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A Merlin in the prairie

An immature male Merlin, Falco columbarius, surveys his domain. This is the third winter in a row that I've found a Merlin in this massive restored prairie, and in every case I've found the birds sitting on this very fence post.

I stopped in this Pickaway Plains prairie last Friday after work, stopping along the way to pick up a fellow raptor enthusiast, Deb Bradley, who doesn't live too far from the site. Our primary mission: Short-eared Owls. It seems to be shaping up to be a decent flight of these floppy-flying grassland hooters, so I wanted to check this locale for them. We weren't disappointed; at least four short-ears emerged from the tall Indian Grass at dusk, and began hunting. There were also about five Northern Harriers working the grasslands.

I took this shot several years ago, and it shows the Merlin's favorite fence posts. If you visit, you'll have a darn good chance of seeing the speedy little falcon atop one of these posts. Just slow down and check them from afar before moving in too closely. Part of the massive grassland disappears in the distance behind the posts.

If you want to visit this spot, this map may help you. The yellow north-south road is U.S. Route 23, and Circleville, Ohio is just a few miles to the north. Turn west on the upper road traced in blue - Radcliff Road, and then just follow the roads that I've outlined. This route makes a big rectangle and dumps you back out on 23. The red arrow points to the exact spot where the aforementioned posts are located. The best birding, where the roads bisect the grasslands, is shown in red.

This is a spectacular site. Located along the Scioto River (seen on the far left of the photo), this land is smack in the middle of the former Pickaway Plains prairie, a long linear swath of prairie that roughly followed Rte. 23 from present-day Circleville and extended perhaps seven miles to the south. About six years ago, one of the landowners put over 1,000 acres into the Conservation Reserve Program, and the land is now an ocean of prairie grasses. Birds have responded accordingly, and now the "Charlie's Pond" prairie is a fabulous birding locale.

If you're a songbird, this is the last thing you want to see staring needles at you. And it probably will be the last thing you see. Merlins are consummate bird-hawks, deftly flying down and snatching up lesser birds, ripping them up, and eating them.

I admire the Merlin's sheer insolence. They think very little of our species, and it shows. Had I not been as near as I was, with a long 500 mm lens bristling out the open car window, the bird probably would have paid me no mind. In general, we are not worthy in the world of the Merlin. One time, a bunch of us were at Green Lawn Cemetery, admiring a big female Merlin perched high atop a dead Sycamore snag. A woman, who had never before seen one of these falcons, finally burst out in semi-exasperation, "why won't it even look at us!". I had to break the news that, to the bird, she was a lesser species, not suitable for food or any other purpose, and therefore was not worthy of the bird's attention.

Note the acute wing tips, a characteristic of falcons. Merlins put those powerful wings to good use, and are feathered bullets capable of astonishing bursts of speed and remarkable veers and jags. They're very clever animals, too. Merlins have been documented following much larger Northern Harriers as the "Marsh Hawks" course low over grasslands, hoping to surprise voles. As a byproduct of their hunting, the harrier sometimes flushes songbirds, which are typically of little interest to the raptor. But songbirds are of great interest to Merlins, and when the harrier spooks one the Merlin is there to pounce.

An even better Merlin hunting story was published in an ornithological journal and described Merlins that flew in tandem with a speeding locomotive, up near the front of the train. When the train kicked up birds as it sped along, the Merlins were there to grab them.

In recent years, Merlins have become much more common in Ohio and many other parts of their range. We've even had two breeding records in the past few years, and I will guarantee that there will be more nestings. It's great to see these exciting and charismatic little raptors rebounding, even if they don't like us very much.


Nice photos, Jim. That last one is quite a composition.
Jim McCormac said…
Thanks, Cheryl! Tough shooting, it was nearly dark, and had to bump the camera's ISO to 12,000+...
Sharkbytes said…
Such a beautiful bird!
Jim McCormac said…
Thanks for your comments- he is indeed a looker,although the Horned Larks might find the Merlins a bit on the homicidal side...

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