Shorebirds and a Merlin

Yesterday a little before 5pm the tide was just coming off its peak and I decided to see what shorebirds might be present.
There was a substantial amount of herring spawn at the park last month, and the there remains a substantial amounts of rotting herring eggs and seaweed that have been pushed up along the shore. The shorebirds seem to find this pungent mix a great place to forage – it appears that some are eating the egg remains directly, while others are finding other critters to eat which in turn are probably eating on the rotting seaweed and herring eggs.

I ended up setting my little video camera up near the seaweed line and moved off to see if I could get some video of shorebirds coming to feed in front of it. The sun was shining and there was minimal wind, so I mostly just laid back and kept a relaxed eye on the activities around me.

Different shorebirds have different feeding habits including choices about sand and/or mud vs. rocks, the water’s edge vs further up the beach, and dining close with neighbors vs more spread out individuals. I’ve noticed that Least Sandpipers seem to prefer feeding up higher in the beach in fine gravel or sand without packing too densely – this especially seems to be the case when there are large flocks of other species feeding on the same beach. Sometimes the Least Sandpipers are joined be a couple of Western Sandpipers, but they usually seem to hang together more down near the water’s edge.

As long as I did not shift around too much while I was there relaxing, the Least Sandpipers seemed to be fairly comfortable with my presence. In the course of their seemingly haphazard sprints from one spot to the next, they would end up coming within a few feet of me. It was interesting to watch them probe the sand with their bills, but I couldn’t tell how often they were successful in finding something.

From time to time most of the shorebirds from an area of the beach would all take off together, flying out over the water before circling back to the beach – sometimes the same section they had just vacated and other times another section. One of the more common causes appeared to be ravens taking flight and startling them, but a fair number of times I couldn’t discern any apparent reason for them to flush. Many of the times when this occurred, the Least Sandpipers up higher on the beach didn’t flush with the crowd.

Over the 30 or more minutes I was in the same spot, I noticed the Least Sandpipers foraging up on the beach frequently did not flush with the other birds down a little further (at this time the upper part and the water’s edge were still only separated by a 3 or 4 meters). For quite a while I didn’t think much about it, but at some point it occurred to me that there were a lot of shorebirds hanging out on the beach and they seemed like they might make pretty good meals for a hungry raptor. That realization was immediately followed by the thought that the Least Sandpipers near me were seeming kind of unconcerned about potential threats when they were not flushing with the rest of the birds nearest them.

Just moments after those thoughts went through my mind, I was startled by the sound of air rushing over wings set to make a sharp change of direction. I jumped a little from the sound as my eyes had shifted, tracking the fast movement and accompanying sound of a Merlin in its dive to grab a sandpiper off the sand only a meter or two away. In the fraction of a second it took me to process what had happened, the Merlin was winging its way to the south carrying its prey with a Raven in hot pursuit both leaving a wake of shorebirds flushing one more time from the beach where they were feeding. I figured the raven was probably giving chase in hopes of stealing a meal, but I don’t think it made up any ground and it gave up after a time, turning off back toward the beach while the Merlin continued south across the water toward Morne Island.

I hadn’t been thinking about it at the time, but this was not the first time I saw a Least Sandpiper taken by a Merlin along this stretch of beach. Though the circumstances of the prior time were a little different.

1 thought on “Shorebirds and a Merlin”

  1. Wonderful story. I wonder how often birds use us as part of their strategy for living? As of lately, I have noticed birds, mostly robins, taking off and flying just in front of my car as i am driving. There are no other cars or disturbances around that i can see that would cause them to flush, it just seems to be occurring too frequently to be a chance happening. How often do you walk on the beach or other people travel the beach? Also, where i work, the robins are building nests in what i consider to be very high people traffic areas. At first, i thought it very strange but there is a lot of very open areas on the farm and very little cover for birds to escape too or hide babies. Interesting

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