Family: (Falconidae) Falcons and Caracaras
Preferred Habitat: Prairies and open areas
Seasonal Occurrence: Uncommon October through April.
Profile by Glenn Olsen: Fall bird migration includes warblers, songbirds, and shorebirds, but the most spectacular is hawk migration. From early August to the end of October we have the greatest concentrations of hawks moving along our coast into Mexico, Central, and South America for the winter. Some also spend the winter in Texas. Peak time for most raptors is from mid-September to the first week of October. Naturally, I enjoy every raptor species, but seeing one feisty falcon always excites me, and that is the Merlin.
In North America we have three subspecies, and adults can often be separated in the field. Like the other true falcons, Merlins have pointed wings, stocky bodies and a fast, powerful flight pattern. The Merlins of the Pacific Northwest have dark brown to blackish backs. The Prairie birds have a pale gray back, and finally the Boreal or Taiga birds are most often blue-gray to dark gray on the back. The breast and flanks of each of these subspecies are generally off-white with light brown to dark brown streaking. On rare occasions we have the Prairie subspecies in our western regions. Most often we see the Taiga form. As with some other birds, there are intermediate plumages and the immature birds may not look like the adult birds.
Merlins are slightly larger and have a stockier body when compared to an American Kestrel. In addition, Kestrels have more pronounced black facial stripes and reddish-brown backs. Merlins are distinguished from Peregrines by their smaller size and different plumage pattern. Merlins breed in the forests of the northern U.S., Canada, and Alaska. They prefer open woodlands, fields with scattered groves of trees, and forest edges. Surprisingly, Merlins use the abandoned nests of other birds like crows, hawks, and ravens. They have been known to nest in tree cavities and on cliffs but this is rare.
Usually 4-5 eggs are laid, and it takes about 30 days for incubation. Merlins feed primarily on small birds but also take large insects like dragonflies and small mammals including bats.
In migration and winter they are found in similar habitat to their breeding habitat but are also found in coastal areas, grasslands, large parks, and marshes. While Merlins may be found anywhere in our area during migration and our winter months, one of the more reliable locations that I have found them has been Bear Creek Park which has open parkland with scattered trees and denser woodlands and forest edges. One year eleven were reported at this location. The best time to see a Merlin in our area is November to March.