Thursday, 1 April 2010

Merlin papers

I have two scientific papers published in the march issue of Scottish Birds, the journal of the Scottish Ornithologists' Club.

A young merlin grips tightly to a piece of prey - the remains of a meadow pipit

The first paper describes what merlin in the Isle of Lewis eat in the breeding season. This is mostly meadow pipits, the most abundant bird of the moorland where the merlin live. The Lewis peatlands, are one of the best breeding habitats for moorland waders in Britain, with high numbers of dunlin, golden plover and greenshank, and although the merlin do eat dunlin in particular - the smallest of these waders; the smaller pipits, skylarks and wheatears are their main prey.

A brood of four merlin chicks huddle quietly in their nest set on the ground.

The second paper discusses the high density of merlin on the island, which is one of the highest in the world. This is likely because there is abundant food, as described in the first paper, and possibly because there are no indigenous terrestrial predators such as foxes, which are the main causes of nest failure on the mainland. The main predator of merlin in Lewis is the golden eagle. Merlin nest on the ground in the moors where eagles hunt and the white merlin nestlings must be easily seen and killed. Yet despite this predation, the merlin rear young from most nests, and these are ample for maintaining the high numbers of breeding pairs each year.

Four merlin chicks and one unhatched egg - better concealed than the nest above as it is under heather, out of view of hunting eagles overhead.

A typical merlin nest site in Lewis - set on heather clad bank adjacent to the wide flats of the peatlands.

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