Friday, January 9, 2009

What Was That: Hawk or Falcon?

Sharp-shinned hawk 12-9-08 by Kathie Brown

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.

I welcome anyone's opinion and input on the identity of this little raptor.

(I have no pictures of a Merlin. The sharp-shinned photo is of a bird that showed up here last December and is shown for contrast only. It was taken using the Nikon D80 with the 70-300mm lens set in sports mode.)


Anonymous said...

Very well written. It's as if you transported my mind to see what you saw. I have felt that rush and excitement too, from the raptors that visited our differing homes in the past. It sounds like you saw a Merlin. When you see it, you say to your self, yes this is different, and they are very rich and dark in colour. I hope you get to see the Merlin again soon.

kesslerdee said...

That was a wonderful post! I felt like I was right there with you. I am really enjoying your blog and will visit often!

Naturegirl said...

Katie I was right there with you as I read your account of this sighting!
Yes "Nature has its own ways" and like it or not we must accept it.
I have witnessed many a fallen morning dove ..feathers only left after a feast from the hawk...the circle of life I suppose.

Naturegirl said...

oops..sorry I meant to type Kathie.

Jayne said...

Whew... my heart was pumping as I read your words Kathie!

Mary said...

Wow...what an experience! Wish you had photos, but we seldom are prepared for such unexpected excitement :-) I've never seen a Merlin, but did get photos of Kestrels this year, which are similar. It has the face stripe, too. That hawk photo is lovely.

Deborah Godin said...

That was edge-of-my-seat reading! I'd be tending toward a merlin too, because they're a bit larger than a kestrel, closer to the dove size you mentioned. A male kestrel would have been pretty unmistakeable under the right light and viewing conditions - I know it all happened so fast - but a female would have been similar to a female kestrel. Quite the show, maybe you'll have an encore!

Ruth's Photo Blog said...

What an awesome experience.Sometimes we have to be satisfied with memories.The feeling of excitment which you had comes through in your writing.

Celeste said...

How exciting! You write so well. I can't tell you how many hours I have spent over the years trying to work out what species of raptor I am looking at! They are notoriously confusing!
I hope you don't mind, I have tagged you to do a meme on my blog.

Mary said...

Yes, the adrenalin does flow! Well told, Kathie.

I only know that Sharp-shinneds and Merlins are small. No help here :o)


Chris W said...

Very good description. Sounds like a Merlin to me.
The hunting tactics you describe are used only by Merlins and Accipiters. Since you said small and dark, I would be inclined to think Merlin over an Accipiter.
The marks you described from your field guides are very useful in separating Sharp-shinned from Merlin.
You should also not that the dark bands on the Merlin's tail, are wide. On a Sharp-shin, the white bands are wide. If it had pointed, falcon-like wings and flight, it's most likely a Merlin.
If it flew somewhat falcon-like and had rounded wings, it's a Sharpy.

Chris W said...

Oh BTW, as Deborah says, Kestrels are unmistakable. They are also much lighter in color than a Merlin or Sharp-shin and they don't fly like a Merlin or Sharpy at all. In a lot of cases, not even like a true falcon.


Anonymous said...

I have no idea what you saw but the experience must have been rewarding.

nina at Nature Remains. said...

Kathie--I knew you'd have the break I needed!
I haven't been doing either--yours brings me what I miss!

Anonymous said...

Gorgeous image. Loved the description of your encounter!
Happy New Year!
Cheers, Klaus

P.S.: I'm finally back and will be posting a boatload of new stuff! ;)

Mary C said...

Wow! Kathie, to think you could possibly count a merlin as a "backyard" bird is amazing! One of these days you'll get that picture!

Jackie said...

what an exciting way to end your peaceful rest. Having that raptor so very close, you must have felt the wind from its wings.