Cycling down a wooded cut-through yesterday we disturbed a sleek, grey raptor, who wheeled suddenly in front of us and then swept up the path at high speed, flying just inches above the ground. It was a breathtaking display and with such characteristics could only have been one bird – the usually elusive Merlin.
The Merlin is the smallest of the UK falcons and the band member we were privileged to see was almost certainly a male, given its greyish-blue upper parts and black wing-tips. The female is a little larger and, according to William MacGillivray, the blue is a little more distinct than the grey.
Merlins are famous for skimming the ground in pursuit of their prey of small birds like Meadow Pipits, Skylarks, Chaffinch, and Wheater (all prevalent round here), through rapid twists and turns. The Readers Digest bird guide my Gran bought for me in 1984, and which is still the first book I turn to on returning home after having spotted something interesting, describes them thus: “Flying low, fast and level, with quick, shallow wing-beats, the male Merlin is a little bigger than a Mistle Thrush.”
This habit of flying fast and low to the ground makes them hard to spot, so we were incredibly lucky. There are also, sadly, very few Merlin left in the UK. Once the favoured hunting bird of the Middle Ages noblewoman, there are now estimated to be only 1,300 breeding pairs, although that does seem to point to a mini-revival given that my books from the 1980s put the number at less than 500.
Nevertheless, spotting a Merlin where we did in the Welsh Black Mountains is slightly less unusual. Breconshire Birds’ Annual Report 2021 records the continued presence of a female Merlin throughout that winter, almost exactly where we had our encounter in Groesffordd. So was this its partner or perhaps the offspring?
One of four falcons that habituate these isles (their brethren being the Kestrel, Hobby and Peregrine), the Merlin might be small of stature, but stands out for its latent power. In his magical book ‘Raptors’, James Macdonald Lockhart describes a typically dynamic encounter with a Merlin in Scotland: “The sense of sprung energy in this tiny bird of prey was extraordinary, a fizzing atom, bombarding the sky..Even at rest he was a quivering ball of energy, primed to spring and fly himself out and up. Relentless, fearless missile of the moor you would not be able to shake him off once he latched on to you.”
Indeed, Merlin’s get so locked on to their prey that they have been recorded hurtling at pursuit speed in and out of people’s homes. Sometimes this has fatal results for the Merlin, courtesy of high speed crashes into walls or fences, for “Merlins need space to run their prey down. They do not possess the Sparrowhawks’ agility to hunt through the tight landscape of a wood.”
Maybe, and without in any way seeking to disparage the beautiful Sparrowhawk (with whom I had an equally close encounter this week), but it is hard to imagine being treated to a more exhilarating encounter with a raptor than our, very brief, meeting with a Merlin this weekend.
2 Responses to “Merlin”
What an encounter! I’m very envious, I’ve never seen a merlin near or far.