Nature: Merlins are on the rise in Maine



It always nice to get to know your neighbors, and that includes the wildlife sharing your space here on Mount Desert Island.

A resident in Southwest Harbor has had “some kind of a hawk” nesting near her home and was very interested in finding out what the bird was. I gave her some contacts she might try and it all worked out.

She has a merlin nesting in her woods. This is one of the smaller birds of prey that nest here. The location of the bird is always a good clue when you’re trying to figure out what you are seeing.

She knew it was not a peregrine falcon; falcons nest on high cliffs or even very tall city buildings sometimes. Merlins breed in open or semi-open areas or near forested openings. In recent years pairs have been found nesting near towns and cities where they may be in city parks or cemeteries.

With the help of local experts, the bird was identified as a merlin. The merlin is a little bit bigger than the small kestrel hawk sitting on telephone wires in the summer months looking for grasshoppers and mice in local fields. The merlin at one time was nicknamed the pigeon hawk.

Since the late 1970’s merlin nests have been increasingly seen across Maine. Unlike osprey and eagles and other hawks, the merlin does not build a nest of sticks. Nesting pairs will instead reuse a nest made by crows and other hawks.

Merlins do mostly eat birds they catch in the air. They don’t stoop on birds the way peregrines do. Because of their eating habits, you’ll be glad to know that these hawks are never seen in flocks. They are loners and part of the natural scene. They may also take dragonflies, bats and small mammals.

Merlins are fast fliers. Their typical speed is 30 miles per hour. Outside of the breeding season, and in fall migration, you may see more than one pair traveling together but they are usually solitary.

For more information and some great photographs of this bird check it out on your computer at Cornell Lab of Ornithology or the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

It must have been an exciting summer to have such a bird nesting where it could be observed easily as the birds came and went and the young successfully hatched and learned how to fly and get along in the world. Although they are never abundant anywhere, they are now considered a widespread breeding bird across most of Maine.

Some neighbors of mine had some exquisite visitors come near them this week in the form of three American egrets; very large, white herons with bright yellow bills. They don’t nest here but each summer a few find their way up to Maine just for a visit. These handsome birds nest in the South and all those Mainers going south for the winter get to enjoy them there as well. Their nesting colonies are a sight to see! We have a few small colonies of Great blue herons here in Maine. One I saw was right here on MDI. The large herons look out of place up in a tree.

Two interesting observations cam in this week from friends out on the water, for they were able to watch and enjoy the sight of seals and porpoises feeding wildly in a school of “pogies.” It was a madhouse scene and very exciting.

I know about watching feeding frenzies. Last summer, my daughter and I watched in East Newfoundland waters as gannets, gulls and huge tuna fed in swarming schools of capelin. The excitement of the birds and fish is catching as you watch and you become part of it! I’ll never forget seeing the whole huge tuna body arc through the air in its excitement of the feeding frenzy. You never know when something special will present itself to you! Always be looking and ready!

Birds don’t have to be big and fierce to get noticed. I have had a redstart nesting near my house that is beautiful to see and here. It is more often seen than heard but I’m glad it’s there. Redstarts have often been called the butterflies of the bird world for they are so colorful and flit about like butterflies in their pursuit of insect food. Both male and female redstarts are very beautiful and easy to tell one from the other. The male is black with red on the wings and tail and the female greyer and she has yellow on wings and tail. Think of them as feathered butterflies. They like living near a small woodland stream.

Send any questions, photos or observations to teahousetrio@wildblue.net or call 244-3742.

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