Remember When the Crested Caracara Came to Massachusetts ?

For the uninitiated, bird watching may seem like a passive, peculiar and maybe silly activity, but it’s a pursuit that has a lot in common with a treasure hunt, or “seek and find” games. It combines patience with the kind of passion and perseverance usually reserved for treasure hunters or The Discovery Channel’s new stars:  gold miners.

While looking through some of my favorite bird books, I ran across this clipping from 1999, reporting on the rare appearance of a Crested Caracara in South Eastern Massachusetts in 1999. The article focused on the debate among birders and wildlife experts about its origin. For a bird to “count” and be added to the state list of birds in Massachusetts, its not just a matter of a few people “spotting” the individual in question.

I remember chasing that bird along Route 105, near the old Cumberland Farms field. Of course “chasing” has a different meaning if you’re a birder. I never actually “got” the bird.

Slogging through barren corn fields up to mid-calf in mud (and goodness knows what else) I spent about half a day in the pouring rain, choosing to use my car as a photo “blind” when the downpour threatened to inundate my binoculars.

After about an hour, I spotted something about the size of a crow that stood out from the dark bark of a line of rain-soaked trees about 200 yards away. I must have spent 15 minutes carefully studying what should have been my caracara.

My happy discovery turned out to be a mass of leaves and a light strip of bark. It’s human nature to “see” what you want to see, and turning an inanimate object into a life bird is incredibly easy, and a real blow to any birder’s ego.

The Massachusetts Avian Records Committee requires documentation, eyewitness accounts, sketches (or even better, photographs) of any rare species that appears in the state. Above and beyond such evidence, there’s always a question of origin (sort of like needing “provenance” for antiques) Its not uncommon for birds to “stowaway”  on boats, escape from a zoo or home or even hitch a ride in the cargo area of planes.

The “escapee” hypothesis was the leading theory back in 1999, but recently I came across a report that indicated the Crested Caracara may be extending its range, or becoming more mobile.  From a report published in Bird Observer, April 2008, I found this clarification: “A 1999 record of Crested Caracara was originally rejected because of questionable natural occurrence. A resubmission of the record cited a pattern in the increasing number of extralimital occurrences, effectively convincing the Committee that it should be added to the State List of naturally occurring species.”

So, even though I missed “my” Crested Caracara” 12 years ago, there’s still a chance another individual may make an appearance sometime in my lifetime.

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