Merlins In Cape May

Photo by Jerry Liguori 

Cape May, NJ – As we all know, the weather has been warmer in Cape May this month: green grass, no snow, and a warmer ocean.  Add to that list the two Merlins that were terrorizing blackbirds in the fields along New England Road this week and it seems more like fall.

Merlins are a type of small falcon, a bird that feeds on small birds. These aerial acrobats are very fast and extremely agile, which makes them one of the most exciting of predators to watch. They are adept at capturing sandpipers, blackbirds, and other small birds that are found along the beach or in open fields.

Merlins normally are long gone by this time of year, preferring the climates of northern South America to those of the eastern seaboard. They generally migrate through Cape May from late September through mid-October. Only an occasional Merlin is spotted here in winter. This year, the presence of two of these birds together in Cape May in late December is fairly amazing.

Statewide, Audubon Christmas bird counts show the number of Merlins spending the winter in New Jersey has been increasing steadily since about 1980. Their numbers seem to be tracking winter temperatures. As temperatures have warmed, Merlin numbers have increased.

There’s a good reason for that.

Warmer winters make it easier for Merlins to survive. They don’t need as much food with such warm weather and there are plenty of small birds to feed on.

If Merlins can survive in Cape May in winter, we likely will see other migrants wintering here in the coming years.


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About Paul Kerlinger

Paul Kerlinger, Ph.D. is a scientist, author and nationally known expert on bird migration. He's done extensive studies on hawks, Snowy Owls and neotropical song birds. Kerlinger is the former director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, His books include How Birds Migrate and Flight Strategies of Migrating Hawks. He's an ardent fly fisherman and organic vegetable gardener.