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Naturalist’s Notebook: A Young Merlin on the Hunt

By John Schmitt
From the Summer 2015 issue of Living Bird magazine.
John Schmitt's Naturalist Notebook Lake Isabella North Fork delta watching a northern harrier and merlin

10 December 2014
North Fork, Lake Isabella
Kern County, California

The bird watching at Lake Isabella’s North Fork delta has been great all autumn long, and this morning’s visit was no exception. Within minutes of arriving, I watched an energetic juvenile male Merlin taking advantage of the small birds flushed by a hunting Northern Harrier.

Flying swiftly about in the vicinity of the easygoing harrier as it buoyantly drifted low over the dense weeds, the Merlin would come rocketing after the sparrows flushed by the low-flying harrier’s close passage. Sometimes the small falcon would perch in one of the many tall, gray snags on the delta, waiting for the harrier’s meandering
course to come close enough so that any sparrows flushed would present a good chance for a kill.

The Merlin treated me to several exhilarating exhibitions of its speed and agility as it effortlessly overtook its intended victims, but the small birds invariably foiled its attack by simply diving back into the dense weeds at the last possible moment. I watched numerous hunts, but not a single capture—which is just as well, because it prolonged this unparalleled display of excessive youthful energy and turns of jaw-dropping speed and maneuverability.

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