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The Merlin and where to see it.

Merlin's eye view of Shuttlingsloe from Wolf EdgeThe Merlin, (nothing to do with King Arthur, the name is derived from its French equivalent esmerillion) is Britain’s smallest falcon and also the most elusive for bird watchers.

In recent years, past rarities such as the Peregrine Falcon have become much more common once again - Peregrines now breed in the centre of many cities, such as Derby and Manchester, where they are encouraged as a means of pigeon control.  But the Merlin is much more fussy about its habitat, a real moorland specialist and for this reason its comeback from the darks days of the 1950’s and 60’s, when agricultural pesticides caused dramatic breeding failures in many birds of prey, has been less pronounced.  Nevertheless, numbers are increasing once more and the moors of the Peak District hold the most southerly outpost of the breeding population in the Pennines.

On the continent the Merlin is tree-nesting, whereas British birds have taken almost exclusively to building very basic nests on the ground, amongst thick heather, (though recent studies have shown that some have begun to adopt the tree-nesting habit where conifer plantations border open moorland; historically, of course, such plantations were more scarce in upland areas, so the birds had little choice but to adapt.)  Fortunately, the Peak District has plenty of good thick heather.

It is not the heather they are after, of course, but the birds that breed in and around the moors.  Top of the menu are Meadow Pipits and Skylarks; other fellow rarities such as Twite and Ring Ouzel are also favoured (which is a shame, but nature’s way).  Along with a few large insects and small mammals, they will take the occasional grouse chick, of course, which makes them less than popular with game keepers, but like all birds of prey, they are now fully protected from persecution.

Their hunting techniques make them especially thrilling to watch, as, after a vigil from a convenient post or rock, they make mad dashes after their prey, usual in fairly short flights, but sometimes in doggedly persistent pursuits, twisting and turning over the heather.  If successful, (and only a small proportion of attempts are) the prey is taken to a favourite plucking post, to be beheaded before being offered up, back at the nest.  The male will be feeding the female while she is incubating; both will take turns to feed the young.

As with most falcons, the female is actually larger, which makes her a better incubator and protector; the smaller male is more agile in the air, making it a more efficient hunter of small prey when it most needs to be providing meat.  For the same reasons, the camouflage of the female is brown, while the male has a slate-blue back, and this is one of the defining features that let you know you have spotted a Merlin.  During the breeding season, May-July, it will more likely be the male, (also known as the tiercel) that you will see.  It may only be a brief glimpse, as it dashes, often very close to the ground, before disappearing over a wall or ridge, but it is a thrill nonetheless.

In situations where it is difficult to judge size, the Merlin may be mistaken for the much larger Peregrine, but the wing beats are much faster and it displays a tendency to twist and turn even in normal flight.  The wings are relatively long and pointed.

If you are really lucky, you may come across the nesting area and it is only then you may hear the Merlin utter a sound - a shrill “ki-ki-ki-ki-ki-ki” from the male and a fuller “yee-yee-yee-yee” from his mate.

In the winter, Merlins will forsake the moors to spend time at lower levels, often travelling to the coast, so don’t expect to see any up high from October to March or April.

The less well-kept areas of moorland in the higher parts of the Peak District seem to be good places to find Merlin.  One good hotspot is on the three shires border - Axe Edge Moor, Wolf Edge and the Upper Dane Valley.  There are many parking places along the quiet minor road that links the A53 and A54, across Dane Head, so this is a good place to launch an expedition, via the Dane Valley Way.

An interesting thought while you are parked up is that the waters draining to the West of the road will end up in the Irish Sea, while the waters to the East flow into the North Sea, for Axe Edge Moor is the source of the Dove as well as the Dane. 

Make the walk down into the clough at Three Shire Heads and you will add further birding possibilities to your list, such as Snipe, Ring Ouzel and Dipper (which may make up for not finding the elusive Merlin!).   The magic of Three Shire Heads is an attraction in itself, while the views of Cheshire’s Matterhorn (Shuttlingsloe) are a dramatic backdrop.  The Cat and Fiddle pub (second highest in England) is a tempting lure just across the moorland, on the near horizon from Axe Edge Moor, offering Robinsons’ Ales (good Stockport brewery) and home-cooked meals.

Simon Corble