Monday, January 16, 2017

Merlin My Heart

Yesterday I birded from predawn to dusk in Jefferson and Dane counties in southeast Wisconsin. My morning began at Mush-Ko-Se-Day Park near my home where I was treated to seeing and hearing a sweet red-phase Eastern Screech-Owl at civil twilight.

As the sun rose, it revealed a light hoar frost over the landscape. The frost crystals distracted me from birding for a spell.

With the sun blazing, calm wind and temperatures pushing into the 30s, it felt quite balmy as far as Wisconsin winter weather goes. Due to this generally warmer winter, Wisconsin has had more open water inland. Subsequently the interior of the state is experiencing a greater variety of waterfowl than what I'm used to seeing in January. I toured a few Dane county waterfowl hotspots adding several year birds including Greater White-fronted Goose and Trumpeter Swan. Along the way I spotted a distant Rough-legged Hawk, a bird I don't see every year in Dane County.

Overall it was a decent day for raptors. This Cooper's Hawk was sunning itself in McFarland. His small size caught my attention as I thought he might be a Sharp-shinned Hawk. As I sized up his field marks, peering into his blood-red eyes, I concluded he was not. Interestingly, I ran this photo and a couple others of this hawk through Cornell's Merlin ID app which has been purported to be fairly reliable even with the Cooper's/Sharp-shinned dichotomy. Two of the three photos came back with Sharp-shinned hawk as the first suggested ID, with Cooper's being the second choice. Of course this had me second-guessing my identification. However I sought various opinions via the interwebs which quelled my doubt. But I digress...

The absolute pinnacle of the day came when this happened:

Driving north from Pheasant Branch Conservancy after lunch (where I dipped on Northern Shrike), I spied a small raptor perched along the fenceline to my east. To my delight it was a glorious Merlin, my favorite raptor species.

My heart skipped several beats as this endearing creature allowed my close approach. Its blood-stained feet suggested it recently feasted on some prey. As it casually digested the remains of the day, it hardly seemed interested in my presence.

Eventually I was standing approximately thirty feet from this falcon, observing it for several breath-taking minutes. As I contemplated my exit, the Merlin began to stir. It pooped, spread its tail...

...and extended its wing as if ready to take flight.

But a bowel movement and stretch was all it was to be. The Merlin returned to its perched position, soaking in some more sunshine. Though I wanted to linger for a chance at a flight photo, I decided it best to leave the bird in peace. The possibility of escaping the scene sans the guilt of having caused the bird to fly was the more compelling argument.

And so I quietly backed away a few feet before turning toward my car. As I drove away, the bird remained perched in the setting sunshine and my heart was full.

I closed my day in western Dane county to caterwauling Barred Owls along the Wisconsin River...

...and dueting Great Horned Owls at the nearby Marsh Creek.

And for a little while, actually an entire day, the world seemed a whole lot less ugly.

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