Updated 2/12: Photographer David Hauer thought he had imaged a Cooper’s Hawk, and so did I, but several readers weren’t convinced. Park visitor Linda Morris suggested it might be a Merlin. So did ace bird photographer Kevin Steen. Anthony DeCicco suggested it might be a juvenile Peregrine or a Merlin. So I sent the photo to John Davis, a raptor expert, and he came back very quickly: “That’s a merlin. Nice one.” Case closed.
So then, we return to the question what the bird was doing there, on the western shore of the park, looking out over the water toward the Golden Gate Bridge. While a Cooper’s Hawk might show a predatory interest in grebes, rails, and ducks, the Merlin is a smaller hunter more tuned to sparrow-sized birds, with a pigeon at its upper limit. Bottom line, this bird wasn’t hunting, unless he’d spotted a Black Phoebe or a Spotted Sandpiper on the rocks nearby. Probably, the bird was just resting. They do. They must.
Merlins generally breed up north in the summer and migrate south in the winter. Quite possibly this individual was making a stopover on its migration back north. Recently I’ve seen rafts of a hundred or two Greater Scaup on the waters around the park, also no doubt on their way back to their northern breeding grounds. Spring has sprung. They have thousands of miles to cover before reaching the places where they pair up, mate, nest, brood, and all the rest of it.
A big thanks to David Hauer for photographing the first Merlin featured on chavezpark.org since this website started in 2014.