14 February 2009

Not Your Everyday Raptor

It's really too bad that I don't truly know how to use a camera, because I had a great opportunity today to photograph an uncommon raptor.

The South Bend-Elkhart Audubon Society had a field trip this morning at Notre Dame to hike around the two lakes, primarily looking for ducks. After first driving up to Riverview Cemetery in South Bend and watching 6 White-winged Crossbills feed on spruce, I met up with Brian Miller and group of field trippers. I turned onto Dorr Drive at Notre Dame and had to stop before turning into the parking lot because a minivan in front of me was stopped in the road. I waited for a bit, beginning to get impatient. Finally, the van pulled into the parking lot. It was only then that I realized that the van was carrying birders, and that there was a raptor perched on the top of a small tree along the edge of the parking lot. I quickly pulled into the parking lot and jumped out of the car, binoculars in hand. I first noticed that this was a smaller raptor, then noticed the brown streaking on the breast, then noticed the banded tail, and then noticed a weak mustache. I quickly blurted out, "is that a Merlin?!?," and sure enough, it was!

I have only seen a Merlin (Falco columbarius) once before today, and that was several years ago at Kingsbury Fish and Wildlife Area. As the latin name suggests, a Merlin is a type of falcon. At 10 inches long, they are larger than the related American Kestrel (9 inches), but smaller than the Peregrine Falcon (16 inches). Their breeding range is throughout Alaska and Canada, barely dipping into very northern parts of the lower 48, where they inhabit open woods and prairies. They are apparently beginning to move into more urban areas, and there is some evidence that their numbers are increasing. Merlins typically winter further south in the United States, and are only mapped in this area during migration (although they are known to winter here). Like other falcons, Merlins catch their prey (typically small birds, small mammals, reptiles, or insects like dragoflies and moths) on the wing. This agile predator had just finished eating, and really didn't care at all that we were standing underneath it, within 50 feet.

I really do apologize for the poor photos, but I couldn't resist posting about this stealthy falcon.

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