By now most of you know I really like falcons, so bear with me while I talk about this small but mighty raptor. They are fast and fierce, and they can run down a shorebird or small songbird in record time. Most people don’t even notice them out on the beach as they are usually perched on a piece of driftwood closer to the dunes than the water, and they blend in remarkably well with the background. This photo was taken by me near the Ocean City beach access.
General Description: The Merlin is about 10 inches long, with a wingspan of 24 inches, and weighs about 6.5 ounces. This particular bird appears to be a juvenile, with its light coloring and brown back; an adult would have a dark gray or blue-black back. They are fairly broad-chested with a medium-length tail, have a small, hooked beak and sharply pointed wings.
Habitat: Merlins are found along the coast during migration and in winter. They can be seen out on the beaches, in open grasslands and in open areas in the forest, anywhere they can hunt small birds. They have also begun to adapt to suburban areas such as parks and yards. Their breeding territories are often in rugged terrain with both forest and open areas.
Behavior: Merlins are not the most pleasant bird; they have a bad attitude and take great delight in harassing other, often larger, birds of prey. Seattle Audubon’s Bird Web uses the term, “cantankerous”. Their preferred method of catching prey is a flat-out sprint, with lots of fast turns and maneuvering. They seldom use the peregrine’s stoop or dive to catch their prey.
Diet: The preferred meal for a Merlin is a smaller bird, but they also eat bats, rodents, reptiles, and dragonflies and other larger insects.
Nesting: Merlins attract their mate with a series of in-flight acrobatic mating displays. They are monogamous during a breeding season but about 80 percent choose new mates each year. They don’t build nests, but take over old crow nests or other raptor nests, and even use the occasional natural cavity or cliff face. The female lays four to five eggs and does most of the incubating for 28 to 32 days, while the male provides food and will also incubate while his mate eats nearby. The young stay in or very near the nest for about 29 days, then follow their parents, loudly begging and learning how to hunt.
Migration: Of the three types of Merlins, the taiga migrates from the far northern breeding grounds to the coast and into the southern states, and even as far south as Ecuador. The Pacific Northwest form is usually a year-round resident, but may move a bit farther south. The prairie Merlins migrate into the southwest and down into Mexico.
Conservation Status: According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, Merlins have increased in population between 1966 and 2014, partly due to an increase in nesting in cities and towns, where a large population of House Sparrows and Starlings provide them with a ready supply of food. This offsets any declines due to habitat loss in their breeding and wintering range.
When and Where to Find in Grays Harbor: Merlins can be found out on the beach and in open areas near forests from August through April. It takes some careful looking to see them; they blend in well, and they are really, really fast. But beware….searching for a Merlin is a lot more addicting than Pokeman Go.