• Donald Attwood

Falcons and warblers


Merlins are high-speed aerial hunters, sometimes hunting in pairs with one flushing out a flock of small birds while the other waits to strike from a new direction.

On a recent Saturday I was up at 5 a.m., eager to join a group of birders exploring new territory (new for me) at Pointe-des-Cascades. This outing was organized by the Club Ornithologique Vaudreuil-Soulanges, which had suspended field trips during the summer due to the virus. This trip was in a new format – each week, club members signed up to visit one of three sites, with a maximum of 10 people. Over three weeks, one could visit all three sites.

I was eager to get back to looking for birds in the company of more experienced birders and to immerse myself in French for a few hours. In the summer I had birded alone, often with scant results. Now I was keen to hone my skills on warblers passing through from the northern forests to their winter homes in the south.

At least 23 warbler species pass through our area. In spring they are decked in bright colours and striking patterns, but now the cards were stacked against me. Warblers moult before they migrate in the fall, the males discarding their fancy breeding plumage. Without their nuptial colours, most fall warblers look similar. Roger Tory Peterson, the creator of modern guidebooks, once devoted several illustrated pages to what he (the master of bird identification) called confusing fall warblers.

I arrived early at Pointe-des-Cascades to see what I could discover on my own, and this extra effort paid off handsomely. Near the parking lot, I saw a large raptor perched high in an ash tree. With much excitement, I walked over for a closer look. Could this be a Red-shouldered hawk, as seen occasionally in Hudson? This new bird looked smaller and sleeker. (Like other soaring hawks, the Red-shouldered looks rather chunky, with a shorter tail.) Or could it be a Cooper’s hawk, seen hunting in local forests? To me, it looked more like a falcon, though I had hardly ever seen a falcon in the wild. Perhaps this might be a juvenile Peregrine falcon – juvenile because it was streaky brown, while the adult is gray.

That’s where my smartphone came in handy. I used the Merlin Bird ID app to look up Peregrines and found that juveniles, like adults, have dark ‘moustache’ marks on their faces. The bird in the tree lacked those marks, so it could be a Merlin, smaller than a Peregrine. This was exciting, as I had never seen a Merlin. At this point, another person showed up with binoculars: Luc Tremblay, our group guide, who confirmed it was a Merlin. (The French name, Faucon émerillon, is the source for the English term, ‘Merlin.’) A few minutes later, Luc spotted a second Merlin nearby.

Like Peregrines, Merlins are high-speed hunters of flying prey. Later I learned that a pair of Merlins may hunt as a team, one flushing a flock of small birds while the other waits to strike from another direction. This pair, which appeared to be dozing, was perhaps planning to look for flocks of shorebirds. They had likely nested in the boreal forest and were just passing through.

Falcons are considered the aristocrats of hunting birds; there was once much legend and lore attached to the training of captive falcons. Because they’re smaller than Peregrines, Merlins were called ‘lady hawks’ by medieval falconers. Noblewomen used them for sport hunting.

Warblers are more like court jesters, dressed in motley (at least in spring). But warblers too are hunters – they hunt insects. It’s the prodigious supply of insects that draws them to breed in the northern woods every summer.

That morning I saw plenty of warblers, but it was, as usual, hard to discern just who they were. I was hoping to see Blackpoll warblers, some of which migrate from northern Canada to Brazil in a manner which is heroic and nearly incredible. These tiny birds fly 4,000 km across the ocean, day and night nonstop, from the northeast Atlantic coast to South America. Before taking off from, say, Nova Scotia, they eat and rest, doubling their body weight. On reaching the northeast coast of South America, they will have burned off the extra fat in just 72 hours.

Luc and some of the others saw a Blackpoll, but I could not distinguish it among other small birds. They move fast and hide in the foliage. I may get a better chance in the spring, when the males put on their more formal-looking garb: black caps and white faces. It’s the thrill of the chase, plus occasional unexpected discoveries (like the Merlins), that keep me hunting.

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