Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Merlins in New Orleans

A few Merlins can be found around New Orleans each winter, even in the developed urban landscape.  I have seen two this winter- both in the last week.

The Merlin is a small falcon- not much larger than a Mourning Dove, although a bit more robust of build.  Their sharply pointed wings and small size separate them from all other birds of prey except the American Kestrel, which outnumbers Merlin in our region.  The two species are both much smaller than Peregrine Falcon, our other bird of that group- enough to make confusion unlikely.  Although Mississippi Kites are also pointed-winged, they overlap little with Merlins in their dates of occurrence- late April being the only time both are likely to be around.

A perched Merlin will differ from a kestrel in being darker:  more heavily streaked below, lacking any rufous tones on the upperparts or dorsal tail, and having a dark (slate or brown) back.  Merlins are much less likely to perch on a wire (but they use poles), and do not bob the tail up and down like a kestrel often does.  The underside of Merlin's tail is mainly dark.

The two species may be most easily distinguished in flight, when their different personalities are apparent.  Kestrels look like lightweights in flights, and do not convey an impression of strength.  Merlins fly very directly and swiftly, and ooze power and attitude- the "Harley Davidsons" of the bird world. This difference is remarkably consistent.  Merlins do not hover, a common habit of hunting Kestrels.

My two recent sightings were in Lakeview (a bird flying fast northwest over the I-610/Canal Blvd overpass), and in Gentilly (a bird spooked by my car, from atop a utility pole in the residential neighborhoods south of UNO).

Good birding,


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