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Merlins in the Olympics

David Drummond of Bellingham has been studying merlins for 25 years. He is founder and vice president of the Merlin Falcon Foundation. Merlins, peregrine falcons and American kestrels are the falcons we find on the Olympic Peninsula.

An expert on raptors, Drummond will be teaching about them in Sequim on Feb. 20-21 (Friday night in a classroom, Saturday in the field; details on our Web site: www.olybird.org).

I caught up with him recently to ask about his research on merlins.



David Jackson: Merlins? The name reminds me of the magician of ancient lore.

Drummond: The origins of the name are obscure, as it dates back more than 1,000 years with the use of merlins in falconry. Did you know that in medieval Europe, merlins were fancied as a "lady's hawks," counting Catherine the Great and Mary Queen of Scots among the enthusiasts?



DJ: What led you to study merlins?

Drummond: I have been curious about many aspects of nature from an early age. My mother got me a scholarship to a nature camp in Kalamazoo, Mich., at age 8, after which I was hooked. By age 12, I was teaching wildlife ecology classes at the camp. My main focus in high school and college courses was on biology and ecology. I later studied peregrine falcons at North Cascades National Park and with the Washington State Fish and Wildlife Department. I became captivated by the merlin subspecies (Falco columbarius suckleyi) living in the Pacific Northwest, about which little was known. I left Fish and Wildlife in 1988 to study them as an independent researcher.



DJ: I don't encounter many merlins around Sequim.

Drummond: They are uncommon. There probably are more spotted owls on the Olympic Peninsula than merlins.



DJ: We found a merlin sitting high in a tree when I took your class several years ago.

Drummond: Merlins typically perch on good vantage points, scanning for prey. That was a migrating female Taiga Merlin (a different subspecies), as I recall. Adult male merlins tend to stay close to their nesting territory, defending their nest platforms and prey base, while the females and juveniles may stay nearby or disperse widely.



DJ: Merlins can be a challenge to identify.

Drummond: Yes. For example, what the bird identification books, even those specializing in raptors, often neglect to mention is how to tell a merlin from its closest look-alike - a juvenile sharp-shinned hawk (aka sharpie). Both can hang around near feeders, seeking to pick off small birds, their favorite prey. On our evolving Web site (www.merlinfalconfoundation.org) we ask observers to report merlin sightings. About half the reports we receive are sightings of sharpies. Observers, on seeing a small bird snatched in mid-air by a raptor, tend to jump to the conclusion that the predator is either a sharpie or a Cooper's hawk (accipiters). Merlins are built for high-speed pursuit in the open, whereas accipiters are built for pursuing prey while dodging among trees. Observers miss focusing on the critical differences between merlins and accipiters: body shape, wing and tail length, tail-banding pattern and facial markings. I cover these and much more in our raptor class.



DJ: Do merlins ever nest near town?

Drummond: That's becoming increasingly more common in western Washington. A pair of merlins nested in Port Angeles about 10 years ago but didn't fledge a juvenile or reuse the nest thereafter. We have one record of merlins nesting near Sequim in 1994. On the Olympic Peninsula they nest in the national forests and Olympic National Park.



DJ: You study them there?

Drummond: Yes, which reminds me of a funny experience in the park. I had my scope trained on a merlin nest, which held a female sitting on eggs. It was one of my shorter field days, 10 hours mostly spent hunched over the scope in pouring rain. I was monitoring the activity of this particular female while making notes in my waterproof notebook. After several hours, the female finally stirred, then rose and rotated 90 degrees before settling back on the eggs. On glancing down at my rain jacket, I discovered not one, not two, but three banana slugs climbing toward my neck.



DJ: Wow! I'd volunteer to help next year, but I think I'm busy that week.

Drummond: Field research on merlins is not for everyone. We get most volunteers in the summer, when the weather is nice.



DJ: What's ahead on your project?

Drummond: With 25 years worth of data in hand, one of the most comprehensive studies of merlins ever done, it's time to publish and share these findings with the public and agencies. We are planning to write a national merlin book, as well as publish articles in relevant journals.



DJ: Where does your support come from?

Drummond: Although there's agency money for studying certain birds, like peregrines and spotted owls, nothing is available for studying merlins. Consequently I'm also a part-time fundraiser, seeking grants and support from birding groups, local businesses and individual contributors. We gratefully acknowledge all of them on our Web site and in our publications.



Olympic Peninsula Audubon meets at 7 p.m. today at the Dungeness River Audubon Center. Jim Karr will speak on Birds of the African Forest and Savannah. Please join us.

Our next field trip will be held on Feb. 21-22. Details on our Web site (www.olybird.org).



Dave Jackson can be reached at editor@olybird.org or 683-1355.



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