Monday, December 19, 2011

A Prairie Merlin in Honduras

Adult male Prairie Merlin, Campus Zamorano University, Honduras, 18 December 2011
Yesterday, while birding the Zamorano University campus in central Honduras with Paul Stufkens, my friend Oliver and I found an adult male Merlin of the Richardson's or prairie subspecies. The Global Raptor Information Network (GRIN) calls the Merlin an "uncommon migrant and rare winter visitor (columbarius) in the lowlands of both coasts and in the Caribbean islands off Honduras", citing Monroe's 1968 Distributional Survey of the Birds of Honduras. eBird has few records for this species in Honduras, although I suspect that Merlins are probably regular along both coasts in migration and perhaps uncommon, but not rare, in winter.

But a Prairie Merlin this far south is spectacular!

Merlin, a species found in North America, Europe and Asia, has three distinct populations in North America: the highly migratory Taiga Merlin (columbarius) of the northern forests, the sedentary Black Merlin (suckleyi) from the Pacific Northwest, and the partially migratory Prairie Merlin (richardsonii) of northern prairies and aspen parkland. The latter form winters from extreme southern Alberta and Saskatchewan southward to the area bounded by eastern California, northwestern Mexico and central Texas (James et al. 1987). Thus, it is resident in parts of its breeding range, with the majority undertaking a relatively short migration into the southern Great Plains (Temple 1972).

It is much paler overall than the taiga Merlin, and has the light bands on the tail much wider than in that subspecies.

I realized this was a noteworthy sighting, and I expected our Central American record of this subspecies to be perhaps unprecedented, but it turns out that eBird has a record for northern Belize - from just 5 days prior! On 13 December 2011, Lee Jones and Roni Martínez reported a female or juvenile of the prairie subspecies in northern Belize, noting it was significantly paler than the taiga Merlins these observers normally see in Belize.

records of Prairie Merlin in eBird (recent records in red) - data courtesy of eBird
So... these two recent records beg the question: Is there currently a small-scale influx of Prairie Merlins going on into Mexico and Central America? It will be interesting to see if more individuals of this subspecies get reported in the coming weeks from the region.

Cited literature:
James, Paul C., Alan R. Smith, Lynn W. Oliphant, Ian G. Warkentin (1987) "Northward expansion of the wintering range of Richardson's Merlin" Journal of Field Ornithology 58 (2): 112—117.
Temple, Stanley A. (1972) "Systematics and evolution of the North American Merlins" The Auk 89: 325—338.

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