Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Taiga Merlin and Kestrel

On 14 December 2020, Erika and I discovered a Merlin at the Billy Frank Jr. National Wildlife Refuge. These small falcons can be fairly common in Washington, but we do not see them very often. They breed in northern forests across Alaska, Canada, the northern Rocky Mountains, northern Europe and most of Asia. They winter south to northern South America, north Africa, and southeastern China. 

Merlins usually attack from perches, like the one we saw from a great difference. These falcons usually chase eat small to medium-sized birds in the air. Prey is captured in mid-air, as the Merlins fly close to the ground. Unlike Peregrine Falcons, high speed stoops are uncommon. Oddly our bird appeared to be harassing ducks in small ponds in the marshland. The Merlin made repeated swoops at the ducks, which appeared to panic with a great deal of splashing with each attack. The Merlin then flew towards us, circling a male Pintail along the way. None of the ducks fell prey to the raptor and it is possible that the falcon was actually searching for small birds. 

Finally the falcon flew along the gravel road along the dike upon from where we watched. The Merlin swerved over four grazing Snow Geese, which gave the Merlin scant attention. To our amazement, the Merlin landed at the edge of a puddle in the middle of the road. We noted the white stripe above the falcon’s eye and its dark mustache streak. These marks indicate this bird was the Taiga race of the Merlin, which breeds across northern North America into the northern Rocky Mountains, including Washington. A black race of the Merlin also breeds in Pacific Northwest forests.

Our falcon adventure continued. An American Kestrel flew up and landed nearby. This smaller falcon did not fly, but ran several yards along the road and began bathing in one of the puddles. Oddly the Merlin appeared to watch the kestrel bathe, but appeared not to be interested in bathing or drinking. Was the Merlin waiting its turn at the puddle, or was the falcon miffed at the kestrel’s cutting to the front of the bathing line? Curiously, in Birds of the World, neither Warkentin et al. (2020) writing about Merlins, nor Smallwood and Bird (2020) writing about American Kestrels, mentions bathing in water. We had the road to ourselves for five or ten minutes before other people began appearing and both falcons flew off in different directions.

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