Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Raptor mania continues

I passed through Prospect Park this morning and spent some time listening to the nuthatches. We have two species in our area, the white-breasted and red-breasted. Both are tree huggers, patrolling the trunks and branches of conifers and deciduous. They generally move down a tree, circling the trunk, then flying up to another and working their way down. This is a nice difference from the less common brown creeper, which starts at the bottom of the tree and works its way up. The white-breasted is seen more frequently than the red-breasted in Prospect. They are larger and louder than the red-breasted and you’re more likely to hear one before you see it. The sound they usually make is squeaky -- rather like my right boot when I walk -- “ank-ank-ank” is how I hear it. One was by the Maryland Monument on the flank of Lookout Hill. A little later, at the northern base of Lookout, I stood under the pines and watched two red-breasted nuthatches work over some bark. And listened. Their calls are very subtle, almost subliminal.

Crossing the Nethermead towards Center Drive, I saw a a dozen robins fly-over. I spot-checked the BBG tower in the distance and saw nothing on top. I heard something, not sure what, along the fence at Quaker Hill. Insistent and noisy, more than one bird. A shape, probably a mourning dove in a tree, pulled up my binoculars. It was a raptor. The sound below continued: a couple of tufted titmouse were sounding the alarm. I though, firstly, that the raptor was a sharp-shinned hawk because it was so petite. But I soon pegged it as a merlin. I’d never had such a good view before.

Falco columbarius are our mid-sized falcons, slightly larger, and much less colorful, than kestrels, definitely smaller than peregrines. Note that species moniker: these are also commonly known as pigeon hawks, Columba being the genius of a couple of pigeon species, including the Rock dove, although merlins are generally known to eat sparrow-sized birds, and in summer, dragonflies. It was perched on a good-sized branch, so the view was less than perfect, and the sun blighted a view of its back, which looked bluish. A male. I looked at him for at least ten minutes, changing my perspective around the tree. The bird was very calm, doing a little preening, stretching a leg. The wingtips, a la Sibley, did not reach the tip of the tail. There was a thin but strong eyebrow mark. The mustache was very faint. The chest streaking had some russet. I read that there are four North American subspecies of this bird, seven in Europe, but the lumpers and the splitters may have updated that. When I got in the shade of another large tree to block out the sun, it looked over its back towards me. I decided to return to the other side of the tree to examine the bird some more when I noticed another one on a nearby branch of the same tree. One short of a trifecta! I’m sure it had been there the entire time I was watching the first. This one was larger and had a browner chest: a female. They didn’t do anything along the lines of the ancient mystery dance, however. In fact, they wore me out with their nonchalance, and I left before they went anywhere or did anything, excepting a few more leg stretches, and, from the female, a squirting of waste.

The name merlin comes from Middle English meriloun, from the Old French esmirillon. This is akin to the Middle Dutch smerle, Old High German smerlo and Old Norse smyrill.

If you’re counting, in Brooklyn in the last couple of weeks I have seen at least three red-tails (two in Prospect), three peregrines (2 at the BBG tower), one goshawk (Prospect), one, maybe two Cooper’s hawks (Prospect), and now two merlins.

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