merlin

There's something bittersweet about the month of August. The "Au" in its name foreshadows the Autumn ahead while cool evening winds add another reminder that summer will soon pass.

Store flyers and television ads are already running "Back To School" themes and even the kids I know are mumbling about notebooks and pencils.

Sure, there are some hot days left for visits to the beach and games in the sun, but there is no denying that change is in the air. 

As a birder, I notice less and less bird song during my daily walks and bike rides now. The breeding season is over and ranks of young and old are gathering in lines along roadside wires and branches. Flocks of starlings move like smoke over the local fields while family groups of robins and bluebirds work together to bulk up for their migration.  After sunset I am already hearing the chip notes of songbirds that have begun their journeys south.  

While cycling Lake Drive north of Keswick last week I flushed a merlin from a small tree along the Lake Simcoe shoreline. Merlins are small, dark falcons that prey on smaller birds. They particularly like shorebirds and, especially in late summer, can often be found in the vicinity of migrating sandpipers and plovers.

Sure enough, less than a kilometre from where I startled the merlin, I observed several killdeer and spotted sandpipers feeding along Willow Beach. If these birds aren't careful, I thought to myself, one less will be making the trek south.

Adult shorebirds have actually been moving south since July. The males begin to migrate shortly after their young are fledged and the females follow soon after. Their precocial (as opposed to "precocious") offspring take care of themselves only a few weeks after birth and, when they are physically ready (usually in August), juvenile shorebirds embark on their first migration. 

Unfortunately for these young travellers, such birds of prey as the merlin and peregrine falcon are well aware of the transit routes. At shorelines and lagoons across the continent migrating shorebirds will gather to feed and rest, taking comfort in the relative safety offered by the flock. Falcons, also in need of food, patrol many of these stopping points.

Some of the most exciting "birding moments" for me have taken place along beaches and lagoon shores when I have chanced upon falcons hunting. I am not unsympathetic to the plight of shorebirds but I'm not blind to the fact that birds of prey need to survive as well.

To see birds as dynamic as the merlin and peregrine in hunting mode is a spectacle to behold. Their speed is remarkable and the aerodynamic design of their bodies, of course, enables them to move like feathered bullets.

The next time you see some shorebirds gathered on a beach, keep your eyes peeled for falcons. They will have their eyes peeled for you, the birds on the shore, and everything else. 

Late summer is one of the best times to do this, be it bitter or sweet.