Not to be confused with the mythical wizard of ages past, the merlin is a small raptor found throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere.
It is fierce for its tiny size and feisty. The merlin is fearless.
Being a falcon, its most distinguished characteristic is how it flies. It doesn’t waiver between a perch, flying rapidly and directly between points of interest. Its territory travels with it, wherever it happens to be. The merlin does not tolerate other species in its territory, even other merlin.
There are three subspecies (or races) of merlin, two of which occur in Eastern Iowa. The most common is the taiga race, followed by the less common prairie race. The black merlin is only found in the Pacific Northwest.
Other small raptors may need to be eliminated when making a merlin identification, whether the subject is in flight or at rest. These include another small falcon, the American kestrel, and the sharp-shinned hawk and Cooper’s hawk.
A few key things about merlin ID in flight are shape, coloration and flight pattern. All falcons have very pointed wings and the merlin is no exception. Wing beats are fast as is flight speed. As previously stated, merlin are very direct about their movements, usually traveling from point A to B.
Overall, merlin coloration is dark. Look for a line of buffy-colored dots along the trailing edge of the wings. If you clearly see white dots, then you most likely have an American kestrel. Falcon shape helps eliminate sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawk, which have an accipiter shape. Also, small accipiters are known to have a flight pattern where they quickly flap a few times followed by a glide, then repeat.
The merlin exhibits sexual dimorphism, with the male being the size of an American kestrel and the female being about the size of a pigeon.
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Once again, look for a small, dark falcon on perch. Male taiga merlin have a bluish backside and a reddish underside heavily streaked with brown. The female has a dark brown backside and a whitish to buffy underside heavily streaked with brown. On the head, look for a faint “falcon mustache” and obvious light eyebrow stripe. All merlin have a light-colored throat.
In 2016, a merlin pair did something the species had not done in the state of Iowa for more than a century — they attempted to nest. The last documented nesting attempt was east of Marion in 1908. The nest, which was found by a schoolteacher in an Iowa City neighborhood, was located atop a Norway spruce. The merlin pair first took over an active American crow nest. After the crows were out, the pair successfully fledged at least four young. Remarkably, another nesting attempt was discovered in Waterloo, not many days after the Iowa City nest.
Sightings like these across the country are making experts believe the species may be slowly shifting its nesting range southward. If you notice a merlin in your yard in early spring that sticks around into the summer, chances are there could be a nest near you.
SPECIES TO LOOK FOR IN OCTOBER
l Shorebird diversity will wane out. Dunlin presence will increase. Other expected October shorebirds will be least sandpiper, pectoral sandpiper, semipalmated sandpiper, killdeer, Wilson’s snipe and greater and lesser yellowlegs.
l Franklin’s and ring-billed gulls should be more common. This is a month of heightened Franklin’s gull migration to the tropics. Also keep an eye out for bonaparte’s gull and herring gull.
l Double-crested cormorant, American white pelican, as well as common heron and egret species, should persist throughout October. Green heron will push south out of Iowa by early October.
l Turkey vulture presence will steadily decrease throughout the month of October.
l A spike in hawk diversity will be expected. Look for northern harrier, wharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawk, bald eagle, red-tailed hawk, red-shouldered hawk and broad-winged hawk. Three species of falcons — American kestrel, merlin and peregrine falcon — also will be moving.
l Look for blue jays and northern flickers to be migrating south during the daytime in large numbers.
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l Sunday, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. — Hawk Watch at Stainbrook Preserve, located along Mehaffey Bridge Road just north of Sugar Bottom Recreation Area. Join us on the hill to watch for migrating raptors, including broad-winged hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk and red-tailed hawk. Bring a lawn chair and binoculars or a spotting scope if you have one.
l Oct. 2, 8-10 a.m. — Kent Park Bird Walk, Bird walk with leader Rick Hollis. Meet at the Kent Park Conservation Education Center.
l Oct. 13, 7 a.m.-2 p.m. — Big Sit! is Bird Watcher’s Digest annual, non-competitive birding event. Object is to tally as many bird species seen or heard within a 14 foot circle. Join the ICBC team on north arm of Lake Macbride at the boat ramp area off Opie Ave NE, Solon. Come and stay as long as you want at our tailgate party for birders. We hope to see the TBA golden bird for a $500 prize. Bring a chair, binoculars and optional-tailgate food to share. Restroom on site. Big Sit! hosts are Terri Macey and Linda Quinn. Event may be delayed or canceled because of rain, which will be announced on our website and ICBC member email.
l Oct. 16, 8:00-10:00 a.m. — Kent Park Bird Walk. Bird walk with leader Rick Hollis. Meet at the Kent Park Conservation Education Center.
l Oct. 17, 7-9 p.m. — Bird Club meeting. Jon Stravers, birder, photographer and Audubon researcher, will present “Chasing the Bird Dream.” Linda Rudolph also will talk about eBird.
Brandon Caswell has undergraduate degrees in biology, anthropology and geology. His graduate degree centered on dating continental collisions within the Precambrian Canada Shield. Bird-watching and nature photography are among his favorite hobbies. He lives with his wife and son in Marion. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with birding-related questions, including questions about activities.