A strong breeze off Lower New York Bay brought me a little inland to Cheesequake NJ State Park in Old Bridge, located across Raritan Bay from Staten Island. With more than 1,500 acres of open fields, saltwater and freshwater wetlands, a white cedar swamp, a Pitch Pine forest, and a northeastern hardwood forest, this state park is a real natural treasure in a busy urban-suburban area.
The name Cheesequake comes from the Lenape Native American word "Cheseh-oh-ke," meaning "upland" or "high ground village." Sure enough, Cheesequake (or the "cheese park") contains enough hills and dales away from possible flood waters to have made it a nice community for Lenape people.
It was along the ridge of one of these hillsides overlooking a vast tidal wetland that I saw something genuinely special. For the first time in my life I spotted a Merlin. A medium-sized falcon that is smaller than a peregrine, but larger than a kestrel. It was an exciting moment! I had never seen one outside of a zoo before. Yet, in front of me was real wild bird in its natural habitat within eyesight of the Empire State Building. Way cool.
The Merlin was perched high in a leafless hardwood tree. At first, I had convinced myself it was a Peregrine falcon or perhaps a female Kestrel. Similar to those birds, there was a weak "mustache" of dark feathers on its face near the eyes.
Then I got a good look at this dim looking bird with my binoculars. It was about the size and shape of a pigeon (hence the Merlin's nickname "eastern pigeon hawk"). It was compact and about 10 inches in length. The bird had a narrow tail, and wingtips that did not reach the tips of its tail. It was a fast bird too. In flight, this falcon could turn on a dime in a hardwood forest that was jam-packed with twigs and branches. All good indicators that this was a Merlin.
I wasn't sure, though, if the bird was a male or female, or even a juvenile. The bird's back was dark in color, almost like chocolate, which is characteristic of females or juveniles, but since this was my first sighting of a Merlin I couldn't be confident.
The forest was quiet, not another bird around. For good reason. Merlins feed on small birds. I guess this is why the two Kingfishers that I was taking pictures of quickly flew away and out of sight. They didn't want to be the Merlin's dinner.
I have been told that Merlins are a widespread winter bird in coastal New Jersey and New York. There is even an established breeding population of Merlins in upstate New York, mostly in the Adirondacks where tall conifer trees can be found, habitat similar to that in Canada.
I have also been told that Merlins are monogamous, but that breeding pairs winter separately. Come spring Merlins will often return to the same breeding area, and many reoccupy the same nesting territory. Males usually return to the breeding grounds about a month earlier than females. So who knows, this particular Merlin might have been migrating northward to the Adirondacks to start another generation.
For the Merlin, this is all just instinct. For me, it was a special day in the cheese!
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com/