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.
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:
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: