[Tweeters] Subspecies in Merlins

Marv Breece mbreece at earthlink.net
Sun Oct 10 13:46:52 PDT 2010

I cannot help but add my 2 cents to this Merlin thread.

In his original email, John Tubbs pointed out how difficult it can be to ID Merlins to subspecie. Bud Anderson explains in detail why this is so in his email below. I have been taking pictures of Washington Merlins for a few years. On my pbase site I have just created a new gallery of carefully chosen Merlin images that will hopefully illustrate this. All images were taken in Washington state and they are in random order. For anyone who wants to try to cubbyhole ALL of the images, knock yourself out. My guess is that you will be happy to agree with Bud. Link is below.


Marv Breece
Seattle, WA
mbreece at earthlink.net
----- Original Message -----
From: johntubbs at comcast.net
To: Bud Anderson
Cc: tweeters
Sent: Sunday, October 10, 2010 12:25 AM
Subject: Re: [Tweeters] Subspecies in Merlins

Hi Bud (and Tweets),

Thanks very much for the response, and like Kelly, it's a relief hearing your answer. I'll go back to worrying about how to identify empid species...grin!

As to photos, I haven't had the camera (other than the digicam) out in the field much lately - I've been working on drawing and painting birds, and recently have been focusing on sketching them from life, which is a very challenging proposition. Sketching from life, however, has forced me to really look at the birds in more depth than I ever did before. With the bird today, for example, in the past I would have scoped it, ID'd it as a Merlin and then hung around with binocs waiting for it to fly and watched to see if it went after something. While sketching it today, I looked at it very closely for a good five minutes in the scope, which piqued my interest in checking out Wheeler's guide, then reading through the guide got me wondering what subspecies it was - thus the post. I will worry no more about that, given your input - thanks again!

The one definitive thing I can say about the bird today was it was clearly a different individual than the much lighter bird(s) seen several weeks ago.

Coincidentally, my band played a gig in George, WA tonight (their community center, not the big amphitheater) and Trisha and I left early to do some birding on the way over. This trip was a great reinforcement of your other point about individual variation within species (which as you also noted Dennis Paulson emphasized repeatedly in the master birder program classes). We took Hwy 10 into Ellensburg from Cle Elum and then the old Vantage Highway between Ellensburg and the river. Between Cle Elum and George we saw at least twenty Red-tailed Hawks, many fairly close to the roads and a surprising number perched on low features like fence posts. The variation in plumage between these birds was dramatic - there was very noticeable variation within both the juveniles and the adults. (Though we didn't keep track, I would say that juveniles outnumbered adults - must have been a good nesting season east of the mountains.)

John Tubbs

Snoqualmie, WA

johntubbs at comcast.net

----- Original Message -----
From: "Bud Anderson" <falconresearch at gmail.com>
To: "tweeters" <tweeters at u.washington.edu>
Sent: Saturday, October 9, 2010 1:35:14 PM
Subject: [Tweeters] Subspecies in Merlins

Hey John,

Where are all those excellent and superb photos of yours on this one?

Well, I guess I'd like to comment on this Merlin issue, hopefully without starting a huge landslide/flame war here on Tweeters.

Just my opinion, but having seen really a lot of breeding, migrant and wintering Merlins here in WA over the years, including quite a few in hand, I'd say not to be too concerned about calling subspecies in the field.

Can you do it here in WA sometimes? Sure. For example, a classic adult male taiga Merlin is unmistakable. So is a really classic Black Merlin. And if you really want to dig into the differences between them all, I'd always recommend going back to Friedmann, 1950 The Birds of North and Middle America, Part 11, Stan Temples article in the Auk (1968 I think) Systematics of the North American Merlins and even the plumages described by AC Bent back in the 1930's. All of those give some pretty detailed plumage descriptions that you can wade through and try on for size. All of these will give you an idea of what people were thinking back then. And how they saw it in much simpler times (including pre-DNA).

But here is the problem. Many years ago, a guy named Eddie Biglow in southeastern British Columbia discovered that all three presumed races (Taiga, Black and Richardson's) were breeding in his local area. In some cases, he found what he thought were classic representatives of each race (e.g. a Black and a Richardson's) intermixed at several nest sites. So basically he found a place where they all come together. Several Merlin people went up there to see this and agreed that he was right.

Since then, people like Merlin expert Tom Gleason and others here in WA have seen many instances of what appear to be Black and Taiga birds interbreeding. An example would be a really, really black male with a light brown female. There was such a pair in Burlington last year. You can imagine what combinations that might produce in terms of plumage characters. So it isn't as simple as it might appear.

And don't forget that vexing but gorgeous light colored Merlin in Edison last year. Many thought it was a Richardsons (extremely rare in my experience in western WA), others considered it a light Taiga bird. How would you tell without the bird in hand?

Field guides obviously attempt to convey the plumage of all birds in a given area. In doing that, and being limited in space, they are going to emphasize examples of the classic differences to help us all learn to recognize and learn them. And, don't get me wrong here, like most of you reading this, I simply love bird field guides. But, as we all know, they don't always work. Nature is just too vast and complex to be reduced to a single painting or photograph. Incidentally, Steve Hermans famous quote works here. "If you see a bird and it doesn't match the field guide, the bird is the right one".

People like Dennis and other professional ornithologists on this list can address how difficult it can be to separate subspecies in many types of bird unless you have them in hand. And I won't even get into "what is a subspecies anyway"?

For me, living where I do in western WA, I just call them all Merlins. I stopped worrying about it a long time ago.

Hope this helps....

Bud Anderson
Falcon Research Group
Box 248
Bow, WA 98232
(360) 757-1911
falconresearch at gmail.com

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