I’ve been engrossed in another project for the past 3 months. In early January I took a quick break for birds, and found an old, and a new, hunter.

March 4, 2023 ~ I’m back, after a 3-month immersion in a special project: My brother and his wife are moving from Colorado to northeast Texas, and I volunteered to help come up with ideas for landscaping their new home. This involved traveling, measuring, sketching, and lots of research, since their climate and soil are very different from the heat, humidity and black gumbo of my home along the upper Texas coast. I’ve been having a great time, and there is more to come. We were also sick on and off with the T-Rex of sinus infections, finally thankfully over. And my household is now on a low-carb diet, so I’m learning how to cook real food on a schedule instead of slapping together sandwiches, or raiding the snack machine. Embracing all these new experiences has made a serious dent in my birding and posting , but we’re now well up the learning curve, and ready for more fun.

Enough about me, how about some birds?

January 2nd was a mild gray Texas winter day, perfect for exploring, so I headed for the coast, first stopping at Brazos Bend State Park for a quick reconnoiter. The water had been so low during the late summer and fall, I was almost afraid to look, but nature has her own rhythms, and the winter rains were making good progress filling up the lakes. Pollywogs, at least, were plentiful.

That’s one. Want to see another?
1/3200 sec f/5.6 ISO 3200
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
(Click on any photo once to enlarge in a new window; close that window to return here.)
Two! I can do this all day.
1/3200 sec f/5.6 ISO 3200
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
Three! And the crowd goes wild!!
 1/3200 sec f/5.6 ISO 3200
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

A Great Egret, Ardea alba, strode through the shallow water methodically plucking up hors d’oeuvres at 40-Acre Lake. You can see that, at almost every step, as he passes that slanted black stick in the foreground, he snatched up a tadpole, tossed it in the air, and swallowed it down, looking quite pleased with himself.

I headed south to Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, which includes more than 45,000 acres of salt marsh and freshwater sloughs surrounded by coastal prairie. And it’s this prairie land, dotted by outgrowths of woody groves and scrubby verges, that provides the perfect hunting habitat for another new bird on my list.

Unknown small raptor at Brazoria NWR
1/2500 f/6.3 ISO 1000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Scraggly trees dot the barbed wire fence along the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge Entrance Road, and it was in one of these gnarled Chinese Tallow trees that I spotted what I thought was a young hawk. Too small to be an adult, and definitely not an American Kestrel. Those eyebrows! Those pointy wings! What could it be?

Rolling closer to this small raptor
1/2500 f/6.3 ISO 640
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

I had to get home to look it up. This is a Merlin, Falco columbarius, also known as a Pigeon Hawk (recognizing a common prey animal) or Lady Falcon (for the fact that, in the Middle Ages, women of nobility would often join hunts with these smaller trained falcons). It is a small strong bird, with a longish tail and sharply pointed wings.

Merlin range map, courtesy of All About Birds

To keep identification interesting, there are three main color variations among Merlins: the Black, the Taiga, and the Prairie. Sibley’s gives a concise description of differences:

  • The Black has a very dark back with almost completely dark undertail coverts; it is typically found along the west coast of North America.
  • The Taiga has a medium brown or grayish brown back, buff undertail coverts with widely spaced dark streaks, a noticeable dark mustache, and narrow white eyebrows; it is typically found across all the US, but with larger populations along the east and west coasts.
  • The Prairie is quite pale with light gray or gray-brown back, white undertail coverts with almost invisible dark streaking, almost no mustache, and thick white eyebrows; it is typically found in the central North America, from Canada down into Mexico, with some on the west coast.

And it gets better: Merlins cross-breed where their ranges overlap… which includes Texas for the Taiga and the Prairie. By their ranges, this bird would more likely be a Prairie, but its coloring makes me think it is a Taiga. And because the male is a bit more gray than brown, I’m thinking this is a female.

Adult Merlin “Taiga”, showing her mustache and long pointed wings
1/2500 f/6.3 ISO 1000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

The Merlin is most often seen perched on a stout branch with a broad view of prairie grasses and nearby perches favored by other small birds. They eat some of the most abundant species of small birds, including pigeons, larks, sparrows, waxwings, sandpipers, dunlin, and other small shorebirds.

Merlins hunt by flying at high speed (making them very difficult to see), striking mostly in mid-air attacks. They may rush a group of birds on the ground to flush them into the sky, where their high speed allows them to single out prey and strike, often from beneath their target. All About Birds says that mated pairs have been observed hunting in teams, where one Merlin flushes a flock, and the other strikes the prey. They will take small mammals, reptiles, and even dragonflies, if their favored prey is scarce.

Merlin spots something interesting in the distance
1/2500 f/6.3 ISO 1000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

I had been driving when I spotted her, and she patiently waited while I rolled forward, made a 3-point U-turn on the narrow road, then rolled back to where I could photograph her out my window. I clicked away for two full minutes, trying different settings to combat the moist air, thick with humidity, and the back-lighting. But eventually, she spotted something interesting behind and above me, and sped off for more interesting (or more appetizing) company.

I enjoyed this break in my sabbatical, seeing a familiar hunter showing off his goldfish-swallowing skills, and a hunter new to me, and hopefully, to be seen again in the fall, when she returns from her Canadian breeding grounds.

Author: Sam.Rappen

Retired from a major US manufacturer after 36 years of exciting work. Avid amateur bird watcher and photographer, and occasional blogger.

17 thoughts on “Sabbatical”

  1. I know those Chinese Tallows along the entrance road. I’ll have to pay more attention to them in the future. I fear if I were to see the Merlin, I’d only think, “Hawk,” and go on my way. I do know Kestrels, though. There’s one that often perches in a scraggy tree to the left as you make that first right turn onto the auto route after leaving the paved road. It’s been there for a couple of years — at least, some Kestrel has been there.

    Nesting is such a satisfying experience. I daresay you’re enjoying helping your brother and his wife with their move; I hope you can keep your regained health and enjoy it even more!

    I had the oddest experience last weekend. I was on my way out of the Aransas Wildlife refuge, and was making my way through that huge metropolis called Austwell when a large flock of birds swirled in and landed at a vacant lot. I backed up, took one look, and thought, “Whimbrel!” Where that word came from I can’t say, since I’m sure I’ve never seen one, but I got some photos that ought to be good enough for an ID, at least. They weren’t inclined to leave — it was so funny to see them digging around in the midst of the evening primroses!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I carry my camera in its padded bag in the trunk of my car when traveling on high-speed roads, but when I reach the beginning of entrance roads, I unpack it and strap it into the front seat beside me (if I don’t strap it in, the seat belt warning yells at me… and even at 20 mph, a very quick stop can spill it into the floorboards if not strapped in). Roll down both front windows and creep along, hoping to spot something fun. Interesting experience with “whimbrel”, such a musical word, glad it crept in from your subconscious – and who knows, you might be right! Birds among spring flowers is on my wish list, happy you found the opportunity!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You are definitely keeping busy! (although the “sick” part is a bummer). Looks like you hit Brazos and Brazoria a few weeks ahead of us. Great find with the Merlin – love that bird – stoic, gorgeous and incredibly deadly in the air. Oh, and those Didn’t know about the variations – need go back and check my encounter from Galveston Island to see which type of specimen I got there. That Great Egret is quite the hunter!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed, those talons are very powerful. Back in the 1750’s Linneaus recognized that feature when the species was first being identified and named: the genus name falco was derived from falx, or falcis, a sickle, referring to the claws of the bird.


  3. It is good to see you posting again!

    Life’s highway sure does have a lot of speed bumps. Probably for good reason. Otherwise, I might be tempted to hit the gas pedal and not pay attention to some very important things. Like taking care of family for instance.

    Excellent photographs showing two magnificent birds!

    The speedy Merlin has long been a favorite, but it has proven to be very difficult to obtain good images. Like you, we only see them during migrations. One identification tip, at a distance if you see a small raptor hovering, it may be an American Kestrel. If you see a brown streak flying in a straight line, it may be a Merlin. Now, crank up that shutter speed and good luck! (Of course, if they are polite enough to remain on a branch until you’re ready to take a photo, that’s a better idea!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are so right, I should pick one of these already-hot-and-sunny days and go back with a very fast shutter speed, just in case she hasn’t left on migration yet. Interesting comparison of the flight characteristics of Merlin and Kestrel – I hadn’t thought about that.


  4. Your comment made me think of other contrasts: the Merlin’s streaking flight, the Egret’s languorous glide; the Merlin’s one meal a day, the Egret’s continuing smorgasbord; I was about to contrast their color as well… the Merlin’s bark and leaf pattern versus the Egret’s highly reflective and elegant white. But there I missed the mark… the birds are the same in that both plumages are perfectly suited to make the bird very, very difficult to see in their natural habitat – the Merlin blends perfectly with the leafy canopy from which he bursts, and the Egret blends perfectly with the glassy water reflecting bright sky. Thanks for reading, Brad!


  5. Beautiful photos! Merlins have the sweetest faces, even though they are such fierce hunters. Your photos captured those claws–I wouldn’t want to be on the caught end of those!

    Liked by 1 person

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