Whatcom Water Fest

On May 18, Team Merlin is making a splash this year at the Whatcom Water Fest! Come ask the Merlin Falcon Foundation questions about Merlin Falcons, songbirds, ecology, or anything else you can think of! In addition, there will be many other brilliant organizations, music and face painting. Join us at Maritime Heritage Park in Bellingham from 12-4pm. The event is FREE!

Team Merlin at the Earth Day Festival!

Hi all! The Merlin Falcon Foundation will have an educational outreach exhibit at Western Washington University’s Earth Day Festival here in Bellingham. You can come talk to Team Merlin from 12pm to 5pm on Saturday, April 19. If it’s sunny, we’ll be in the Performing Arts Center Plaza, but we’ll have to move to the Multipurpose Room (MPR) in the Viking Union if it’s raining. Feel free to ask questions about merlins, how to help our organization, or by just stop by to say, “Hello!”

The festival will also include have music from Juniper Stills, Well Wishers, and Buyani Nguni. The following day, there will be a celebration of Western’s decision to ban the sale of bottled water from 5pm to 6pm in the MPR. Come on down to see us and learn about other great organizations!

Falcons on a Date

In early April, the merlin falcons dated. They dove in death-defying ways to secure their territory, and the queen perched on her throne to survey her land. I figured I would need to wait for a half an hour or more before anything happened. I thought we would meet in the Western Washington University parking lot and hike into the nearby arboretum to find the birds.

How wrong I was! The falcons nested in a Douglas fir beside a building, and the action began immediately.

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“Nudging Nestlings”

“Nudging Nestlings”   This season’s Merlin hatchlings have become nestlings! At first they are in white down with eyes closed. Then they change to grey down, opening their eyes and can barely lift their heads at first. After 8-10 days they can thermo-regulate on their own, unless its very cold or rains, in which case the adult female will brood them with her body and wings. They nudge each other in utter restlessness and will be in the nest 25-26 (males) 28-30 (females) days with 3-5 siblings to share food and space with. The bigger females push on the smaller males in an attempt to exert dominance, create space in the nest, steal food and all hold on as best they can while they wait for their flight feathers to molt in. A prey delivery from a parent triggers a frenzy as the nestlings attempt to grab the kill first, eat more than their siblings, wrestling morsels from each other and jabbing the smaller males out of the way. After a few weeks nestlings can feed themselves and no longer require parental feeding. To prepare for flight and to pass the time, nestlings flap excitedly from the nest and near branches and down feathers float off their short brown wings in the process. The life of a nestling varies between quiet and harried routines, and often they can be seen standing, laying, waiting and sleeping in or near the nest for the next prey delivery. Until that happens though, they pick at old bones and each other, antsy to soon fledge. Watching them in the field at this time can be a lot of fun!

The Hidden Hatchlings

Merlin lay their eggs from late April to early May. After 30 days of incubation, the eggs hatch. This period from late May through early June is an exciting time in the world of young Merlin. The female stays at the nest to protect and tend her young and the male alternates between leaving to find food and returning to defend his territory from crows, jays, ravens and other large birds. After 8-10 days of brooding, the female joins the male in bringing provisions to their young. At this stage of life, nestling flight feathers are just beginning to grow and the body is covered in a soft gray down, making them vulnerable in their first few weeks of life to owls and arboreal mammals.

“The Near Silence of Incubation”

Coastal Forest Merlin female on the nest. Photo credit: Marv Breece

Photo credit: Marv Breece

It’s late May and the male Merlins have already located suitable nesting platforms to attract and house a female companion. Merlins do not create their own nests, rather they recycle nests that were constructed in previous years by Northwest Crows who will likely not return to them. Crow’s nests are a Merlin favorite, as they are plentiful and easy to find, and located in the forest canopy where nestlings are safe from ground predators until they fledge. Interestingly, before mating occurs, the female Merlin is observed to rely on the male for food by becoming sedentary, even though she is quite capable of hunting herself. This may be the female’s way of testing the male’s ability to provide for her and the nestlings after the eggs are laid and she is no longer able to hunt.

Laying occurs from late April through early May. Right now in your backyards, female Merlins are settled into their nests and have laid clutches of 3-5 eggs. The male Merlin hunts songbirds for both himself and his mate while she is mostly confined to the nest to warm the eggs. This incubation period lasts from 28 to 32 days, almost all of which is performed by the female while the male provides sustenance and protection for her.

Merlin Winter Prey

As Merlin sits in the pre-dawn conifer tree, it may be stretching, preening or casting up a pellet from yesterday’s late afternoon feeding. Taking flight, she or he heads to a favorite prominent perch or continues in transit to survey the hunting options. Actively looking it sees foraging, flying and perching birds around the compass rose.

During the winter migrant songbirds from the south are largely missing and so this falcon must concentrate on the remaining small to medium-sized resident birds. These will be augmented by those species that have migrated south from the boreal forest or tundra. In urban cities, residential areas and at bird feeders the most abundant and available birds are House Sparrows, House Finches, Eurasian Starlings, Pine Siskins, Song Sparrows and Rock Pigeons, to name a few. In rural places such as fields, marshes, water edges, mudflats and farmsteads Merlin may capture Dark-eyed Juncos, Blackbirds, Cedar Waxwings and shorebirds such as Dunlin, and others.

After finding Merlin sitting or flying on a potential (or happening) hunt, watch carefully as it maneuvers after and under its fleeing prey . This acrobatic, sizzling arrow will attempt to seize from the sky its next meal. How exciting can birding get, you ask? Its uncommon to witness the whole Merlin hunt, but if you do, it will forever be etched on your mindscape!

Avian Photo-Periodicity

Bird activity level and species present at a given latitude are affected by light levels or what is called photo-periodicity. The current light levels of autumn are similar to spring light levels, and as a result, Merlinsoverwintering in breeding territories are actively courting. You can hear them emphatically “chittering” their call (like Douglas Squirrels) in conifer tree tops close to their activity trees. The male will fly in a “slow-flutter” display close to the nest platforms and attempt to attract a female by this activity and also, the presentation of a prey item.

Listen to them, and enjoy the marvel of nature and share your citizen sightings with the Merlin Falcon Foundation: merlinology@hotmail.com