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Crested Caracara discovered near Ashland in extremely rare sighting

A sighting of a Crested Caracara near Ashland drew carloads of spectators and rave reviews from birdwatchers. It was only the second documented appearance of this tropical falcon in Wisconsin.


HIGHBRIDGE – Jena Lindquist was doing chores on the evening of May 28 on the 600-acre farm she and her husband, Adam Lindquist, own and manage in Highbridge, Ashland County.

She fed and watered chickens and bottle-fed day-old Black Angus calves.

When she got home around 7 p.m., she did something that happens every day in almost all of our lives: she remembered something she had forgotten.

In this case it was about unloading bags of feed at the chicken coop.

So she went back to the chicken coop and crossed the task off her list.

In doing so, she contributed to another record. But something like this was extremely rare. In fact, only one person in Wisconsin had ever achieved this before.

It started when Lindquist, who also runs a photography business, noticed a large bird sitting in a row of trees at the edge of one of the farm’s pastures.

“I’m always on the lookout,” said Lindquist, 37. “That’s an important part of living on a farm, seeing wildlife and observing the weather and the seasons. I thought, ‘What kind of bird is that?’ It looked like an eagle, but it was a little way away and I felt it was different.”

She made another trip home and back, this time to get her camera and a telephoto lens.

When she returned, the bird was still sitting in its nest. She took some pictures of it as daylight faded.

Back home, she downloaded the digital files and enlarged them, and now she knew it was a species she had never seen before.

But what was it?

A computer search yielded no results, Lindquist said.

So she posted photos of the bird on the Chequamegon Bay Birding Facebook page, of which she is a member. Within minutes, she received a response from Ryan Brady, a page administrator and a conservation ecologist and bird expert who works for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

“You have a crested caracara!” said Brady. “Congratulations!”

Brady, a friend of Lindquist, showed up before sunrise the next day on a road bordering the farm. And sure enough, the feathered visitor was still there.

Shortly thereafter, the sighting was confirmed by the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, the state’s official bird agency.

It was the second time a crested caracara had been spotted in the state, the previous sighting being on Washington Island in Door County in 2014.

Brady helped spread the news of the extremely rare sighting on May 29 via social media, and dozens of birdwatchers flocked to the rural Ashland County spot.

Luckily for everyone, it was located at a remote intersection with little traffic and easy parking on the grassy side of the road.

And fortunately, the Crested Caracara seemed perfectly content to sit in a tree 130 metres from the road, preening and sunning itself. It normally only flew a few times a day, including to forage for food or carrion in the pastures of the Lindquists’ farm.

“I stayed nine hours (that first day),” Brady said. “I took the day off. It was a lot of fun.”

Among the many who showed up within the first 24 hours of the sighting were birdwatchers from Milwaukee, Madison, Green Lake and Appleton.

For almost all of them, it was the first time they experienced this species in the Badger State.

The Crested Caracara looks like a hawk with a sharp beak and talons, but behaves like a vulture and officially belongs to the falcon family. Its aura also earns it the nickname “Mexican Eagle”.

Its typical distribution area extends from southern South America through the Caribbean and Mexico to the southern USA, mainly to Texas.

The bird is “instantly recognizable, standing tall on long, yellow-orange legs and having a distinctive black cap in front of a white neck and yellow-orange face,” according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

That’s easy for Cornell to say. If the bird species is 2,000 miles from its original location and has only been seen once before in Wisconsin, it can take most state residents, even avid birders, more than a minute to identify it.

The Crested Caracara prefers open terrain, flies low on flat wings, usually walks on the ground, and, according to Cornell’s description, is neither shy nor reticent.

The species often sits on the highest trees or buildings in the area and differs from vultures by its flat wings (vultures have V-shaped wings when flying).

In its natural range, it is often seen alongside vultures feeding on animal carcasses.

Lindquist believes this scavenging habit was one reason the crested caracara remained near her farm until early June. Lindquist’s Angus herd was calving, she said, and the crested caracara was probably feeding on afterbirth it found in the pastures.

Then there’s the region’s geography. Ashland and Bayfield counties are breeding grounds for rare species because of their location on the southern shore of Lake Superior, Brady said.

“A bird migrating north or being driven north by the weather comes here and there’s this big blue wall in front of it,” Brady said. “It either settles or tries to fly over it. We know a lot of birds are concentrated here.”

In addition, Ashland and Bayfield counties are characterized by diverse habitats, from northern forests to agricultural lands to wetlands and shorelines.

Rare species sighted in Ashland County last year alone include the Great Auk, Indigo Finch, Swallow-tailed Damselfly, Bullock’s Oriole, King Flycatcher, Fieldfare (first record in the state), Western Tanager and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.

Additionally, a fish crow (a close relative of the American crow, often distinguished only by its call and normally found in the southeastern United States) was reportedly found in Ashland County this spring. The find is currently under review by the WSO Records Committee. If accepted, it would be the first state record.

“Seriously??” John Heusinkveld wrote on Facebook in response to the Crested Caracara discovery in Ashland County. “At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if you have recorded ostrich breeding on Long Point out in the bay. Amazing!”

Lindquist was responsible for another rare sighting in Ashland County when she photographed a Long-billed Curlew on her farm in 2022. It was the 11th record of its kind in the state, and it occurred in the same pasture frequented by the Crested Caracara.

Lindquist said she is not a true birder, but enjoys photographing birds and other wildlife. Her photography career began in 2012 when she bought her first camera.

Although she was a beginner, she “just knew she liked (photography)” and practiced on subjects around the farm. In 2015, she bought a more professional camera and began pursuing photography as a career in 2016.

As part of Jena Lynn Photography, she sells wildlife images and does wedding photography and sessions as well as location sessions for portraits.

Lindquist’s curiosity about wildlife, her skill with a camera, and her willingness to share her sightings benefited many people this year, including me.

On June 1, after a trip with Department of Natural Resources biologists near Clam Lake to collar a moose calf, I headed 30 miles north to Highbridge to try my luck with the Crested Caracara.

When I arrived at 3:30 p.m., it looked exactly as described: sitting in a dead tree 137 meters southeast of a rural intersection.

I took a few photos and marveled at the sight of this tropical falcon that seemed to feel at home in northern Wisconsin.

A few minutes later, a minivan pulled up, driven by Amber Santiago of Montello. To her right sat her 16-year-old son, Josiah – the reason for the trip north. Amber’s three other children were in the back seat.

“This is incredible,” said Josiah, placing his 150-600 zoom lens on the window frame and starting to photograph.

Josiah said he enjoys bird watching and photographing near their home in Marquette County, but also ventures to where rare birds appear. For example, last September he was able to observe and photograph a group of American Flamingos at Lake Petenwell in central Wisconsin.

“I’m grateful when people give me information about these birds and I can go and see them,” Josiah said. “I’m just starting out, but I think I’ll be doing this my whole life.”

After about 20 minutes, the Santiago family and my family parted ways. Our days had been enriched by a chance encounter with other animal rights activists and an extremely rare feathered visitor.

The Crested Caracara was sighted until June 7 and then disappeared.

Lindquist said it makes her happy to know that others were able to see the bird while it was in Wisconsin. Such experiences can help people appreciate wildlife and advocate for protecting the habitat that birds and other animals need.

“I think it’s wonderful that so many people have come out to see (the crested caracara),” Lindquist said. “I’ll keep my eyes open to see if it comes back. But if not, I’ll also wonder, ‘What’s next?’ I’ll keep looking and keep my camera handy.”

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