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