A Merlin with a capture (Falco columbarius)
With no traditional pantomimes available to us right now I am pleased to report that, at least in the bird world, the show goes on. Oh yes it does!
And top entertainment has been provided recently to a few excited observers in Surrey who have witnessed a headline act.
The star billing went to Britain’s smallest raptor. Dashing is not the word. This mini version of the Kestrel flies like it is on Red Bull. Meet the Merlin – and its amazing magic show.
This falcon is a scarce winter visitor to the county from Britain’s northern moors and as far away as Iceland. I had only seen one in Cranleigh before (last century!). Sadly, we have come to expect a dwindling number in Surrey with perhaps only three a year.
But this last Autumn there were a magnificent seven records with four reports coming from the Waverley area.
Mine was on one of those days when the last of the Swallows were flying low over the open grassland at Rowly, feeding up for the long journey south. Just a couple of dozen remained and five House Martins mingled with them.
A Merlin (Falco columbarius)
In the distance I clocked a bird approaching from the far side of the former railway track, now known as the Downs Link. At distance I dismissed it as a Mistle Thrush. It quickly vanished beyond the trees. Now you see it, now you don’t.
The next I knew, the Swallows and House Martins resting on the telephone wires were going berserk, flying in all directions and trilling their alarm calls.
Making a dramatic entrance stage right, and flying horizontally right through the middle of them just 10 feet off the ground, was a brownish/grey raptor with slim, short, pointed wings and a relatively long barred tail. Swap the Mistle for Muscle and forget the Thrush!
It was our smallest falcon, a magical Merlin, and the show was about to begin. I was surprised to see this bird, either an inexperienced juvenile or an adult female, emerge empty taloned from the melee. But it was not giving up.
As the ‘hirundines’ flew in panic the Merlin rose up higher and circled back. It had visually locked on to a potential victim and was in hot pursuit, twisting and turning, falling and then rising like a battling Spitfire as the Swallow tried to evade capture.
Left, right, up, down, twisting and twirling with a fast flicking wing action, it was in hot pursuit as the smaller bird did a remarkable job attempting to escape. Again the predator was unsuccessful.
Perched and ready to go (Falco columbarius)
It banked and turned again, diving back through the bubbling cauldron of panicked prey. But again it emerged with no afternoon tea. At this point the Merlin bowed out and headed off east as its potential victims scattered to fight another day.
October is a typical date for passage Merlins in Surrey. In my first encounter with one around here, also a female or immature bird, the falcon was not the aggressor. It was a small flock of autumn Meadow Pipits ‘what started it.’
Those ‘Mipits’, on farmland near the Surrey/West Sussex boundary, obviously saw the intruder as a threat and decided to put the boot in first. They ganged up to mob the bully and persuade it to find easier aerial pickings elsewhere. That did not work.
The falcon singled out one agile individual for attack and made several unsuccessful passes at the Pipit. These included a spectacular 60-foot vertical plunge. It pulled the joystick just before hitting the ground and heading south over the hillcrest into our neighbouring county.
My latest bird looked similar, featuring dark vertical streaks on its beigy breast, a creamy throat, and white/orange flecks in the wings. It flew too fast for me to register much further detail. But then that is the way of the most magical productions. They leave you wanting more.
Next time I see a Merlin here I am hoping it will be the handsome male. Slate blue above with orangey underparts. That would be a very special guest appearance.