Sunday, September 19, 2010

September 19: Merlin

In the King Arthur stories, Merlin the magician is the one who makes things happen. He sets the story in motion. In Weskeag Marsh, the merlin also sets things in motion--namely other birds, harassing them and generally creating chaos wherever it flies. It was quiet when I arrived at the marsh this morning around high tide, with just a handful of sandpipers shifting in the pannes and a line-up of snowy egrets in the distance. But friends I met there had earlier watched a peregrine falcon carry off a yellowlegs--a rather large sandpiper--and had also seen a merlin, a smaller falcon, zip through.

So when I set out onto the flooded, mucky path winding through the marsh grass between the pannes and canals, I kept an eye out. Fairly quickly I spotted the peregrine on a big dead tree that seems to be the favorite perch of peregrines, perhaps resting after digesting its big meal. Downriver a kingfisher perched on the right side of a duck blind, an array of snowy egrets in the water nearby. As I focused on my footing, trying to get further out into the marsh in hopes of seeing more birds, I heard the kingfisher's rattling call. Looking up, I noticed that the bird perched on the right side of the duck blind was now a small brown falcon. The kingfisher was now perched on the left side of the blind. The merlin must have decided it wanted that side and chased off the kingfisher, which held its ground enough to at least remain on the blind. They stayed in that detente arrangement for several minutes as I made my way further into the marsh.

Later I happened to notice that the kingfisher had left the blind for a fence post. A few posts away sat the merlin. I wondered if it had moved over there just to bug the kingfisher. Merlins are like that. For a bird of prey, it's small, about the size of a kingfisher, actually, but fierce beyond its size. A merlin will make a pass at just about anything--a gull, an eagle, a peregrine. It knows no fear, and its speed and size make it a difficult target for retaliation. At one point the peregrine left the snag and gave chase to something in the marsh, and the merlin somehow got involved. It was difficult to say which bird was chasing which, but the peregrine came up with nothing and the merlin went back to a fence post.

It remained there until I had left the marsh. Before I got in my car, I scanned one more time. And there was the merlin, darting over the marsh. A couple of crows noticed, as well, and loudly took up chase. The birds disappeared into the pines bordering the marsh. When they emerged, it looked like the merlin had turned the tables and was chasing the crows. They went around and around in the trees until the feisty merlin flew off to harass something else.

Merlin chasing crows
never doubts himself. For him
size doesn't matter.

Interested in learning a little more about merlins? Check out this recent post on merlins (with beautiful accompanying photos) by my birder friend Bryan Pfeiffer, who is currently out on Monhegan.

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