© Keith McCullough
This tropical falcon, a crested caracara, was spotted recently at the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw.
The bird in the pine tree just didn't look like a red-tailed hawk. It didn't look like any native raptor. But it sure made itself at home.

When the vultures swooped in for feeding recently at the Center for Birds of Prey, the crested caracara dropped down, too.

Staff and visitors were wowed. The once-a-week "vulture restaurant" feeding exhibit can draw any number of raptors - hawks, eagles and the like. But the crested caracara is normally found in places like Mexico. It isn't seen in the United States much north of the Everglades.

"Never in a million years did I think a caracara was going to show up, in basically our backyard," said Audrey Poplin, husbandry coordinator.

The caracara is a tropical falcon with a black crest like a long thin beret, a spotted white chest, black wings with white tips like a black vulture, and a yellow or orange-splashed beak like a toucan. It is a spectacular bird, stunning to spot on a tree limb more than 500 miles out of its range.

"It was pretty shocking," Poplin said.

The center has a caracara in residence. The a bird, which was hit by a car, is missing part of a wing. The staff's first thought was it had gotten loose. But a quick look at the two good wings said no. This guy just came for the buffet.

EBird reported a crested caracara sighting last year in Virginia, and Jim Elliott, center director, said he heard there was a more recent sighting in North Carolina. If they were the same bird, this might have been it - working its way back home.

"For whatever reason, he decided to explore," Elliott said. "He got very far out of his range."

Pretty adventurous, even for an opportunistic scavenger like a caracara. But talons or not, a tropical falcon knows its limits. When two bald eagles dove in for the Jan. 17 feeding, the other diners flushed. The caracara wisely stayed up in the tree.

© Wikimedia Commons
Distribution map of Caracara cheriway.