Most encounters with Merlin are usually by chance, and the views can be spectacular, but finding a male is always a challenge. I have been lucky to enjoy great views of breeding Ring Ouzels this year.

Merlin and Ring Ouzels

The move up to Donegal this spring co-incided with the beginning of a Merlin survey, the first of its kind to be attempted in Ireland. Merlin are a stunning little falcon, and a regular sight along the coast in winter, but picking them up in summer has always been a struggle. At the Irish Raptor Study Group conference this year, it was explained how difficult it could be to find pairs, but plenty of advice and tips were given. Knowing what I was getting in for I signed up for it and was given a 5×5 km square near Finntown in Central Donegal. I have spent 3 long days scanning from vantage points, in what looks like perfect habitat and have seen nothing! Buzzards, ravens and hooded crows have criss-crossed the survey square and not illicited the slightest reaction from a tiny falcon.
My frustrations were equalled by others doing their squares and I felt that even finding a pair was going to be a lot of work. With a final survey day still to do, I am worried that this square will be empty. There has been little consolation in the way of some Crossbill, Jay and surprisingly, my first Red Grouse in Donegal.

Trying to sketch up the dramatic landscape of Ring Ouzel breeding habitat.

One of my own big plans for this spring was to try and find ring ouzels. They died out in Wicklow almost 20 years ago and I had always missed them on outings with the Tolka Branch. A few Spring and Autumn migrants on Hook Head and Cape Clear Island were my only encounters and I was determined to atleast hear a singing bird in Ireland. Fortunately, last year I was told of several traditional locations that had not been checked regularly, and, on a dull day in mid-May, I quickly had 2 singing birds at one of these sites. It was a great start, but sadly a follow up check a month later revealed nothing. In early May this year, 3 pairs were found and a lone singing, 1st summer male in the same area.

Amazingly, every time a Raven or Hooded Crow flew over, a pair of merlins appeared and very vociferously drove them away. Over subsequent visits, it became clear that there were 2 pairs of merlin defending two locations, often driving the corvids towards the neighbours territory!

Prey remains from close to a pair of Merlin.

I have not been able to pin down either nest location, but in areas devoid of trees, they must be some of the very few remaining ground nesting merlins in Ireland. Frustratingly, both locations are marginally outside one of the survey squares!

Time constraints meant I didn’t get to check many of the other locations, but it has been great to see the habitat and try pin-point more locations worth checking for next year.

A female Merlin that landed beside me on Cape Clear last Autumn, sometimes they find you!

Finding breeding Merlin is a well known challenge, even though their habitat is quite open they can remain hidden when they want to. I am really hoping to pin down atleast 1 nest location this year after beginning it with such optimism.
But, as time in the field passes I am resigning myself to being happy to have found pairs in suitable habitat and hope to give it more focus next year. Fortunately there is still plenty of time to come across a nest site and it will remain a great excuse to spend more time in some of the most spectacular landscapes in Ireland.

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