Category Archives: Merlins

December update

Nothing much happening on the natural history front. A mixture of very wet weather and a guest staying with us over the New Year period meant that I haven't managed to get out much.

I did, however, manage my 24th consecutive Christmas Eve ascent of Moel Famau in North Wales. As I stood drinking tea with my friend Carolyn and her family at the top, we were treated to a spectacular view of a merlin semi-circling the summit before dipping behind a wall. Carolyn's oldest seemed far more impressed that a bird had the same name as one of her favourite TV characters than by the bird itself.

The midwinter storms have brought plenty of gulls inland to Hebden Bridge. If the weather here is a relief for the gulls, I can't imagine what it must be like on the coast.


An autumnal afternoon, warm, with a hint of chill in the breeze. Perfect. Up on to the moor!

To my great surprise, I spotted a lone wheatear at the top of the moor near the trig point. He was leaving it a bit late: all his friends appear to have flown. No sign of any swallows, either. Looks as if another summer is officially over.

Judging by all the go-back! go-back! calls, there seemed to be quite a few red grouse about, hidden in the heather. So I decided to sit and wait, to see if any of them would reveal themselves. I had brought a flask of tea with me in anticipation of such a wait.

Of course, as luck would have it, I got my best view of a grouse while I had the flask of tea in my hand. But I managed to fire off one photo, albeit one-handed:

Red grouse
Red grouse.

Having come down off the moor, I went through the mandatory ritual of looking over the wall into the lucky field to see what delight it had in store for me today. Just a couple of rabbits. But then I heard a commotion to my left, and turned to see a merlin in hot pursuit of what I assume was a meadow pipit. They dipped and soared, almost in unison, then disappeared behind a row of pines. There is no mistaking a merlin when they fly like that. Fabulous. Somehow, I don't think the meadow pipit would agree.

Heading down the Nook track later on, I spotted a speckled wood butterfly on some brambles. I am hopeless at identifying butterflies, but, as luck would have it, my guide book fell open at exactly the right page.

Speckled wood butterfly
Speckled wood butterfly.

Back home, early this evening, I was taking some potato peelings out to the compost heap, when I heard a familiar clicking chortle up above: a pair of swallows looping in the clearest of blue skies. They will probably be my last swallows this year. I shall miss them.

More photos »

Stoodley Pike walk, and an unidentified raptor

A fabulous, five-hour walk up Stoodley Pike, then down into Hebden Bridge and back home.

Jen was going away on business, so she dropped me in Cragg Vale at 06:15. I immediately saw a pair of dippers in the river near the Hinchcliffe Arms, then, heading up to Withens Clough reservoir, I had a good view of a jay, and heard but didn't see a shonechat in the nearby bracken.

I knew the reservoir was closed for improvement work, but didn't realise that the footpath alongside it was also closed. Good job I had an OS map with me! I worked out a convoluted new route up to Stoodley Pike, which took me up to Stony Royd, down a short stretch of Cragg Road (which is actually a green lane), then down and through the fir wood at Sunderland Pasture, across Dick's Lane (another green lane), and up to the Pike. Then it was down via Dick's Lane, Rake Head, and Crow's Nest Wood into Hebden Bridge.

Standing admiring the view from Stoodley Pike Monumnent, I heard a raptoresque call behind me and spotted a bird of prey flying low across the moor. It was about the size of a kestrel, but it clearly wasn't a kestrel. It was too far away to spot any distinguishing marks, but I fired off a couple of photos, in the hope of being able to identify the bird by zooming in on them later:

Unidentified raptor
Unidentified raptor (note the kill in its talons).


Unidentified raptor
Unidentified raptor moments later.

Having spent far more time than is reasonable poring over my two grainy photos, and through every bird book I own, trying to decide what the unidentified raptor was, I am plumping, rather surprisingly, for a hobby. My reasoning is as follows:

  • the tops of the wings are slate-grey;
  • the bird was too big to be a male merlin;
  • the bird appears to have a moustache;
  • (by this stage, I am thinking peregrine. Peregrines have certainly been reported in the area. But…)
  • the underside of the bird appears to have a brownish/russet tinge;
  • (so, I am now thinking juvenile peregrine, but…)
  • the first photo clearly shows a white collar at the back of the neck…

The only bird which seems to fit all of these criteria is a hobby. Even though the South Pennines is apparently close to the northern limit of the hobby's range. What swung it for me was a description in one (buy only one) of my bird books, which said that the hobby has an "almost complete white 'neck ring'. Neck ring is most prominent field mark". As far as I can tell, peregrines don't have almost complete neck rings.

Almost as an afterthought, I listened to recordings of the various raptors' calls on the RSPB website. I am pretty sure that the call I heard was indeed that of a hobby, but I didn't hear the recording until several hours after I had heard the bird.

So, a hobby, then!

But I'm still not 100% convinced. (Please let me know, if you know better.)

Identifying birds can be a real pain in the backside at times!

More photos from my walk» | Slideshow»

Postscript (25-Mar-2013): I stand corrected. The bird was a male merlin (see comments below).

The one that got away

Crossing the moor above Cragg Vale at 06:15, I spotted a bird of prey perched on a roadside fence-post. A quick slam-on of brakes, and a 20-yard reverse, and I found myself making eye-contact with a male merlin: our smallest bird of prey, and quite gorgeous.

My spare binoculars were in the glove-box, so I dug them out and had a closer look. His yellow legs really were remarkably yellow. Then I realised that my camera was in the boot of my car, so I sneaked out to try to get a photo.

No luck, I'm afraid: the merlin took off immediately, and flew off down the valley, keeping very low. It was only then that I realised just how small the bird was.

As I had my camera to hand, I took this photo of Cragg Vale. Sorry about the absence of merlins.

Cragg Vale, early morning
Cragg Vale, early morning.

Lesson of the day: keep your camera bag inside the car, not in the boot!