Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Merlins of Union Cemetery

The open, savanna-like habitat of Union Cemetery, with its wide open spaces punctuated by scattered large trees. This cemetery, in Columbus, Ohio, straddles Olentangy River Road just south of Riverside Hospital, and is only a ten minute drive from my house.

Union Cemetery is also excellent habitat for wintering Merlins, and one or two have taken up residence here for several years. I had seen numerous reports and photos of the tough little falcons, and finally had a run at them a few days ago.

Upon entering the cemetery (the section on the east side of Olentangy River Road), it took all of a minute or so to spot one of the burly little falcons. Merlins have little of fear of anything, from what I have seen, and are prone to perching on conspicuous limbs as this animal is doing.

For a moment, she deigned to glance my way. This was about all the attention I received. If you are not food, or a threat, you are utterly inconsequential to the Merlin. To be fair, a person could and would flush the bird if too close of an approach is made, but Merlins are quite tolerant of observers, even at fairly close range.

One of my goals on this day was testing the new Canon 5D IV, and thus far I am very pleased with the results. While the improvements over its predecessor, the 5D III, are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, they are substantial. Canon bumped up the burst rate about two shots a second, and seemed to make big improvements in focus acquisition. It also has a much larger 30 megapixel sensor. I look forward to more work with this camera. This Merlin was the first bird that I've shot with the 5D IV, but there will be many more I hope.

After a rest period, she took to the air. Merlins in flight are amazing, especially when they are hot on the trail of a songbird, their main prey. Speedy and bulletlike, the muscular falcons are astonishingly agile, and capable of fantastic burst of acceleration.

I was a bit worried about this Red-breasted Nuthatch, and his mate. The two were working large spruce trees in the immediate vicinity of the resting Merlin, and (in my opinion) foolishly kept flying between trees. Each time they did, the Merlin locked its laser-like eyes on them and followed every move. The slow little nuthatches would seemingly be easy prey for the falcon as they crossed open airspace, but it never made a move on them.

Maybe the Merlin ignored the nuthatches because it was preparing to wage war against the local Blue Jays. The jays did not like the Merlins (another was present) and scolded them, often flying near to make their protestations better heard. A jay would be wise to take these raptors seriously. In this shot, the Merlin has just barreled around the top of a spruce, and nearly whacked the jay, which can be seen at the bottom right of the image fleeing for all its worth. The jays were the recipients of many a chase while I was there, but all came out with feather intact. That's not always the case, though.

Merlins are great photographic subjects, because of their approachability, and penchant for stretching and various gymnastics. If one is patient, a resting Merlin is eventually sure to strike an interesting posture like this.

Populations of this falcon are on the upswing, and we are seeing more of them each year wintering in Ohio. They are fixtures in many of our large urban cemeteries, and there have even been two modern nesting records. I suspect more nesters are to follow, and some of them will likely utilize cemeteries such as this one.

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