Steppe Merlin

Overlooked in Europe? No way, so distinctive!

Yoav Perlman

Merlin has a huge breeding range accross Europe and Asia. It has several subspecies – as in many other species the W European populations being darker, and the E populations being paler and larger. pallidus (‘Steppe Merlin’) is the largest and palest of those occuring in the WP. It breeds in the steppes of N Kazakhstan and SW Siberia, and winters mainly in the Indian Subcontinent. It is a rare winter visitor to the Middle East, and therefore it should be looked for in Europe as well. In Israel it is rare indeed, with one or two wintering in some winters.

Last week I was doing a wintering raptor census in the NW Negev, in the open fields of Urim. This area is very rich in winter, with a strong C Asian steppes influence – Saker, callidus Peregrine, Sociable Lapwing, Eastern Imperial Eagle and Pallid Harrier are regular winter visitors, and this area hosts important populations of these species. As I was working a small patch of Tamarix trees that often are used as day roosts for Merlins, I noticed a brilliant male pallidus Merlin shooting out of a tree. I had quick flight views at first, but this form is so distinctive – especially in direct sunlight the upperparts are as pale as a Pallid Harrier so ID wasn’t challenging… It landed in a farther tree, and I managed to drive up to it and get a couple of crap shots in the shade before it flew out again.

pallidus Merlin, NW Negev, israel, january 2014

pallidus Merlin, NW Negev, Israel, January 2014

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to focus on the bird in flight and got nothing of it in proper light conditions. So I checked google and found these fantastic shots by Indian friends Rajesh Shah and Nirav Bhatt – I use their images here with their kind permission:

pallidus Merlin, Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, India, November 2010

pallidus Merlin, Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, India, November 2010


The size and structure differences from European aesalon might be difficult to judge in the field, especially in males that are anyway smaller than females. However, the pallid grey upperparts, pale head, faintly marked moustache and eyestripe, and faintly streaked upperparts make identification rather easy if seen in good light conditions. I guess that females and juveniles are much more challenging to identify – should be duller, paler and less streaked, but very hard to find convincing images.

Some more friends from the NW Negev:

Eastern Imperial Eagle, 3cy, NW Negev, January 2014

Eastern Imperial Eagle, 3cy, NW Negev, January 2014



Saker, 1cy, NW Negev, Israel, December 2013

Saker, 1y, NW Negev, Israel, December 2013




5 thoughts on “Steppe Merlin

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  2. linosabirding

    Ciao Yoav

    nice photos and post, regarding structure and juv./female I may be in the near future post something on as I am studing this taxon (as all raptors 😉 since long time. One of the least know but most interesting structural difference between pallidus and all the WP taxa of Merlin is the visibly longer tarsus and legs as a whole too. Juv./female are differenciated in plumage by a much more rusty-rufous , or orange-ochreous barrings on remiges and tail feathers, with the pale bars as pale and wide and as rich to looks almost like a Red-necked Nigthjar or a Bittern !


    1. Mick Cunningham

      Hi Yoav

      Some years ago in the Little Rann of Kutch a group of us was birding the desert (where the wild Asses roam!). In the very bright light we saw a falcon perched on the ground. At first we couldn’t ID it owing to a seemingly odd combination of colours. To me the back was a fantastic icy grey blue and the underparts very pallid. Stunning. The latter did prompt thoughts of pallidus immediately, which none of us was familiar with. But what caught the eye (or mine anyway) was what looked like a deep orangey – almost chestnut – hind collar. It really was as eye-catching as the other colours; to me at least. Red-necked falcon was mooted but the colour didn’t go up over the crown, it was more like a nuchal collar and face pattern was wrong. None of the available literature showed this. Eventually, it took off and chased a small bird. Its action was clearly that of a Merlin and the ‘collar’ disappeared in flight – or was less obvious anyway. Maybe the orangey/chestnut was a trick of the light plus resting posture (hunkered). No plate has ever shown this though many show a ‘warm’ wash in that area – as do the pics above. Would be interested to know if this is ever evident as a stronger looking colour?

      Whatever, its one of best raptors I’ve seen – and I like raptors!



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