I met my first Falcon some 8 years back. Not that it was the first time I saw one. I had seen them quite a few times but it was when I first landed up in Kutch that I actually got to meet one.
For those regularly visiting Kutch, the sight of a Peregrine Falcon sitting on a piece of stone is not too alien. I went with similar pictures in my mind but lady luck had something else in store for me.
My first falcon happened to be The Merlin (Falco. Columbaris).
I remember when Bill Clinton first saw the Taj, he said ‘There are two kinds of people in the world, those who have seen the Taj and those who haven’t’.
For me, The Merlin fits that statement to the Tee. It is an agile swift hunter of the air. I have seen it push flocks of larks to great heights, tire them and go for the kill and I’ve seen it flying in low and fast towards its prey, almost hugging the ground. This is a delightful bird to observe.
My first meeting with the Merlin happened when I was actually searching for a Peregrine Falcon but ended up sighting a peachy and silvery-grey raptor instead. The best part was that it gave me a good half an hour to observe its behavior and luckily Kutch is one of the few places where there are great chances of not bumping into another vehicle while observing wildlife so I had the entire theater to myself.
I did not get time to search for the Peregrine that evening so we visited the area again the next morning. The Merlin had other plans though and gave me one of the most cherished sightings on that morning. We were out in the Rann just before sunrise, scanning the barren lands when we saw a smallish raptor fly past. It went very very low and within moments had caught a lark.
We did not rush in to get images because even though it looked quick to us, the task would have needed a lot of energy and it wasn’t particularly wise to disturb the bird. So, we waited for a few minutes till the bird had actually started eating and then decided to move in closer to get some shots. The good thing is that, once you give the feeding bird some confidence, it really lets you do your photography in peace.
A quick 20-minute meal for the bird and it was off. Flying out in the open sky to enjoy a post-meal walk maybe. My day had been made. I did see the Peregrine sitting on a stone a little later but the Merlin had just stamped its authority on the trip.
Over the course of the next 3 to 4 years I had the good fortune of seeing and being close to many falcons but that Merlin holds a very very special place in my heart.
These little dynamos come to India every winter and seldom cross the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat. There are records every year from Uttar-Pradesh and a couple of stray records from further down south like Maharashtra and Karnataka, but Gujarat and Rajasthan are its strongholds.
There is one particular individual that stays near the Male Colony at Tal Chhapar and I have seen him a number of times but never ever for more than a couple of seconds. He always seems to be in a hurry :).
A couple of them at LRK have been much more kind to me and I thank them for letting me be with them for those times.
The Merlin generally prefers sitting tucked in at the bottom of bushes when the sun is overhead and has a habit of repeating its favorite areas. So if you see one, don’t give up hope if it flies off. Over the course of the next day or two, spend more time in that vicinity and sooner or later it will oblige.
The Silver Grey and Peach are colors of the male Merlin. Unlike the Red Necked/ Peregrine/ Laggar/ Barbary/ Saker, the Female Merlin looks completely different. It is brownish gray in color.
My annual trips to LRK begin in November so hopefully, I will meet the Merlin again.
Watch out for some more Falcons on my blog page soon.