Wanderlist - Raptors
This week’s Wanderlist features Cecilia Nasti and Louie Bond exploring places you can go in Texas to see birds of prey like eagles, hawks and falcons: the raptors. Cecilia talks with state ornithologist Cliff Shackelford about one big apex predator in particular – the Caracara.
UTTS: S2E3: WANDERLIST – RAPTORS
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[NARRATION] There’s birdwatching and then there’s birdwatching. That second one—birdwatching—is when you cast your gaze skyward to observe the apex predators of the avian world: raptors.
On today’s Wanderlist, we feature raptors and the best places to see them in Texas. We also visit with our favorite ornithologist regarding a particular raptor with a name so nice, we say it twice: Caracara…or Cahra-Cahra…potato…potahto.
Stay with us.
[NARRATION] From Texas Parks and Wildlife, this is Under the Texas Sky’s Wanderlist. I’m Cecilia Nasti and with me in the studio is Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine editor, Louie Bond.
[LOUIE] Well, hello there, Cecilia.
[CECILIA] Well, hello there, Louie. Let’s tell our listeners: what is a Wanderlist?
[LOUIE] Wanderlist includes places in Texas. Places originally featured in the pages of Texas parks and Wildlife magazine.
[CECILIA] These are places that we think deserve another look.
[LOUIE] Or listen, as the case may be.
[CECILIA] Well, let’s get started. You know, I really love the topic of our Wanderlist today, Louie.
[LOUIE] We’re going to talk about the apex predators of the sky. Bum…bum…bum [laughter]
[CECILIA] In the spring 2017 issue of Texas parks and Wildlife magazine y’all published a Wanderlist, which was developed by our own “celebrity” ornithologist; you know him, you love him: Cliff Shackelford. And we’ll talk with him a little bit later.
[LOUIE] Yes. We called the piece ‘Soaring Spots”. And it focuses on where readers can get an eyeful of some of the most magnificent raptors in Texas.
[CECILIA] Texas is a birder’s paradise, after all. And raptors are fascinating birds. And I know you’ve come prepared to tell me some of these great facts.
[LOUIE] Well, you know, I know a little bit about everything and a lot about nothing [laughter], but here’s what I’ve found out about raptors. And so, raptors are eagles, owls, hawks. Oh, there’s falcons and kites and a bunch of others like that. Um, but they are basically birds that have these really sharp beaks and these huge talons—their little fingernails are just huge—and that’s how they get their prey. They’ll soar through the air and then dive down just incredibly fast; 150 miles an hour and grab that poor little bunny.
[LOUIE] But you know everybody’s gotta eat. Really, all of these birds are so incredible. I love to see them. We have them in our Central Texas yard; they come around because we have chickens, and so they’re very interested. But we have a bunch of different kinds, and all throughout the state. From the Panhandle to the Valley you’ll find these incredible birds. Females are generally larger than the males, but they both work together to raise the babies. Uh, one thing about these kinds of raptors is that they can see eight times more clearly than we can, which is weird because they can’t move their eyes from side to side…
[CECILIA] Oh, that’s so fascinating…
[LOUIE] Yeah. So, instead of moving their eyes, they can move their head really well. They have twice the amount of neck bones that we have, so they can turn their heads 180, which gives them that weird head turning thing that freaks us out. Uh, but it really helps their vision a lot. Which is great, because although they can hear well, they can’t smell worth a darn. So, they’re not going to sniff anything out at all. And a kind of really cool, but sort of gross thing they do, is that when they eat, they swallow the bones and the feathers and the fur, but they can’t really break all that down. So, they regurgitate a little pellet every couple of days.
[CECILIA] You know, I’ve heard about those. And, uh, people collect those, and they dissect them to see what these birds are eating.
[LOUIE] Right. You can look in there and it’s a little microcosm of all the things they’ve been eating. So, I’m sure it’s a great biological tool. And it’s just kind of oh, ah gross for us, too, in that really wonderful way [laughter].
[CECILIA] And so, are there times that we see them more often than not?
[LOUIE] Certainly so. Texas is at the epicenter of these migration routes. And a lot of these birds come up from South America in the spring and pass back through in the fall. So those are definitely the peak times.
[CECILIA] Okay, so speaking of seeing the birds…if I wanted to see some of these, where in Texas might I start.
[LOUIE] Well, you know, you can find these birds all over the state. There are so many places. But if you want to go see a lot, during the spring and the fall, head for example, to Corpus Christi: Hazel Bazemore Park. And this is a really hot birding spot for lots of birds, but particularly for hawks. It’s on the Nueces River, and roughly a half million hawks, eagles, kites, vultures—all those wonderful raptors—pass over the park during only the final eight days of September. So many birds in eight days. So, this is a great place; their hawk-watch platform is larger than my house at 17-hundred square feet [laughter], so there’s room for everybody. They have a really special festival there in September—you know that time when I told you they see all those wonderful birds. It’s called the Celebration of Flight Festival and it features live raptors and talks by the experts. And, of course, they’ll be crowding that huge tower to see all those millions of birds.
[CECILIA] Well, it sounds like you could just get an eyeful of hawks there and wouldn't have to go anywhere else, but I'm sure you'd want to.
[LOUIE] Well, maybe you live somewhere else, or maybe your vacation’s going to take you somewhere else, so maybe we’ll look at a few more spots. If you happen to be in the Panhandle in the winter—which is a very cool place to go see some snow and some bison—you’re also going to see a lot of hawks up there. Now, they’re not really at a particular park. The weird thing about the Panhandle, well I guess birders bird in odd places everywhere, but in the Panhandle, they bird along these Panhandle roads. And it you’ve driven up there you know there’s just these long straight shots of roads and endless sky and just nothing forever—and that’s hawk country. That’s where raptors like to soar and catch those thermals. So, you can see a lot of great raptors on any Panhandle road. But there are some in particular—there’s one I love; it’s called High Lonesome. What a great name for a road where you’re going to be in the High Plains grassland all by yourself just to see nature’s spectacle.
[CECILIA] If we are talkinga bout nature's spectacles, we can't forget the Rio Grande Valley.
[LOUIE] Well, you know, there are so many birding spots down in the Valley. In the Rio Grande Valley, that’s really where so much migration happens.
[CECILIA] What are some of the raptors you might see there?
[LOUIE] Well, you can see a lot of the hawks that you see everywhere; the Gray Hawk, and the Harris’s Hawk… And if you’re going to go beyond hawks into those fascinating eagles and other birds, the Mexican Eagle—we call it the Caracara, which means face-face—shows up at this park, and a lot of places actually around Texas.
[NARRATION] Coming up next, a conversation with Texas Parks and Wildlife Ornithologist, Cliff Shackelford, about Caracaras. But first…
Support from Toyota allows us to bring you stories from Under the Texas Sky. Toyota has been a proud sponsor of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation since 2002, providing generous support to help the department provide outdoor programs for Texans and conserve the wildlife of the Lone Star State.
This is Under the Texas Sky’s Wanderlist from Texas Parks and Wildlife…I’m Cecilia Nasti…Wanderlist is a collaboration with Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine. Editor, Louie Bond, and I have been talking about raptors and places in Texas to view them. That Wanderlist originally appeared in the May 2017 magazine, written by TPWD ornithologist Cliff Shackelford, and called “Soaring Spots”. We left off talking about Caracaras….and that’s where we pick up with Cliff…
[CLIFF] I’m the state ornithologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife; a position I’ve held for over two decades. That’s a lot of gray hair going over here.
[CECILIA] The gray-headed ornithologist. A New Species [laughs] We’re going to be talking about Caracara. Mexican Eagle. Are they an eagle? What is this bird.
[CLIFF] It’s the crested caracara. We have to apply the modifier, crested, because if you look – throughout the New World – there are several species of caracaras. But there are no other caracaras that occur in the US. And a colloquial name for the crested caracara is the Mexican Eagle.
[CECILIA] So, what is it that distinguishes this bird that makes people take notice?
[CLIFF] I think a lot of people wonder if this is a bald eagle they’re looking at. But, if you look carefully with binoculars, they don’t look anything like a bald eagle. So, they are a big raptor. They’re actually closely related to falcons more so than they are to hawks or eagles. So, he’s a falcon relative.
[CECILIA] But isn’t the caracara a little bit more opportunistic, so a little bit more like a vulture?
[CLIFF] Absolutely. So, genetics-wise, it’s related to the falcons, but doesn’t forage like one. Falcons are fast pursuers that catch critters on the wing—usually other birds. The caracara does eat a lot of roadkill, and that’s where a lot of people see them mixed in with vultures. Caracaras do like to eat easy pickins, and they will clean up our landscapes and our roadsides. So, we do see them a lot eating carrion along the roadside.
[CECILIA] So, you say that we see the Crested Caracara here; how far will people [have to go to] see it—in, say, the Texas area.
[CLIFF] The caracara gets up to the Red River, and it really has a tough time getting north of that. And, that’s changing, though. I think what we’re seeing is the crested caracara marching northward. We’ve noticed that—even in my lifetime I’ve seen it. And I think we’re going to keep seeing that. And that’s maybe a combination of things. Climate’s conducive for it. Lots of dead things on the landscape: roadkill, fish kills along reservoirs, and garbage… So, caracaras are moving north, but for now—for 2020—the Red River has been a pretty good northern barrier for that bird. And so, they’ve always kind of hid out in certain places in the state; certainly, South Texas, they’ve always been a component. But they’re starting to march northward. They’ve hit the Hill Country, and Central Texas and they’re moving even more north of that at a pretty rapid pace.
[CECILIA] Cliff, it sounds to me like they must be fairly adaptable where habitat is concerned.
[CLIFF] They’re fairly adaptable. They like open settings, grasslands and savannahs. They don’t really like forested areas. Where I live in the Pineywoods, we have a handful of records—they’re all fairly recent—and they’re not of birds that stick around. You can’t go back and see it again the next day. They’re what we call “one day wonders” that they’re probably just scouts or floaters. Birds that are like: I’m trying to find a place to call home, and this just doesn’t look right. So, they keep moving. The Pineywoods just doesn’t work. They don’t like a forested setting; they’re more of an open country bird.
[CECILIA] Where is somebody most likely to see one?
[CLIFF] The best place, I think, to view one is, if you drive on Highway 77 between Kingsville and Harlingen, that stretch is now going to be I69E. But all along that road is big ranch country. A lot of mesquite, a lot of grassland. It’s very open. A lot of it’s thorn scrub, and caracaras like that. That is a great place to look for caracaras along that highway, and you’ll see them perched in a tree, or on a fence post, or on a telephone pole. That’s the place I see the most numerous [caracaras], in that big ranch country, along what we call the Kenedy Sand Sheet, which is that stretch that runs basically from Kingsville due south.
[CECILIA] Let’s talk a little bit about their nesting and their mating; how many eggs they lay and babies the fledge….
[CLIFF] Like most raptors, they’ll lay three or four eggs and usually hatch three or four young. Caracaras are pretty successful; they’re finding a lot of roadkill. Caracaras are pumping out caracaras.
[CECILIA] They’re doing their job.
[CLIFF] They’re doing their job. They’re breeding well, and that’s a lot of what this expansion [northward] is.
[CECILIA] Well, let me ask you: is there ever a concern that we might end up having too many caracaras on the landscape?
[CLIFF] Well… [sigh] That’s a good question. I think, we think that with vultures, too, is can we ever have too many vultures… I don’t know if they thin themselves out or create their own balance. But we do have what’s called “carrying capacity” that I’m a believer in, in ecological terms. And that means that a given area can only host so many of certain species. There’s just not enough space, food, etcetera, to go around. And birds are very territorial, so, they don’t allow for big flocks of caracaras. You won’t see that.
[CECILIA] People shouldn’t be worried about caracara if they have small animals in their yard. Should they?
[CLIFF] Eh, caracaras are not very strong-footed, and that’s what it’s gonna take to get a domestic animal. So, I wouldn’t worry so much about the caracara as a threat. And there are a lot of old wives’ tales; people think that caracaras kill livestock. I think what’s happening is ranchers are coming up on already dead newborn calves that have vultures and caracaras that are just feasting on something that is already dead. And I think that it’s unfortunate that they think that the caracara and the vultures killed the calf; we just don’t have that kind of evidence. I know a lot of people believe it happened, but I challenge you to prove it. It’s a good example of guilt by association.
[CECILIA] Anything else you want people to know about caracara that we haven’t touched on?
[CLIFF] One interesting sighting you can have of a caracara is this big bulge in their throat; that’s their crop. That’s where food gets stored on the way down through the digestive system. And so, it’s kind of like when you go to a buffet and you ate too much and you gotta undo a belt buckle and a notch on your belt to make room for this bulging belly. That’s what you can see on occasion on a caracara. It’s a hairless [featherless] area and it just looks like a tumor. And so, people have called and written us asking what’s wrong with our caracara—it looks like it’s got a tumor. It’s a distended crop, and that bird has just engorged itself on food. And that’s all you’re seeing. But if you wait three or four hours that crop is going to deflate and everything’s gonna look normal.
[CECILIA] Okay. So, now I think we know everything we need to know about a caracara. Now all you have to do it go see one.
[LOUIE] Boy, I tell you. That Cliff Shackelford knows everything, doesn’t he? I don’t know what I’d do without him. He is my go-to on Texas birds.
[CECILIA] Well, certainly, I know that on the list from the 2017 magazine article you had more spots.
[LOUIE] Where readers can get an eyeful of raptors in Texas.
[CECILIA] And people can find them on the website.
[LOUIE] Sure. We have lots of good information on our website, and lots more Wanderlists for you to look at if this has whetted your appetite.
[CECILIA] Okay. Well, thank you very much, Louie, and I will see you next time.
[LOUIE] See you later, Cecilia.
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[NARRATION] We’re done wandering for this podcast…but Louie Bond and I--or our colleague Randall Maxwell--will be back with more fascinating things to see and places to explore in the Lone Star State..
Also, keep an eye on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Instagram account, @TexasParksWildlife. We’ll use it to notify you of some of the Wanderlist subjects we plan to cover in the weeks ahead and give you a chance to ask questions, some of which we’ll answer on the podcast.
Under the Texas Sky is a production of Texas Parks and Wildlife. We produce our Wanderlist series in partnership with Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine in the Media Production Studios in Austin, Texas.
Randall Maxwell does our sound design. And we get distribution and web help from Susan Griswold and Benjamin Kailing.
Listen to or download Under the Texas Sky and Wanderlist wherever you get your podcasts.
Until next time…keep on wandering Under the Texas Sky. I’m Cecilia Nasti.