Merlin, photo credits: Jon Nelson

Merlin, photo credits: Jon Nelson

Life through a spotting scope can be twisted. Your non-spotting eye blurs from being closed or disoriented from its disconnect with your other eye. At a previous job on Long Island, Wisconsin, I used the spotting scope to track individual Piping Plovers on a sandy spit extending into Lake Superior.

I found it most comfortable to keep the tripod at its lowest setting and sit cross-legged observing the plovers. Moving was a tactical matter of out-maneuvering the plovers and dealing with a rush of blood to the head and blurry vision. Seeing the birds through the scope distorted my vision so that when I held one in the hand for banding I could not believe its size... so small. What I had been watching was some grotesque magnification for scientific purposes.

“Peep-lo! Peep-lo! Peep-lo!” The plovers would alertedly (and often annoyingly) spot my presence and announce it to their chicks and the entirety of Lake Superior. This time I heard the noise from a pair behind me. Turning my scope around I scanned the beach for the cause of this raucous. A day earlier a large storm washed ashore scraggly driftwood. There near the nest a Merlin perched ominously against a blue Superior sky. I was a quarter of a mile away and when I made it to the nest the Merlin was gone, never to be seen again, along with one of the Piping Plover chicks.

Merlins breed in conifer forests but enjoy hunting on open expanses, like that beach on Long Island.  The birds make their way to open barrens, meadows, and muskegs of the north.

Indignant birds, Merlins will readily harass other falcons and hawks—a small dark falcon chasing a larger bird of prey is often a giveaway that you're observing a Merlin. Differentiating the Merlin from the Kestrel can be as simple as size (Merlins are larger), though male Merlins tend to be closer to Kestrel size than female Merlins. Male Merlins are metallic-blue above and finely streaked below with small white bands on the tail.

Flight truly separates these birds, as the Merlin flies with quick and powerful strokes in straight lines, rarely gliding. When hunting, Merlins maintain their direct affect, chasing sparrows, waxwings, and shorebirds at flight speeds of over 30 miles an hour.

An advantageous bird, the Merlin utilizes the nests of crows, hawks and ravens for breeding, often choosing trees with excellent vantage points. Upon migration the birds will move into the southern United States, utilizing open habitats of beach, tidal flats, range, and marsh.

At Faville Grove we've had Merlins migrating through over the past few weeks. The birds have been moving through the Lake Mills Ledge and the surrounding floodplain prairies.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Land Steward