Urban Merlins

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ostrich
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Urban Merlins

Post by ostrich » Sat Jul 25, 2020 12:20 pm

This thread is for the discussion of merlins (falco columbarius), especially merlins in the urban environment. In many areas merlins are starting to become a more common urban raptor.

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ostrich
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Re: Urban Merlins

Post by ostrich » Tue Jul 28, 2020 7:18 pm

This year in my neighbourhood (suburban Toronto) I did not have the usual Coopers hawk breeding that has been present in the territory from 2012-2019 with the exception of 2016. This spring, although there were adult and subadult/juvenile on territory briefly, they did not

However I had been noting periodically over a period of a few weeks from around the beginning of June that I'd seen merlin in the neighbourhood, generally in flight passing by on different trajectories, mostly from spots a bit N of the park. Late spring/summer has not typically been a time I've seen merlin in the neighborhood, I had not managed to see more than one at a time for the first while, although there were tantalizing signs perhaps of there being a nearby territorial area they were active in. A number of times when seeing a passing merlin there were loud keeing vocalizations, which hinted at another individual in the territory. And on a couple of occasions I'd seen a high merlin harassing high RTs passing over the area, dive bombing or following them until they passed further away, which appeared to be territorial behavior.

By early July I finally had success finding two adults on a reasonably regular basis, surprisingly along a N-S crescent immediately north of the park. This was a solid indication of a pair, with a couple of trees halfway along the street that I could sometimes find one perch in (and a lot of mutes in the middle of the road immediately below some of the branches) indicating that perch was being used frequently.

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The female I was seeing frequently up in some tall conifers about 70m or so roughly west of the street perch, with food exchanges occurring on the perch.

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Re: Urban Merlins

Post by ostrich » Sat Aug 01, 2020 3:01 pm

The male and female adult merlins are reasonably distinguishable based on plumage, at least when one has a reasonably close look.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQzPYChTveI&t=78s

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wlchShjTZB0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbTKV2Q_e2o

With the possibility of a nest in the area, I started making frequent observations for a couple of weeks or so, waiting near the tree on the street which was serving as an occasional perch or food transfer spot. I was hoping that after seeing one or both of them from the street, I might be guided based to possible nest spots based on where they flew from there. Especially if there were an active nest after a food transfer would be an obvious time that an adult could fly in the direction of a nest tree.

However my assumptions guiding my initial search were based on some common characteristics of merlin nests:

1) merlins tend to be extremely secretive about their nests, and often do not make them obvious from the ground.

2) merlins will strongly prefer to nest in (a) fairly high coniferous trees, (b) in a nest spot that is well hidden by relatively dense coniferous foliage, especially in a small stand that tends to hide the nest from multiple directions

3) merlins do not build their own nests, they will only reuse nests built by other birds (hawks, or especially crows or other corvids), or possibly other animals, so any nest location would have to be one where a prior nest existed.

The main initial challenge in determining a possible nest site was that there are very limited significant conifers in the neighborhood that seemed likely candidates - nearly all the larger trees in the surrounding area, including in and around the park are generally deciduous. And of the few conifers around there seemed to be very few that could have an appropriate nest structure. However the one possibility I thought perhaps barely satisfied the usual critera was about 100m away from the food transfer spot, but in a roughly N direction (so making a rough triangle between the food transfer spot on the street, the tall roosting trees about 70m roughly W, and the spot 100m north). These trees were a relatively close cluster of 3 conifers in the front yard of a house along the closest E-W street from the crescent. So I waited several times for apparent food transfers or interactions from both adults on the street and then moved as quickly as I could to a spot where I could observe those conifers in hopes of catching one definitively flying into these trees or making a food delivery. However I did not have any real luck in catching any definitive evidence of this, although I did catch the adults nearby on a couple of occasions.

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I was finally able to make a breakthrough on 07/10, when I stumbled upon the nest tree after talking to a couple of residents on the street, the actual nest was no more than about another 10 or 15 yards further along the street all along. I had missed this nest because I hadn't though to look closely at it as it was nothing like the type of nest tree I was expecting. The nest was in a deciduous tree, not a conifer, the nest itself was quite low, perhaps only about 30ft or so off the ground, and it was fairly visible, and not significantly hidden. According to residents the nest had been previously used by squirrels, although it looked to be a mainly stick type nest so unclear if squirrels originally built it.

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The most exciting part of the identified nest was that there were already nestlings;

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUUCkJIkZ3w

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2LzsXAKaws

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Re: Urban Merlins

Post by ostrich » Sun Aug 02, 2020 12:50 pm

After identifying the nest, it was evident fairly quickly that there were at least 3 nestlings probably at least a couple of weeks old, with some definite pin feather development but with lots of down still retained. It was now much easier to catch the sequence of food deliveries, often with the male showing up at the food transfer tree and doing an exchange with the female. But often there seemed to be quite a bit of movement by one or more adults around the exchanges, often not directly to the nest so it was not always evident who was eventually flying food there.

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By about July 18 there was significant development in the nestlings and loss of down.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcMCftUeRpA

With pretty quick development, the merlin nestlings did not seem to have nearly the sort of prolonged gradual branching and flying process that the hawks did, by July 21 there was at least one definite fledging to the food transfer tree, as well as branching outside the nest. Once branching started it was possible to confirm 4 nestlings as opposed to 3.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kNPOGmuumTo

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGyHqHeTKJg

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Re: Urban Merlins

Post by ostrich » Sun Aug 02, 2020 1:16 pm

Progress of the nestlings off of the tree was quite rapid, July 24 I caught a rather interesting sequence between (I believe) the adult male and one of the nestlings, after the male arrived with a prey item;

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A larger fledgling (which would certainly seem to suggest female) approached undoubtedly interested in the food:

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The fledgling definitely appeared to attempt to grab the food;

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However, subsequent to the fledgling grabbing the prey, it seemed like the male tried to regain possession:

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However finally the male appeared to take back possession and move to a different spot with it. Perhaps this was some sort of teaching to a fledgling on taking possession of prey?

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The activity of the fledglings has also provided good opportunities for footage, they are so vocal, especially when sighting adults or with potential food deliveries that they are easier to find, although not always to follow when they start moving around.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oNq43NNagEU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9N4XUAtoz4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1D91C5C14vg

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Re: Urban Merlins

Post by ostrich » Sun Aug 02, 2020 1:53 pm

The fledglings have tended to remain in and around the street, often using some of these same perches but gradually moving around the surrounding backyards as well, and these have provided lots of pretty good opportunities to get close looks at the juveniles:

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I've also caught occasional interesting interactions between the juveniles - on a couple of occasions I've seen two together with close beak to beak interaction, this was evident on prairie merlin cam which was recently active. It seemed like either there was some actual feeding of one to another or possibly one that was feeding just had some bits of food still in the beak that the other was attempting to grab.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z8Au7iieFVw

With the gradual expanding of their movements, I'd caught some early evening moving around by fledglings, getting far enough to reach the NE corner of the park and backyards behind, so probably a total of approx 200m from the nest tree, July 30.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5m1Dvzhylc

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Re: Urban Merlins

Post by ostrich » Sun Aug 02, 2020 2:03 pm

July 31; there was quite a bit of activity and antics from the juveniles in the morning;

I believe it was the adult male who landed on top of the conifer E of the street (which was a common perch for him) but holding a prey item that appeared likely to be a female house sparrow. In response one of the juveniles came right in and claimed the item. The fact the prey was not deplumed seemed to indicate the parents have probably progressed to providing un-deplumed prey so that the juveniles have to do this themselves and learn this skill.

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There appeared to be more than one juvenile moving around at different points, perhaps with different prey items so it wasn't entirely clear who was who. But one ended up on rooftop with what may have been the sparrow:

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One of the siblings approached and an interaction over the prey item began:

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This juvenile had a prey item on top of one of the street light poles, this may be a different prey but also looked somewhat sparrow like:

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Re: Urban Merlins

Post by ostrich » Sun Aug 02, 2020 2:05 pm

Some additional good close looks at the juveniles from July 31:

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Re: Urban Merlins

Post by JudyB » Thu Aug 13, 2020 10:31 am

Spectacular photos - thanks so much for sharing them here, ostrich!

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Re: Urban Merlins

Post by ostrich » Sat Aug 15, 2020 8:25 pm

Some interesting observations from Aug 5 :

Near the nest area in the morning a couple of individuals were roosting;

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However, shortly afterwards there was a large flurry of activity, with lots of bursts of vocalizations from the merlins, and a lot of very rapid flights in and around the nest street, coming past and the circling out far enough that they would come in and out of view, including at least 3 individuals visible in the air at once. Vocalizations and some flights have been reasonably typical, when the juvenile perhaps are working on their flight skills, or they are reacting to their parents or food. However this activity seemed more intense, and some chasing flights were quite intense. At one point a bird came down the street and briefly landed low down in the nest tree. However, reviewing this bird revealed a surprise - a Coopers hawk.

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This must have been the reason for some of the agitation, presumably it was chased out of the area by the merlins, but oddly the attention of the merlins did not seem solely on the hawk, perhaps it was chased out quickly. Many of the flights were hard to track consistently since they would come in and out of view rapidly, but most of the times I could track them passing by there were merlins chasing each other (I would imagine the juveniles).

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Later in the day I was lucky enough to catch 3 of the fledglings together on a lower branch of the nest tree. From the view it certainly gave the impression there were two larger (perhaps female) and one definitely smaller (and perhaps male).

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Roosting juveniles:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XoJqOrA4Gbc

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSKbh91uC_Y

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Re: Urban Merlins

Post by ostrich » Sat Aug 15, 2020 8:35 pm

With some evening activity a little later after the roosting juveniles started moving around, which provided an opportunity to try to get them in flight. The merlins are so quick and low flying that it is very challenging to track them.

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Re: Urban Merlins

Post by ostrich » Sun Aug 16, 2020 1:56 pm

Some observations from Aug 8:

- I found one of the juveniles on top of a flat street light along the nest street, I have noticed merlins using these lights as spots to feed on a few times now, as it must be easy to handle the prey on the flat surface. This time once again the prey I think was a house sparrow - and indeed this also seems to be a pretty common prey, there are certainly many in the area. There are larger birds not far away like pigeons and mourning doves but I haven't seen any indicators of them taking these larger prey, at least not near the nest.

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Despite the fact that the feet presumably don't have much nutrition value to them they seem to be willing to try to get them down regardless.

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An interesting interaction followed after the merlin had consumed most of the prey - I noticed a few insects moving around the light that I assumed were flies, but upon further examinations they turned out to be yellowjackets. The merlin definitely did not seem happy with the wasps at all and even seemed to be trying to snatch one out of the air with its beak a couple of times:

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Some flight:

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Re: Urban Merlins

Post by ostrich » Thu Aug 20, 2020 6:30 pm

Activity and presence of the juveniles along the street near the nest tailed off and ended around Aug 12 or so, the last time I was able to observe juveniles in flight close to the nest area was early on Aug 12. I'd continued to make regular checks there to see if occasional activity was still occuring there, but without seeing any indication.

I have continued to occasionally spot individuals on the tall conifer close by and across from the nest street, although I think this has probably been adults (especially the male). Without a close look it isn't especially easy to distinguish the juveniles and the adults, particularly to the adult female.

Most likely adult male, seen on the conifer Aug 13 and Aug 14;

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More recently I have picked up sightings, some definitely including at least one juveniles a bit further east of the nest area and the park, approx 200m from the nest itself.

Aug 16 - in early evening I spotted 3 merlins along a street E of the nest area that borders some large open athletic fields that are part of the local high school. This area has lots of open space, as well as trees and other perches around, so it makes some sense they would like find this an attractive area. One was perched in a snag in a backyard immediately bordering the athletic field, while two were moving around in a pine directly across the street. It again was not easy to identify whether they were adults or juveniles, but since there were three there had to be at least one juvenile and probably two or all three were.

Aug 17 - I again found a single merlin in the same snag, this time I was able to observe it fly off the snag out into the field, when I found it coming back it had grabbed a dragonfly and consumed it on the snag. It then made a couple of other flights that looked to be hunting more dragonflies. This itself was slightly interesting because although merlins are certainly known to hunt insects like dragonflies, there are other significant hunting opportunities nearby. One resident right on the entry of the athletic fields has bird feeders setup in their front yard, and there are always significant numbers of passerines around the feeders, as well as a sizeable group of pigeons and mourning doves that regularly live and perch nearby.

Aug 19 - I spotted two merlins on the snag in the early afternoon, in this case one interesting thing was that on my way to check the area I passed through the park and came across a very light borealis adult RT roosting in the SE corner of the park. After spotting the merlins, I also walked by the bird feeders and discovered there was a juvenile RT sitting in the trees beside the feeders after having made a hunting attempt on the pigeons nearby. I don't know whether the merlins (adult or juvenile) would have been able to see either of the RTs from where they were, quite possibly they could see at least the one in the park, but either they were not aware of the RT presence or there was no territorial reaction.

Aug 21 - A single merlin on the snag in the morning (approx 9am).

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Re: Urban Merlins

Post by ostrich » Tue Sep 08, 2020 4:20 pm

I have not had any sightings of merlin in the neighbourhood since Aug 21 - either they have all dispersed completely or are ranging far enough now that I am no longer seeing them in the area. With the Coopers I did get occasional adult sightings over the fall and winter, so I will keep an eye out for evidence of merlins remaining in the area. Otherwise fare well youngsters.

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