Text and Photo by Peter Vankevich
What makes birdlife on Ocracoke fascinating is that it is always changing. There are the year-round residents such as the Northern Mockingbird and Fish Crow and species like the Great-crested Flycatcher that fly up from the tropics to nest in the village. In spring and fall, “migrant” birds pass through on their way to their breeding or wintering territories. And then there are those that converge on the island from the north to spend the winter and may be seen flying along the dunes or perhaps perching on the water tower. Since it is December, we will feature one of these neat winter birds, the Merlin (Falco columbarius). The name Merlin derives from esmerillon, the old French name for this species. They were formerly known as pigeon hawks, not because of a fondness for eating pigeons but rather for their flight pattern which some thought has a similarity.
With a long wingspan of about 24 inches, the females of this species are noticeably larger than males weighing eight ounces; males are closer to six ounces. When lighting conditions are good, males can be distinguished by their gray backs, females and immature birds are brown and all of them have streaky breasts.
The Merlins spotted on Ocracoke breed in the Boreal or Taiga regions of the eastern northern United States and Canada. They prefer relative open habitat with low to medium-height vegetation and some trees that makes Ocracoke an ideal habitat for them. If you are out and about on the island, at a given moment during the day, you may see a Merlin dash past you displaying both speed and agility pursuing its prey which consists primarily of small birds. I have seen them on the island flying fast and low to the ground in hot pursuit of an unfortunate Myrtle Warbler. Fearless and feisty, they will chase off a Bald Eagle who strays into its territory.
Merlins do not build their own nests but will use an abandoned one made by a crow or hawk. An interesting adaptation change is that within the last 30 years or so, Merlins have started to nest in suburban and even urban areas, particularly in the northern Great Plains.
You can start looking for Merlins in the fall. Carol Pahl sent me a nice photo of one she saw at Springer’s Point on October 9. On the Wings Over Water field trip this past November all of the participants got an excellent view of a Merlin perched in a dead live oak at the entrance of Springer’s Point, perhaps it was the same bird. The falcon seen in this photograph was perched on one of the telephone poles at the campground.
On a given day in December on the island, one may see any of three falcon species, the Merlin, American Kestrel and the Peregrine Falcon and on most of the Ocracoke Christmas Bird Counts over the past 28 years or so, they have all been seen.
Speaking thereof, time for annual pitch. Since 1981, a Christmas Bird Count has taken place on Ocracoke. This event begun in 1900 is an opportunity for people to get out and identify and count the birds during a 24 hour period. Last year, 101 species were reported on Ocracoke. This year, the count date will be December 31 and, for the adventurous, the Portsmouth Island Count will be on December 30. You don’t have to be an expert to participate as beginners will be placed with more experienced birders and we welcome your participation. If you are interested in joining us, contact Peter Vankevich by email firstname.lastname@example.org or 252 928-2539 for details.