December 2016

Vol. 44, No. 6

Field Note: The First Documented Nest of Merlins in Worcester County

Lucy Allen, Amy Lawson, and Justin Lawson

Merlin, Glen Valley Cemetery, Barre, Massachusetts.  All photographs by Justin Lawson.

In July 2016, a nest of Merlins was discovered in Glen Valley Cemetery in Barre, Massachusetts. Andrew Vitz, the State Ornithologist, verified that it was the first documented evidence of nesting Merlins in all of Worcester County (Andrew Vitz, Central Massachusetts Birders Facebook page, comment on Justin Lawson’s photo 9:38 pm on July 9). Discovering the nest site was a collaborative project involving Lucy Allen, who found the Merlins in the cemetery on July 7, and Justin Lawson and Amy Lawson, who uncovered the juveniles and the likely nest area on July 9. Following their observation of the Merlin family, Lucy was able to spot and photograph the nest on July 10. Andrew Vitz observed it on July 16.

The discovery came after Lucy Allen attended an interment of a relative in her family plot in the cemetery on June 25. The large cemetery opened in 1865. It was landscaped with many conifers and deciduous trees—now mature and tall—and features an expansive open meadow. During the interment service, the attendees watched a Green Heron circle the Allen plot and land in a tree above the landscaped pond next to the plot. Lucy returned to the cemetery many mornings afterward in hope of photographing the Green Heron, with no success.

While searching for the Green Heron on July 7, Lucy heard the cawing of several crows. She suspected that they were heckling a raptor. Suddenly, a Blue Jay-sized bird flew with very swift wingbeats from a grove of tall conifers, across the pond and the Allen plot, over the meadow, and into a stand of trees. All the time, the bird kept up a high-pitched chattering alarm call. It perched on a branch in clear sight and Lucy was able to get several photographs. To this amateur birder, the alarm call was unfamiliar. The bird was much too small to be the Red-tailed Hawk or Broad-winged Hawk she usually saw in this location. Unable to identify the bird, she asked for help.

After posting a photograph on the Central Massachusetts Birders Facebook page, Lucy learned that the bird was a Merlin (Falco columbarius). Members of that group commented that it might be a rare breeder in this area.

The next day, July 8, Lucy returned to Glen Valley Cemetery seeking further evidence of a nest. She identified two adult Merlins at the cemetery. One was perched on a tall larch tree near the center of the cemetery, while another could be heard calling from tall conifers near the entrance. A dramatic aerial battle took place between a Red-tailed Hawk and the Merlin sentry as Lucy watched and took numerous photographs. She notified members of the Central Massachusetts Birders Facebook page that she had seen and heard two adult Merlins in Glen Valley Cemetery, and that one was obviously guarding a nest site as it fought off the Red-tailed Hawk. She suggested that other members of the group might want to look for the nest, as she was not able to pursue that project.

Justin Lawson and Amy Lawson responded to the invitation and went to Glen Valley Cemetery on Saturday, July 9. With directions from Lucy that the nest was probably near the entrance of the cemetery, Justin and Amy settled down on the mown path that crosses a triangle of land between two access roads. A tall grove of spruce grows on a knoll to the west, and tall pines grow on another knoll to the east. Given the tall grass and wetlands near this area, they encountered hordes of mosquitoes as they watched for the Merlins. They quickly encountered an adult male and then an adult female Merlin. They counted six Merlins spread among three trees, with four juveniles that were tree-hopping but not flying. For three hours, Justin and Amy observed and photographed the Merlin family and made sound and video recordings, but they did not find the nest.

Two of three Merlins spotted on a single tree.

The following morning, Lucy Allen returned to the cemetery in hope of observing the fledglings. Calculating where Justin and Amy had been standing, she looked up and, in a fortunate combination of morning light and a breeze, the branches of a tall white pine tree parted enough to reveal a large nest near the top, with Merlins posed on branches on either side. She reported the finding on the Central Massachusetts Birders Facebook page.

Meanwhile, Lucy reviewed photographs she had taken of the adults and noticed that one had a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service metal band on its right leg. Since these Merlins were on the southern edge of their expanding range, Andrew Vitz thought that the information on the band could prove interesting (email from Andrew Vitz to Lucy Allen, July 15, 2016). On Saturday July 16, he, Bill Byrne, and Lucy gathered at the cemetery and used a mist net and a Great Horned Owl decoy to attempt to lure the adults. The adult Merlins proved too savvy to fall for the decoy and the recorded owl calls. They flew in close, took one long look at the decoy, and returned to the tall spruces where the family had gathered. Andrew Vitz noted that the cemetery was a wonderful habitat for the Merlins with its open woodlands created by the tall trees and meadow.

Many birders had the opportunity to photograph the first documented nesting Merlins of Worcester County. It was a successful team effort between a local but neophyte birder and birders with more knowledge and experience.

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