Septem­ber is mer­lin month

The Telegram (St. John’s) - - WEEKEND LIFE - Bruce Mac­tavish

Sev­eral species of hawks are in full mi­gra­tion dur­ing the month of Septem­ber. Hawks come in a va­ri­ety of shapes and sizes but there are just two small hawks that are fairly com­mon in the prov­ince. Most feeder watch­ers on the is­land are all too fa­mil­iar with raids from the sharp-shinned hawks dur­ing the win­ter. These blue jay size hawks have adapted to the ur­ban set­ting dur­ing the win­ter.

How­ever, most sharp­shinned hawks ac­tu­ally leave the prov­ince be­fore win­ter. They are mi­grat­ing south now. There is another small hawk that is also in mi­gra­tion now. Peo­ple are notic­ing them and ask­ing what they are. It is the mer­lin.

The mer­lin is a mem­ber of the fal­con clan. Fal­cons dif­fer from other kinds of hawks by hav­ing pointed wing tips and a dark mous­tache stripe. The mer­lin is a wide­spread, rel­a­tively com­mon hawk nest­ing through­out the wooded ar­eas of New­found­land and Labrador. It is a highly mi­gra­tory species with only a few in­di­vid­u­als over­win­ter­ing in south­ern New­found­land. Septem­ber is their sea­son for mi­gra­tion. Even diehard bird­ers see most of their mer­lins dur­ing the month of Septem­ber.

Mer­lins hunt in open ar­eas where they can make best use of their speed to chase down open coun­try birds. Shore­birds are a prime tar­get. Bird­ers watch­ing shore­birds along the coast rou­tinely have their sub­jects dis­turbed by a hunt­ing mer­lin. A mer­lin will shoot through the scene like a bul­let us­ing the el­e­ment of sur­prise to its ad­van­tage to nab a bird for lunch. The shore­birds know this and are jumpy at the slight­est sug­ges­tion of an in­com­ing mer­lin.

The mer­lin and sharp­shinned hawk are very sim­i­lar in size and ap­pear­ance, but are iden­ti­fi­able with a lit­tle knowhow

on what to look for. If the bird is sit­ting in a tree then you have a chance to see the sure-fire mark. Mer­lins have a thin but dis­tinct dark mous­tache stripe. This can be on the sub­tle side but should be vis­i­ble with the aid of binoc­u­lars or in a pho­to­graph. If you can get a good look at the un­der­side of the tail take note of the band­ing. On a mer­lin the pale bars are dis­tinctly nar­rower than the dark bars. On a sharp­shinned hawk it is the op­po­site with the pale bars be­ing a lit­tle wider than the dark bars. Both mer­lins and sharp-shinned hawks can have brown or bluish backs de­pend­ing on age or sex. Ac­tions can help. If fly­ing in open ter­rain at high speed, twist­ing and turn­ing af­ter some bird then likely to be a mer­lin. The pointed wings are

of­ten ap­par­ent help­ing sep­a­rate it from the rounded wing of the sharp-shinned hawk. If you see a small hawk this month while out for a walk or look­ing out your win­dow re­mem­ber these de­tails.

Rare birds of the week Fall is the sea­son of the rar­ity. The sur­prise find of the week was a glossy ibis at Cape Race. Light­house keeper Clif­ford Do­ran, al­ways ready with the cam­era, snapped a pic­ture of this dark heron-like bird with a long curved beak as it flew past. Bird­ers are check­ing nearby marshy ar­eas where a bird like this might go. It was likely car­ried north from coastal ar­eas of the United States dur­ing the warm hu­mid weather in the days pre­ced­ing. Al­van Buck­ley show­ing Chilean birder Se­bas­tian Pardo some lo­cal birds found a rare north­ern wheatear in east St. John’s. This north­ern rar­ity also dis­ap­peared as soon as it was dis­cov­ered. Dur­ing the tour they also found a cou­ple of Baird’s sand­pipers at Bear Cove and a com­mon ringed plover at Long Beach near Cape Race. Barry Day has been check­ing out the Cape Freels area reg­u­larly and it is pay­ing off. The ex­ten­sive sandy beaches and tidal la­goons make this one of the riches lo­ca­tions for mi­grant shore­birds in New­found­land. His lat­est finds in­clude a Wil­son’s phalarope and a stilt sand­piper.

Hur­ri­canes and birds Hur­ri­cane Irma was one of the most watched hur­ri­canes of all time. How did this mas­sive storm af­fect the birds? Sea birds res­i­dent on the Caribbean Is­lands and the Florida coast di­rectly in the path of Irma surely had the fight of their life. Be­ing good aeri­al­ist by na­ture most of them prob­a­bly man­aged to stay air­borne un­til the storm passed or they were flung out of the back side. Nest­ing habi­tats were pos­si­bly re­ar­ranged, but the birds are adapt­able and new nest sites will be used in the spring. Some of the land birds spe­cific to the Caribbean Is­lands, in­clud­ing Cuba, were cer­tainly hit hard, but birds have amaz­ing re­silience. It is not just res­i­dent birds that we think about. Satel­lite track­ing has proven some New­found­land osprey mi­grate down through Florida, then to Cuba, Haiti, Do­minica Re­pub­lic on their route to win­ter grounds in South Amer­ica. Luck­ily Irma went through a cou­ple weeks be­fore the New­found­land ospreys are sched­uled to tran­sit the area.

The mer­lin is a wide­spread, rel­a­tively com­mon hawk nest­ing through­out the wooded ar­eas of New­found­land and Labrador. It is a highly mi­gra­tory species with only a few in­di­vid­u­als over­win­ter­ing in south­ern New­found­land.

PHOTO BY BRUCE MCTAVISH

Note the lit­tle mous­tache stripe that is a key mark for sep­a­rat­ing a mer­lin from the sim­i­lar look­ing sharp-shinned hawk.

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