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Naturalists’ Notebook: First Merlin of Autumn

By John Schmitt
Naturalists' Notebook: First Merlin of Autumn

23 September 2009
Isabella Reservoir
Kern County, California

Early this morning, I observed my first Merlin of the autumn. As is often the case with fresh autumn arrivals, this rather dark Merlin was energetic and rowdy, venting its surplus energies on anything that flew within a 50-yard radius.

I first saw the bird racing after a Common Raven, before it broke off its pursuit to chase a Double-crested Cormorant, flying low over the lake. With impressive acceleration, it easily overtook the lumbering cormorant, unleashing several quick stoops, then darted after a California Gull—a bird more worthy of its spectacular aerial skills. The Merlin followed every twist and turn of the nimble gull, which finally halted the game by splashing down onto the still morning waters. With its beak agape and wings outstretched, the gull defiantly faced three more dives from the Merlin.

The harried gull got a reprieve when the Merlin spotted a Great Blue Heron flying nearby. Sensing a new and exciting sport, the falcon sprinted after the heron with the kind of “speed in reserve” that only Merlins possess, closing the gap in seconds then pressing the heron from low and behind. But the stately heron refused to play this game, and lightly touched down on the beach with a dignified stride.

Instead of harassing the heron further, the Merlin descended in a long, shallow glide and landed on the beach, where it alternated between gazing thirstily at the water and peering nervously about. It never plucked up the courage to drink, but instead took wing again and charged after another raven. After much chasing and dodging, the Merlin suddenly turned away, setting a direct course toward a distant shallow pond bristling with herons and egrets, its flight fast and full of mischievous intent. Try as I might to follow the tiny falcon’s continuing adventures, I eventually lost sight of it in the distance.

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