Wildlife - Mystical Merlins in the Peak District

Male merlin

Male merlin - Credit: Archant

As they return to the Peak District this month, Paul Hobson focuses his lens on this bewitching member of the bird family

Female merlin

Female merlin - Credit: Archant

In Derbyshire we are blessed with healthy populations of all three of Britain’s native falcons.

Peregrines are seemingly everywhere as they have now colonised even the most urban of our towns and cities and we are all familiar with the wind hoverer, the kestrel that delights both the farmer and motorway driver. The third of our falcons, the merlin, is seen far less although just as well known.

Its fame is really attached to its name. Most of us are familiar with the enigmatic wizard of Arthurian legend. Merlin is mysterious, magical and the advisor and prophet to possibly our best-loved king. The recent TV series relaunched him back into our consciousness and introduced him to a new generation. It is interesting to note that the first recorded Merlin legends didn’t quite cast him as such a charming personality. In pre-Arthurian legend the Celts knew Merlin as the son of a human mother and a demon. This Merlin was still mysterious but far less predictable. He would occasionally disappear for lengthy periods, turning himself into a bird.

Female merlin

Female merlin - Credit: Archant

Derbyshire’s breeding merlins are pretty much restricted to the north of our county and are one of a select band of stunning birds that inhabit the wide, heather moors of the Dark Peak. They live alongside golden plovers, red grouse and their principle food source, meadow pipits. Our merlins return to their breeding haunts in late March to early April. This is by far the best time to watch them as they are incredibly territorial birds. Each merlin pair will be actively displaying and chasing away any potential problem birds such as crows, ravens and other merlins.

They don’t lack for spirit and will think nothing of relying on their stunning flying skills to have a crack at any peregrine that wanders into their territory. I have seen a female merlin give a good buffeting to a male peregrine and all the time I was praying the peregrine didn’t turn the tables and return the aggression because if it did the final outcome may have been a grisly ending.

During the period of early spring courtship both birds call noisily and fly around their territory. The only other bird you could confuse them with would be a peregrine because the shape and call are very similar. However, merlins are small – an easily recognisable difference – and often fly low over the heather, something that a peregrine is less likely to do.

Young male merlin

Young male merlin - Credit: Archant

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Once the nest site is chosen and eggs are laid, the pair’s behaviour changes. They are far quieter and tend to keep low as they fly over the heather. If the male is not actively hunting and the female is sitting for her month’s sojourn on her eggs, it is possible to walk right across their large territory and have no idea that there is a pair there.

They do leave a few clues to their presence though. At this time the smaller male merlin, often called the Jack, will be doing the vast majority of the hunting. He chases down his main prey, meadow pipits, and once he has caught one will return to one of a number of popular plucking posts. These are usually small hillocks among the heather – I have even seen one using the top of an old grouse butt. Here he plucks the dead pipit and leaves tell-tale grey brown feathers lying around, a good clue that you are in an established territory.

Another clue is his call. Once he has plucked the pipit he will take it to his mate and he lets her know he is coming by calling a high pitched ‘kek kek kek’ call. It only happens every two to four hours but if you hear this, keep your eyes peeled. He does not usually take the dead prey straight to the nest, he is presumably a bit nervous of his mate who is quite a bit bigger than him. So, as he calls he leaves it on a prominent hillock and flies off as she approaches. He may now pay a fleeting visit to the nest and look at the eggs or his youngsters, but usually will beat a hasty retreat as his mate flies back.

Male merlin

Male merlin - Credit: Archant

Over the years I have photographed three merlin pairs at the nest in Derbyshire and helped the BBC film a pair that featured in a natural history series shown a decade or so ago. In all cases the male hardly ever came to the nest, all the work here was carried out by the browner female. During the BBC’s filming at a hide that I had put up for them they were lucky enough to film the pair catching and eating emperor moths. I must admit that I was both thrilled and really disappointed at the same time. Thrilled because I could later see it on TV but gutted that I wasn’t there to get shots myself, particularly as I had spent a month of work setting up the opportunity for the camera man.

Derbyshire’s merlins are doing well. There are between 15 and 25 pairs dotted across our heather moorlands. They seem to have favourite moors and even heather banks to nest on. The threats to them are far less than in the past and possibly the biggest threat today is the degradation of heather moorland due to overgrazing by sheep and increasingly, oddly, by red deer.

Gamekeepers burn our moorlands to provide a mosaic of heather of different ages to keep red grouse numbers up. This seems to be increasingly becoming an issue and the idea of ‘re-wilding’ vast areas back to woodlands is growing in popularity. I have mixed feelings here. The burning of moorland and grazing of sheep keeps the moor heather healthy and stops the return of the wood. If we re-wilded and stopped grouse shooting I personally think we might also be saying goodbye to our small but nationally significant population of merlins.

Merlin male at its nest

Merlin male at its nest - Credit: Archant

Whilst many of us may never see a wild merlin chase a meadow pipit or hear the shrill ‘kek kek kek’ of its call in spring, I am sure we all love the idea that they are here. At least we do have the choice of spending a spring day lying back in the heather watching one of our best known but seldom observed falcons.