My lucky day. I stepped out of the beautiful chapel at Green Lawn Cemetery about 10 am this morning, after a meeting of our Board of Trustees. In a manner common to birders worldwide - convergent evolution, I suppose - I immediately did a quick once-over of the landscape. And there, not too distant, was a Merlin teed up prominently at the summit of the dead skeleton of a Norway Spruce. No shrinking violets, these boys (actually girl in this case).
After alerting those of my fellow board members who were handy and showing them the fierce little falcon, I ran around in a manner that was probably suggestive of that John Belushi scene in Animal House, except I darted from monument to monument rather than car to car, trying to sneak up on the bird. She could care less. Fifty feet up and with still warm breakfast, the Merlin had better things to do than worry about the antics of some bipedal clown hiding behind tombstones. Still, I kept a respectful distance.
Green Lawn Cemetery in winter. Three hundred and sixty acres, filled with massive trees and jumbo conifers. The place produces good birding year-round, and this is the third winter now that Merlins have returned here. Cemeteries like this somewhat replicate savannas or open taiga - habitats with large overstory trees but sparse vegetation at ground level. This sort of plant structure is what Merlins favor throughout much of their range. There are now Merlins wintering in several of Ohio's large cemeteries, and I will not be surprised if the species is nesting in the state before too long, probably in a large urban cemetery.
Here she is, with some hapless songbird clamped tightly in those vice-like talons. If you are looking for this Merlin, tune into the other birds. They may let you know it's around. There's something about seeing one of your compadres snatched out of the blue by a speeding feathered bullet and taken to a prominent perch for all to see, where it is gutted and ripped asunder, that upsets the songbird set. They will scold and utter distressed notes. While not a songbird if we must be accurate here, I noticed the Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were rather beside themselves. Mewing and squalling, one of them was visibly distraught, over this killer's performance I suppose.
A chunk of flesh is separated and wolfed down. I've always had a thing for predatory birds, and what you see above is partly why. Like other raptors, the Merlin is a bird of action. It kills things, and to do so has evolved some very formidable flying skills. Think of the learning curve a young Merlin goes through. This is not like, say, a baby goldfinch. "I say, Sylvester, over here - this is the thistle feeder/sunflower/goldenrod. Now just repeat after daddy whilst I extract these nice little seeds. Good job, little chap, you'll be turning yellow in no time!"
The Merlin youth watch parents who resemble feathered Lamborghinis blowing into songbirds hard enough to blast feathers off in a puff of destructive violence. If life persists, the spine is cracked with the powerful bill. Chunks of bleeding meat are sheared from the prey, and the Merlin's bill runs red with gore from Senor Crossbill or whatever was unlucky enough to get caught in the crosshairs. No, this is no goldfinch. Then, the young Merlin must eventually take to the skies and hone the aerial skills that will make it an effective killer of birds. The skill set that must be acquired is a formidable one, and the fact that birds like Merlins can do what they do, and so well, is an endless source of fascination to me.
If you are in the Columbus area, I hope that you can get to Green Lawn and perhaps cross paths with our Merlin in residence.