It is Wednesday afternoon and I am sitting outside in the sun on the patio. I’ve been blogging and birding for days on end and I need a break. The warm sunlight falls across my cheek and I close my eyes and melt into the seat. Ahh, this is what I need!
In the mesquite tree behind me a couple of Lesser Goldfinches cheep. The tiny leaves and stems of the native Velvet Mesquite tree have all but fallen off. The naked branches offer little in the way of cover for the birds now. Still, they come to the thistle seed feeder hanging from a sturdy branch and I love to see them there, thick as feathers. I turn to see a female house finch fly in. She lands on a top branch trying to decide if it’s safe, if I am safe. I settle back down into the chair as a soft breeze caresses my face.
Suddenly there is an explosion of wings behind me. I turn just in time to see a small dark bird flying through the middle of the mesquite tree’s maze of branches. The tiny birds scatter in all direction. The hawk or falcon flies straight towards me, tail tilting and turning like a rudder in the air. It flies less than two feet over my head in dashing and darting flight in pursuit of prey.
I try to gather my wits about me and realize what I am seeing. This bird is small, swift and dark. Its tail seems shorter than the hawks I usually see. My mind races…could it be a Merlin? One time before I thought I had seen a Merlin here, but this is such open country, I do not expect them. I don’t even know what field marks to look for to distinguish them from a Sharpie. I only know it’s not a Cooper’s Hawk. This bird is about the size of a Mourning Dove.
I watch as the small falcon flies swiftly over the yards and road only to disappear beyond a rooftop. I do not have my binoculars outside with me and to go in the house even a couple of steps would be to miss seeing what I am seeing. I wait to be sure the bird will not circle around again, and then I relax and breathe. I did not know I was holding my breath. My heart is pounding and I feel the adrenalin coursing through my veins. It is as if I was part of the hunt, though I don’t know who I was rooting for. It was a magnificent sight to see, but I love my little yellow goldfinches and I’m not sure I want to see one end up as dinner right before my eyes. I wish there was a way to serve up House Sparrows only, but even this would not be fair. Nature has its own ways and I am part of that also.
I finally go inside and pull out my bird guides and here is what I learned today, so I will be prepared for the next time. Merlins are small dark falcons with pointed wings. A Sharp-shinned hawk has rounded wings. Merlins have a whisker mark that runs down the side of their face, just like a kestrel does. They have vertical striping on their breast, whether they are mature or immature, but the males are blue-gray above and the females and immature brown. There is also a black northwestern variety and a pale prairie form. A Merlin has a long, dark tail with whitish bands and according to the range maps, this is its winter territory. I will have to pay more attention next time a small hawk flies by and make sure it is not a falcon instead. From all I have read, I believe the possibility is strong that this is what I saw today, but until I am sure, I will not add the Merlin to the Sycamore Canyon Bird List or my Big January count.