Monday, December 20, 2010

The Merlin returns

Ah! A familiar silhouette greeted us yesterday, from the topmost boughs of a massive sycamore deep within Green Lawn Cemetery. The Merlin has returned!

While participating in yesterday's Columbus Christmas Bird Count, Bernie Master and I navigated the labyrinth of roads within the massive 360-acre cemetery, tallying all that we could find. Foremost on our wish list was the Merlin, which has now returned for at least its 4th winter.

One can never take these bulletlike speedsters for granted. A Merlin can cover some serious ground, and their hunting turf is expansive. Nonetheless, as we neared the sycamore in the photo, our hopes rose, as if the bird is in residence, it's likely to be ensconced at the summit. This lofty perch provides a commanding vista of its domain, and a good lookout from which to watch for lesser birds and potential meals.

It was a frigid morning, and our Merlin was fluffed against the cold, exaggerating its bodybuilderish dimensions. Even when we were nearly under its tree, the falcon would scarcely deign to cast a glance down. These fierce predators seem haughty and arrogant, and us clumsy and sluggish bipeds don't merit its attention. We are neither prey nor threat and not worth even a sideways glance.

A brand spanking new birder, Lisa, was in our party and this Merlin was a lifer for her. In fact, I believe this bird - which I think is the same individual as in past years - has been many a birder's inaugural Merlin. I was hoping that a hapless cardinal or junco would bumble by, and the Merlin would scramble for a kill. Watching one in action is quite a thrill. No such luck this day; the bird sat fat and content, probably digesting its breakfast I suspect.

If you find yourself at Green Lawn Cemetery, watch the treetops closely. And definitely check out this sycamore tree, which is a short distance due south of the bridge, which is towards the southwest corner of the cemetery. A map, which depicts the bridge, is HERE.

Later in the day, we stumbled into another species of falcon, an American Kestrel. This one is a female, and is typical of their habits, it was perched on a roadside wire. While Kestrels superficially resemble Merlins, their overall gestalt is quite different. Merlins are much more powerful, purposeful looking falcons. Even if you can't see details of plumage, the Kestrels impart a, for lack of a better word, flimsier appearance. Their flight is light, bouyant and butterflylike, while that of the Merlin is swift and direct, as if the bird had a destination in mind. Also, I don't believe I have ever seen a Merlin perched on a wire; Kestrels are pathological wire-sitters.

We were almost more excited to see the American Kestrel. Their decline has been dramatic, and nearly every longtime birder I know laments their loss. On excursions where, back in the day, I might have toted up a dozen of the little falcons, I'm now lucky to count one.

The Columbus CBC serves as a microcosm of the larger-scale picture of Kestrel declines. An average of only 6 birds were tallied each year on the count over the past decade. The previous decade saw an average of 21 birds counted yearly. And the decade before that, the yearly Columbus CBC total averaged 41 birds. The reasons behind the decline of American Kestrels are somewhat complex but mostly common sense, and I'll have a look at these factors in a future post.

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2 comments:

Mark said...

He has found a great place to stalk his pray from. The tree must be 50 feet tall.

Danielle said...

Rarely saw either of mine on anything but the very top of a tree either. Only times they weren't, food was usually involved. haha. Hopefully mine will return faithfully too! :)