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— Bryan

merlin-bill-thompson

LIKE A CROSS BETWEEN A CRUISE MISSLE AND A T-REX, they are flying and killing machines. And for more than a week now, particularly here in Montpelier, they’ve been flying and killing over Vermont. Most Vermonters have no clue they’re here.

During this week alone, I’ve had five encounters with Merlins: four in Montpelier (including a pair soaring over downtown yesterday) and one in Burlington. At this moment, you are probably not too far from a Merlin. They’re migrating through much of the continent on their way to breeding territory across boreal Canada (and, more recently, here in Vermont).

Among falcons, the Peregrine gets the glory. But pound for pound, the smaller Merlin moves with force and determination that I find in few other animals. Peregrines, from their high, exposed perches, tend to swoop on and pursue their prey, which includes small mammals and birds as large as waterfowl. Merlins do some of that, but with amazing bursts of energy and agility Merlins simply chase and overtake small songbirds in flight. A Merlin can make a Peregrine by comparison look lethargic. Merlins can even pluck dragonflies from flight.

640px-Royal_Navy_Merlin_Helicopter_MOD_45155806

The other Merlin, which kills or blows up more than little songbirds. Credit: Dave Jenkins/MOD. Licensed under OGL via Wikimedia Commons

About 20 years ago, I got a call from someone advising me that a pair of Merlins had commandeered an old crows nest and were raising young in the Morrisville Cemetery. Skeptical about the report (more on that in a bit), I drove to the spot, parked my truck and soon noticed wispy golden feathers floating around me on the summer breeze. I looked up to find a Merlin, near a nest, picking apart an American Goldfinch.

During my birding trips to Monhegan Island, Maine, each fall, we have dozens of encounters with Merlins jetting around the island, often in pursuit of migrating Northern Flickers. When chased by a Merlin out there, flickers utter a plaintive call that I rarely hear anywhere else. So common are these pursuits, and the flicker’s cries of help, that we simply call the sound “FID” – flicker in distress.

Unlike many birds whose breeding ranges have shifted north on our warming planet (sometimes correlation, sometimes causation), Merlins have expanded their range southward. Historically breeding across Canada and only portions of the American mountain West, Merlins now nest here in Vermont and other scattered points in the northern Northeast, from remote forests to urban parks. Twenty years ago, Merlins were rare in the US.

Here in Montpelier during the past few days, I have encountered Merlins in the following locations:

  • The white pines in the parking lot of the Montpelier Senior Activity Center (whose big rummage sale is today and Saturday)
  • The Cummings Street Bridge over the North Branch of the Winooski River
  • High over Hubbard Park near Coarse Street (could be the same individual I saw on Cummings)
  • A pair over Kellogg-Hubbard Library

The best way to find Merlins is to hear their laughing chatter. (The Montpelier birds have been vocalizing a lot. I wouldn’t have noticed the Burlington Merlin, flying over the University of Vermont campus on Tuesday, had it not been calling). When you hear the sound, look up to find your rocket on angled wings. And if you see evidence of any Merlins nesting here in Montpelier, please send me an email. Thanks.

Merlin Vocalizations

By the way, that spectacular Merlin shot above came from Bill Thompson, a skilled photographer who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Check out more of Bill’s photos.

14 comments
  1. Susan says:

    I find them the noisiest and obnoxious birds. I live in a rural town. We have 6 in our yard that scream most of the day and eat birds that I would rather listen to. They are wasteful birds leaving headless bodies of birds on the ground and not bothering to eat them. Interesting romantic comments above about their predatory behaviour. We have interfered so much with wildlife sometimes we provide habitat for apex predator that will devour all the other bird species.

  2. emma rohl says:

    what would you say are numbers of bird losses during a season of nesting merlins? my way year 2019 I only hear the occasional sounds of greatly distressed bluejays…it is scary listening to this.

  3. Evelyn Sprague says:

    In the past few weeks, we have seen a pair of what we thought were hawks flying rapidly, and low, over our house in Lincoln. At first I thought they were some kind of hawk as my hawk identification is spotty. Then I observed that these were small for hawks. I estimate that the wingspread was no more than 24 inches. After referring to my Sibley I decided that our visitors are Merlins. This is quite exciting but I hope they are not eating the warblers and other of my favorite songbirds.
    I remember fondly several bird trips (and one full moon trip) with you in the past.

    Evelyn

  4. SusanTrench says:

    I live in Waitsfield and on my walk the other day found this bird on the side of road do you have an email so that I can send the pic to see if this was one

  5. cameron oconnor says:

    and we saw one fly in for a kill on one of the fox sparrows in our back yard! love all your writing and observations….

  6. Abby says:

    I heard one on Fuller Street a few days ago. There has been one for the past two summers in this area. I also heard and saw one at VSECU in Montpelier…near the high school in Montpelier. Thanks for your great article!

  7. Linda says:

    Spotted one in October 2013 at the Thurman Dix Reservoir in East Barre VT.
    The water level was very low and I had managed to get stuck in the mud while trying to approach it while looking through my lens
    instead of where I was walking. Very interesting experience between the mud and the Merlin.
    You can see photos in the link below.

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/bitzyme/sets/72157652012873381

  8. tina clark says:

    We had a pair make themselves at home in the pines of our Waterbury Ctr. backyard 2 years ago. They had 2 or 3 babies. I had no songbirds shortly after they arrived! So interesting to watch and listen to but the carnage was fierce.

  9. Mark Council says:

    They are fond of golf courses, and in recent years have nested on both the Hanover and Lake Morey courses. Both feature big pines. Wonder if all the chemicals used making the courses “purdy” is showing up in their blood.

  10. Hey Bryan! We’ve had Merlins flying and calling around the North Branch Nature Center recently as well. I’m hoping they’ll take up residence in the white pines across the street.

  11. sandra bruggemann says:

    I read everything you send out Bryan. Always very interesting. Keep it coming. I really miss VT.

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