I took part in the annual five-county Fall Bird Count conducted by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club on Saturday, Sept. 25.
In the morning hours, I birded with Chris Soto around Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park and the linear trail that winds along the Watuaga River in Elizabethton. Our efforts were rewarded with looks at plenty of good birds, including a couple of great egrets, several palm warblers, white-eyed vireos, ospreys and common yellowthroats.
Toward noon, we made our way to join other members of our count party —Brookie and Jean Potter — who had covered other areas of Elizabethton with the help of Dave and Connie Irick.
Our break for lunch has been held for many years at the Watauga Lake Overlook. The location gives a convenient place to have an outdoor lunch, weather permitting, while scanning the nearby lake for bird activity. We did add more birds, including great blue heron and double-crested cormorant, while seated at a picnic table with a good view of the lake.
The true star of the lunchtime show, however, turned out to be a pint-sized falcon known as a merlin. Merlins are built for speed with an overall aerodynamic design enhanced by tapered wings that permit sudden changes of direction and impressive bursts of speed. That inclination for speed was on full display Saturday afternoon during our bird count lunch break. The little merlin would suddenly bank and disappear out of sight only to zip past heading in a new direction moments later. The bird put on a show for the entirety of our lunch break.
In the afternoon, joined by Chris’s husband, Rex, I traveled with Brookie Potter to Holston Mountain. We added some other birds to our list, including dark-eyed junco, red-breasted nuthatch and blue-headed vireo. I’ll compile the results of the fall count in a future column.
Merlins have a reputation for being pint-sized punks among raptors. The merlin is a member of the falcon family, which also includes birds like the American kestrel and peregrine falcon. I once saw a merlin harassing a turkey vulture, diving on the much larger but less agile bird until the vulture finally veered in another direction. This observation reinforces the merlin’s reputation for aggressively meeting incursions into its territory by other raptors. Reference guides and websites with passages about merlins often accompany the description with such words as “tenacious” and “fierce,” and for good reason.
The merlin has long been associated with the forests of North America and Eurasia, but in recent decades it has proven capable of adapting to life in urban landscapes. In that respect, it’s merely following the example of its cousin, the peregrine falcon. Formerly making its nest on cliffs, peregrine falcons now substitute skyscrapers as nesting sites. A book for children titled “Falcons Nest on Skyscrapers” tells the story of a peregrine falcons successfully nesting on a skyscraper in Baltimore, Maryland.
The keeping of falcons for hunting, originally reserved for kings, queens and other nobility, evolved centuries ago and is known as falconry. The website All About Birds tells how falconers, or people employed to care for the raptors nobles kept in captivity, called the merlin a “lady hawk” because of the tendency of queens and other noblewomen to use these smaller hawks when hunting for birds such as skylarks. The website also identifies Catherine the Great of Russia and Mary, Queen of Scots, as two powerful women who were fond of hunting with merlins.
Although often associated with the nobility of Europe, falconry can be traced back to such ancient civilization as Egypt and Mesopotamia. In both Egyptian hieroglyphics and art, the god Horus is often depicted as a being with the body of a man with the head of a falcon. Existing ancient artifacts in museums around the globe have made this depiction of Horus, also known as Ra, almost instantly recognizable.
In body length, there’s not a lot of difference between a merlin and a kestrel. The merlin, however, boasts a heavier, more compact build than a kestrel. It’s this physical strength that probably lets them get away with being so outgoing with their pugnacious and aggressive lifestyle.
Incidentally, the kestrel is nicknamed “Sparrow Hawk,” while the merlin’s moniker is “Pigeon Hawk.” Their larger relative, the peregrine falcon, used to be widely known as the “Duck Hawk.”
Of course, they are all falcons, a family of raptors that is set apart from such birds as hawks, eagles and harriers. Other falcons in the United States include the prairie falcon, a bird of the hills, plains and deserts of the American west, and the Aplomado falcon with a range extending from the southwestern United States to as far south as Argentina in South America. The largest falcon, the gyrfalcon, is a bird of the far in the far north in remote Alaska and Canada, as well as parts of Europe and Asia. In the sport of falconry during the Middle Ages, no person other than a crowned king was permitted to hunt with a gyrfalcon, which thus became known as the “king of birds.”
Merlins remain uncommon in the Eastern United States, which makes any sightings a big occasion for birders. I’ve only enjoyed a handful of sightings over the years, including observations in Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee. One of my more memorable sightings took place on a sandy point on Fripp Island, South Carolina, as I watched a young merlin, perhaps still learning the finer points of hunting, attempting to go after some boat-tailed grackles. A powerful breeze blowing from the ocean probably hampered the bird and offered some protection to the grackles. If any of the grackles had been foolish enough to take flight, I think the merlin would have easily captured its intended prey. On this occasion, the grackles hugged the ground and the merlin eventually had to look elsewhere.
Worldwide, there are 40 species of falcons that have been given such descriptive names as red-necked falcon, red-footed falcon, sooty falcon, orange-brested falcon, brown falcon, black falcon, grey falcon, bat falcon and Eleonora’s falcon, which is named for Queen Eleanor of Arborea, who offered in the 1300s the first documented legal protection for hawks and falcons to protect them from illegal hunting.
Queen Eleanor started a fine tradition. Birds like peregrine falcons and merlins, as well as bald eagles, whooping cranes and California condors remain free and flying in our skies today because of the willingness of government to enact laws that protect both birds and their vital habitat. We can’t lose sight of that, not if we hope to continue seeing a feisty merlin zipping through the skies over Watauga Lake on a gorgeous late September afternoon.
To share an observation, make a comment or ask a question, send me an email at email@example.com.