Dan Gomola Wildlife Photography | Merlin: The Lady Hawk

Merlin: The Lady Hawk

July 31, 2016  •  2 Comments

I recently had an opportunity to photograph a family of Merlin that nested in Erie County, Pennsylvania. The Merlin is a speedy, fierce falcon that chases songbirds and shorebirds and snatches them right out of the sky.  This family consisted of two adults and three fledglings. 

I am going to refrain from identifying which are male and female in this blog because frankly, I'm not sure.  Adult male Merlins are slaty gray to dark gray; females and immatures are browner.  Obviously, the three immatures are going to look like females and although I have a few photos of what I think are males, I'll just leave it at that.

Merlins are found nesting in forested openings, forest edges, and along rivers across northern North America.  They have also begun nesting in towns and cities.

This nest is one of three known nests in Erie County, this year.  Now, to most people that's not a big deal but if you look at a range map you will soon realize that a Merlin nest in Pennsylvania is really something special.

I posted two Merlin range maps below.  The one on the left is the Audubon range map.  The one on the right is from Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  You can see on both, Pennsylvania is not supposed to be a breeding location.

Merlin Audubon Range MapMerlin Audubon Range Map Merlin Cornell Range MapMerlin Cornell Range Map


Merlins don’t build their own nests.  Instead, they take over the old nests of other raptors or crows, making few, if any, modifications to the original nest.  The nest this group used is located in a Norway Spruce in a long row of the same.  Unfortunate for me and other birders, they rarely reuse a nest in subsequent years.  That is good news for songbirds as their absence was noticeable.  

The first couple hours I watched these birds, they spent their time in what seemed to be a favorite perching tree, leaving only a few times for short flights.  Normally a solitary bird, traveling alone or in pairs, this young family was still together.  Before taking flight, they become very vocal and it continues during flight.  Homeowners in the area claim they are very noisy at night making sleeping with the windows open difficult.



A lot of the time spent in that tree was spent preening or grooming themselves.  After realizing how fast these birds are, it is a pleasure that I got to see them sitting still for long periods of time allowing me to make these photographs.



In case you were wondering how big these birds are, here a few statistics.  Their length is 9.4 - 11.8 inches, wingspan is 20.9 - 26.8 inches, and they weigh between 5.6 and 8.5 oz.



Have you wondered yet where the term "lady hawk" originated?  Well, medieval falconers called them “lady hawks” and noblewomen used them to hunt Sky Larks.  Catherine the Great and Mary Queen of Scots were among the people who would cast the Merlin and Skylarks into battle to test their aerial abilities.

One of the "cute" characteristics that I noticed watching these birds is they like to stand on one foot and hold the other out in front of themselves.  Not quite sure why; maybe just stretching.



Here is a short video I made while watching two of the five Merlins in a tree.  I have the volume down in the video to block out some of the extra noise as I was standing in the backyard in a residential community.  Click on the icon to begin the video.



I think this Merlin found peeling the bark from this dead tree branch enjoyable.  It walked up and down the branch for several minutes peeling the bark and dropping it.



The Merlin is not much bigger than the more common American Kestrel.  A Merlin is heavier and often appears considerably larger.   As with most raptors, female Merlins are larger than males.



Like other falcons, the Merlin is a strong and maneuverable flier.  Their typical flight speed is 30 miles per hour but can be faster during chases. Despite their small size, the speed they flap their wings make them look powerful in flight.  I was using a Canon 600mm f/4 lens with a 1.4x extender making a focal length of 840mm on a Canon 1DX MK II full-frame body.  Because of the 840mm focal length, I made few attempts at flight photos because they were difficult to track.  I was lucky to get the following photo during a Merlin flyby.



There is a long list of what Merlins eat.  I'll simplify the list for this blog but if you want to learn more about their habitat and eating habits, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a good place to look.

So, Merlins eat mostly birds.  As I mentioned earlier, they catch them in midair, high-speed attacks. Their prey is generally small to medium-sized birds in the 1 - 2 ounce range. Common prey include Horned Lark, House Sparrow, Waxwing, Dickcissel, Least Sandpiper, Dunlin, and other shorebirds. Most falcons will attack and stand on their prey, not a Merlin.  Merlins attack at high speed, horizontally or even from below, chasing the prey upwards until they tire. Other prey include large insects such as dragonflies, bats, nestling birds, and small mammals.  Merlins will also work in pairs where one Merlin flushes a flock of small birds by attacking from below; the other comes in moments later to take advantage of the confusion.

I said earlier that I didn't make many attempts to photograph the Merlin during flight.  I couldn't keep up most of the time.  So, when one of the Merlins caught a small bird and the other opportunistic Merlins began chase, I turned focus onto the spruce trees that they were flying towards.  That allowed me to unknowingly photograph the following sequence of photos of one bird trying to steal the prey from another Merlin's talons.

You can see the outstretched leg of the bird on the left trying to grab the prey from the flying Merlin.



Unwilling to let go, the bird on the left is pulled from its perch.



The chase continues.  Notice the feathers in the beak of the bird in pursuit.



The grip of the bird that caught the prey proved to be too much and it got away from the potential thief.



I unknowingly shot that sequence because it happened so fast.  Thankfully, my focus turned toward their destination instead of trying to photograph the near impossible; a Merlin in flight.

Later, after the birds calmed down, this young Merlin sat in the sun for a few minutes.



I kept my lens pointed in its direction waiting for the moment of takeoff.  Finally, it happened.



I'd like to thank my friend Larry Slomski for tipping me off about this special opportunity and introducing me to the property owners where I would find the birds.  Dan & Sue and Dale were gracious enough to allow me to run around their properties to get the best angles on these birds and their hospitality was second to none.  Thank you again.

Thanks for looking,



Marge Van Tassel(non-registered)
Great series of photos and accompanying content, Dan..one of my favorite places to bird in my county of Armstrong is Worthington (great farmland where a Snowy Owl stayed in a rooftop for almost 3 weeks a few years ago) and one of my favorite birds that I see often especially late fall/winter/early spring are Merlins (usually 2 or 3)... one year a young male flew from wire/cable to pole and back again for almost a half hour and would look at me in my car quite often, as I watched it fly down to one spot near a pond and grab a chipmunk (poor chippie)..and I have photographed one in Crooked Creek a few years. I really love their faces. Thank you for sharing yours.
Melanie Tepper(non-registered)
The sequence you captured of the attempted steal is just awesome Dan!
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