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Levin: Merlin Watching

My father was a passionate golfer. Throughout my childhood he played on weekends, sometimes thirty-six holes in a day. When he retired in 1982, he played five days a week, until he died in ‘97. And though I’ve never cared much for the game myself, lately I’ve been spending a lot of time on a golf course - or to be more precise the fifteenth fairway at the Hanover Country Club.I go there because of the merlins. And the merlins go there because of the crows - and none of us play.

Merlins are small, streak-breasted falcons, slightly bigger than a blue jay, that range across the northern hemisphere to the rim of the tundra. Females are larger and browner than males, which are gunmetal gray and look like miniature peregrines - big-headed and sickle-billed, with long, tapered wings and a long tail.

But unlike peregrines, merlins don’t stoop; they chase, all speed and mostly pugnacious attitude. A hungry merlin perches bolt upright on a naked pine limb, waiting... waiting.

Long ago, when I monitored autumn hawks along the outer beaches of Long Island, merlins were my favorite. They’d pass above me at sixty miles an hour, grab a hapless warbler or a swallow out of their airspace (sometimes a dragonfly or a red bat) and then, they’d pluck and feed without breaking stroke, trailing eddies of feathers behind. Superb aerialists, they’d pester bigger birds: flickers and whimbrels, hawks and crows — especially crows — swooping and diving and chasing.

Merlins have extended their breeding range into northern New England because of two decidedly related events. First, we’ve carved suburban parks, cemeteries, and golf courses out of solid forests; and second, crows have found our land use practices to their liking.

Because merlins don’t build their own nest, here they rely on the largesse of suburban, pine-nesting crows.

And the Country Club merlins are noisy, bold and tolerant of people. They pirate songbirds above the green, mostly juncos and goldfinches, and leave their scraps on the fairway.

I’m sure my father would be highly amused if he knew how many hours I’ve idled away this spring on the golf course.

Ted Levin is a nature writer and photographer. His latest book is America's Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, University of Chicago Press, May, 2016.
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