Merlin’s Nest At Chautauqua Institution

On July 3, Ruth Lundin, president of Jamestown Audubon, invited me to go birding with her at Chautauqua Institution. She had been asked to substitute in leading a bird walk for a friend. We commenced scouting at the lake. Then, we headed south towards the Hall of Philosophy. At Cookman and Fletcher we saw a male merlin. I couldn’t use my brand new Apple iPhone to play its song. This bird is too rare in the east and was not included on the list of eastern birds.

We couldn’t find the female, but the male repeatedly went to one of three spruce trees.

The closest one to us had three cones hanging from a high limb.

The next spruce had a cluster of cones. We figured that the male was feeding the female on a nest in one of those trees. We couldn’t see the nest well, so we walked to Merrill Street, where a large nest made of sticks, was easily visible. We also saw plainly the handsome male. That was quite a treat.

Now for the research. The bird was not included in my books about eastern birds. I found it in David Sibley’s “Field Guide to Birds of Western North America.” Merlins migrate through our area to spend summers in Canada. Richard Crossley did include the bird in his guide of Eastern birds. He says that it breeds in the New England Adirondacks and Canada, where it has adapted to humans by living in suburban areas (like Chautauqua Institution). He shows that it stays year-round in the eastern and western United States all the way to South America and Mexico. Then, south of those areas is its regular winter range.

Where would you normally find it nesting? In forest trees with open spaces. It’s more uncommon in open habitats. From posts or snags, it will be feisty by attacking much bigger birds.

After it spots prey from its high perch, it will speedily attack. With great agility, it will make sudden turns. Mostly, it eats small birds, but can capture flying dragonflies. Sibley describes its song as rising with “strident notes” and then falling.

The merlin is often compared to the American kestrel, which is quite common around here year round. I have even spotted several on the same road.

The kestrel is only about 1 inch smaller (9 inches) than the merlin. Its wings have deeper angles in the wings than the merlin. The wingbeats are also deeper. It has the ability to hover, like the rough-legged hawk, and falls to capture mice, insects or other small prey. When it does sit on a post, it pumps its tail to keep its balance.

Besides its hovering behavior, the kestrel appears quite different from the merlin. It has vertical dark stripes on its head. The merlin has a much weaker mustache and eyeline. The kestrel’s upper back is quite red and its undersides are quite white with dark spots. The merlin generally has an all-dark back with just a few white spots. Also, its breast has much denser dark spots. Both do have long, thin tails.

The merlin was a life bird for me.

Let’s hope that soon we will view the female and young. This is the second year that this bird has been at Chautauqua.

You can look for it on Sundays at Chautauqua Institution. The grounds are free from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Good birding to you.