June 2021

Vol. 49, No. 3

At a Glance: April 2021 Revealed


This month’s mystery bird displays a somewhat exotic combination of distinctive patterns and colors—especially in the online version—that highlights its notably pointed wings and a prominently barred tail. Few Massachusetts species other than shorebirds and a select few raptors sport such an interesting combination of features and patterns, thus making the April puzzler less mysterious than a first glance might suggest.

The absence of long slender legs, combined with the stump-top perching location, strongly argue against the mystery species being a shorebird despite the bird’s pointed wings. Similarly, there are few shorebirds that feature such uniformly strong checkered underwings. When these features are noted in the online color version, you will notice a unique combination of features: a pale blue banded tail with a distinct white-tipped terminal band, a colorful bluish lower back, and strongly checkered underwings.

By way of comparison, despite the fact that an adult Sharp-shinned Hawk is blue gray on the back, the obviously pointed wings of the mystery bird and the prominent checkering on the undersides of the wings readily serve to eliminate this species, as do the pale blue bands across the tail. Arguably, a quick look at the raptor about to launch itself into flight might briefly suggest a Mississippi Kite, but the same features that can eliminate an accipiter hold true for a Mississippi Kite. Also, the few rusty brown feathers visible at the sides of the tail base would unlikely be present or visible on a kite.

Ultimately, the distinct bluish dorsal coloration, the prominent tail banding, and the strongly checkered underwings unequivocally mark the mystery raptor as a male Merlin (Falco columbarius). The blue gray color on the back and rump are practically unique to a “blue Jack” male Merlin—a nickname often applied to the male of this lovely, animated little predator.

The Merlin is a fairly common spring and fall migrant in Massachusetts and is also a regular winter visitor in small numbers, especially near the coast. Of greater interest is its status as a slowly increasing rare and scattered breeder in the Commonwealth.

Tom Sullivan managed to secure this view of a male Merlin launching itself into flight at Duxbury Beach, Plymouth County, December 21, 2020.

Wayne R. Petersen

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