Last fall while out in the garden, my husband saw a dark flash dart past him, flying low to the ground and land on a fence post. He called me out to identify the bird and we marked the first sighting of a Merlin for our yard list.
Merlins are 12-inch falcons, a couple inches larger than their more common cousin, the American Kestrel. Unlike their more colorful relative, Merlins are plain brownish and the subspecies that we usually see here on Whidbey is a dark chocolate brown.
Most Merlins breed north of us in Canada. We see them migrating through or stopping to spend the winter. They also breed in the Cascades and in Eastern Washington, but there are no reports of them nesting on Whidbey.
So when I heard about a family of five young Merlins that had just fledged from a nest in North Seattle, I jumped on the ferry to go take a look.
Barb Deihl, a Seattle Audubon birder, has been tracking the nesting Merlins and reported that the youngsters were flying short distances from their nest. Typically, young Merlins remain near their natal nest for one-to-four weeks while the parents continue to bring them food.
I followed my GPS to an address in a leafy Shoreline neighborhood where I met a couple of birding buddies.
The moment I stepped from my car, a loud, insistent “kee, kee, kee, kee” pulled my attention to a tall, dead spire above a Douglas fir tree. Three of the five youngsters sat helter-skelter on the bare branches calling for breakfast in the formerly quiet neighborhood.
We set a birding scope in a cul-de-sac to examine the full-sized fledglings. The bright morning sun turned their creamy under parts and streaked brownish backs a warm golden color. The birds, still festooned with downy tufts of feathers, preened, stretched their wings and romped around on the branches, like 2-year-olds stuck in a playpen waiting to be let loose and explore the world.
The fourth Merlin offspring pleaded from a thick conifer tree about 100 feet away. Only later, I located the fifth bird. These five birds had hatched in a nearby fir, likely in an old crow’s nest that the Merlin parents had taken possession of.
Several neighbors wandered into the street to tell us about “their” birds. They gathered around the scope for a chance at an up-close view.
Susie, who’s yard held the stand of thick fir trees where the parent Merlins had nested, complained about the loud Merlin calls at 4:30 each morning. After a look through the scope, she appeared to change her attitude, “Wow, they’re beautiful. Bigger than I thought.”
For no apparent reason the birds flew off to another tree. These first flights are short and faltering while the birds learn to fly and their wings fully develop. Moments later, they retuned to the dead snag.
Barb Deihl has posted signs in the neighborhood, explaining about the birds and the importance of protecting the tall conifer trees. She also distributes messages via e-mail describing the Merlin nesting process.
The neighbors explained that the mowed vacant lot where we had parked was now called the “Mer-lawn” and that a neighborhood potluck was planned to celebrate the birds and share stories.
As my friends and I walked back to our cars, the begging cries suddenly amplified and an adult Merlin arrived with prey, which was delivered to one of the young. Merlins feed primarily on small birds, which they catch in short dashing flights. These birds are known for their mid-air food transfer when the male will drop a prey and the female will catch it in the air.
I expect there are unreported Merlins nesting somewhere on Whidbey. If so, now is a good time to locate the nests. Listen for an insistent “kee, kee, kee” and look for a small dark falcon responding to the plea for breakfast.