Any sighting of a Merlin is a cause for celebration but little did we expect the aerial show we witnessed on Sunday 23 March at Bradwell, on the Essex coast. As the Wren party walked south along the seawall, to the accompaniment of Corn Buntings, Meadow Pipits and Skylarks, Bob, one of the regulars at the bird observatory, picked up a female Merlin as it began a pursuit of a Skylark. The lark twisted and turned in front of us for more than a minute, the falcon attempting to follow each and every move. As Debbie pointed out, the falcon had a more cumbersome turning circle, but more rapid acceleration, so it was far from inevitable what the final outcome would be. Eventually the Skylark pitched down on the beach – and the Merlin dropped on it, grasping its victim in its talons and taking to the air again. Game over, I thought, but how wrong I was. No sooner had the Merlin claimed its prize than a Carrion Crow and a male Peregrine appeared as if from nowhere and gave chase. The crow quickly gave up, but the larger falcon was not prepared to let this free lunch go. For a couple of minutes the two falcons tried to outmanoeuvre each other. Nick Croft did very well to get a photo of this high-speed action. The Peregrine eventually bullied the smaller falcon into dropping its catch – and then dived to catch it in mid-air. We then watched as the Peregrine ate the unfortunate lark on the beach.
There were other highlights, too. We saw six species of raptors, including male and female Marsh Harriers. At least 10 Corn Buntings included several singing birds. Impressive numbers of waders took to the air from time to time as they relocated before the incoming tide. These included a twisting, wheeling flock of over 1,000 Knot, their bodies sparkling white as the sun caught them. At one stage we watched Dunlin, Grey Plover, Knot and a Sanderling lined up side-by-side on an abandoned barge.
Even the skies were dramatic, with a series of hail squalls passing to the north and south of us – well, apart from the one that came right overhead and deposited hailstones in our tea! Thanks are due to Bob Pease from the observatory and Steven Swaby – former Wren newsletter editor – for their local knowledge. And to the Group members whose company made the day so enjoyable.
Merlin and Peregrine aerial tussle, and Corn Buntings by Nick Croft