the upper breast where the dark barring started to form. The lower belly and undertail appeared buffy and the long tail was pale at the base with a dark terminal tail band.

The wing coverts appeared to be a fairly rich tawny-brown color. The folded flight feathers also seemed quite worn and brownish looking.

After watching the bird for about 40 minutes, it took flight and headed towards us out over Highway 1. It circled to the south and disappeared behind a grove a eucalyptus trees to the south where we were unable to relocate the bird.

In flight we could see that the outer primaries were conspicuously white with narrow dark tips forming two large white patches in the wings. The pale base to the tail was also evident in flight. The flight feathers seemed quite worn and I felt there were primaries missing on each wing suggesting active wing molt.

I believe this bird is in Basic 1 plumage (2nd calendar year) and it closely resembles photos of a similar bird seen at Marina, Monterey County last month. It is possible it is the same individual, although photos of the Marina bird show a more distinctly blue bill and a whiter collar than the bird we saw. However, those differences are not evident on the video of the Marina bird by Leslie Lieurance posted at (windows media) and (real media).


There are no accepted records of Crested Caracara in California, however Crested Caracara is on the California Supplemental list based on a bird in Mono County in the Fall of 1987.

The 14th Report of the California Bird Records Committee authored by Don Roberson (Western Birds 24:113-166, 1993) has a listing of many past records including the one from Mono County and extended discussion about possible natural occurrence. Here is an excerpt of Roberson's Crested Caracara account:

"The AOU Check-list (1983) described the northern edge of the species' range as northern Baja California, southern Arizona, central Texas, and central Florida and cited extralimital records of apparently wild birds for central New Mexico, and Oklahoma. There are three rather recent records from the Arizona side of the Colorado River, and the species was resident at Yuma, Arizona, until 1905 (Rosenberg et al. 1991), but Arizona populations have drastically declined in this century (Rea 1983) and now provide much less of source population for vagrants. There are no acceptable Great Basin records, as birds in southwestern Colorado and at Yellowstone NP, Wyoming, have been thought to be escapees. Although the number of captive caracaras in private hands is unknown, and the species is not commonly kept in zoos, zoo birds have escaped and have traveled at least short distances: e.g., an escape from the Norfolk zoo in Virginia was observed in North Carolina (Potter et al. 1980).

"The Committee believes that caracaras seen near coastal cities are all escapees, including ones reported at Monterey (Oct-Nov 1837: Grinnell and Miller 1944), Pebble Beach, MTY (1916; ...)and recent birds at Alameda, ALA..., Laguna Beach, ORA (early 1960s with jesses on legs; ...Montana de Oro SP, SLO (mid-1960s....) and Orinda, CC (Sep 1988....)

"The CBRC recognizes that the likelihood of any bird's natural occurrence is usually judged from insufficient data. ....

"While the CBRC has not accepted any certain records of Crested Caracara for California, there is little doubt that the species has occurred within the state. There is an undocumented sight record from 1853 at Ft. Yuma ... and a specimen was taken on 15 Mar 1928 at Pilot Knob, just 1 mile south of the border into Baja California .... There are Pleistocene fossils of caracaras from California at the McKittrick and La Brea tar pits....."

However, recent additional coastal records from California suggests that some coastal bird may be genuine vagrants. I am aware of the following recent reports, although not all of them have been documented.

  1. Santa Barbara, SBA - 10/9/01
  2. Los Angleles, LA - 10/20/01
  3. Gaviota, SBA - 1/24/02
  4. Goleta, SBA - 4/30/02
  5. Ventura, VEN - 5/5/02
  6. San Jacinto WMA, RIV - 7/4/02
  7. Vandenberg, SBA - 7/14/02-7/23/02
  8. Arnold Road Sod Farm, VEN - 8/8/02
  9. Marina, MTY - 8/11/02-8/13/02 (excellent photos here and here.)
  10. Pescadero, SM - "early September 2002"
  11. Half Moon Bay, SM -10/22-11/6/02

Additional debate regarding the possible natural occurrence of California Crested Caracaras occurred on the Frontiers of Bird Identification mailing list. Threads are here, here and here. Don Roberson has assembled additional information including other records in North America here.