This week our weather became significantly colder with nighttime temperatures falling to 10° F and a little snow. With the change in weather, Leonard and I saw several unexpected avian visitors in our yard. These birds did not linger, so we believe they were migrants either heading to warmer climates or lower elevations.
Our most exciting sighting was a merlin (Falco columbarius). Neither Leonard nor I can ever recall seeing a merlin on our property before. Also commonly called a pigeon hawk, a merlin is not a pigeon or a true hawk, but rather is a small falcon found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Merlins have considerable variation in plumage worldwide with three merlin subspecies recognized in North America. This migratory bird breeds from Alaska east to Newfoundland and south to Wyoming and Montana and winters in southern United States.
Merlins prefer coniferous forests and open landscapes but are not habitat specific. Small birds comprise the majority of the merlin’s diet, although they will take small mammals, snakes, lizards and insects, being particularly fond of dragonflies. Flying low and fast the merlin relies on speed and agility to capture its prey, usually in midair. Pairs will often hunt cooperatively.
This merlin sitting in the hybrid poplars next to our house (Lookout CA) is a female. Female merlin underparts are white or buff with heavy brown streaking while the back is slate brown. The square tail is barred – dark brown with buffy bands. Males are smaller than females and have a blue-grey back while their tails are dark grey with light grey banding. Both sexes have dark brown eyes, a grey crown, streaked head, moustaches, dark gray bill, yellow legs and a yellow cere (bare patch of skin over the upper mandible in raptors). Like all falcons the merlin has long pointed wings.
Strong fliers, merlins were used in medieval Europe for hunting and even today falconry enthusiasts sometimes hunt with merlins. These aggressive raptors will often even attack other birds of prey they encounter.
In one picture the merlin’s tail, wing and one leg are stretched back. She was not taking off from her perch in that photo, but rather was stretching and continued to perch for several more minutes.
I always associate the word merlin with the wizard in Arthurian legend, particularly the trio of novels by Mary Stewart that feature Merlin as the protagonist. Merlin the Wizard has always been a favorite of mine and probably that is why I like the falcon with the same name. It was so wonderful to finally see one of these birds in our yard. I only wish it had lingered longer.