Officials at Pokagon State Park in Steuben County have spotted three merlins – the second uncommon bird sighting in the last several weeks.
Merlins are small falcon-like birds that usually nest in Canada.
Last month, the largest concentration of nesting Henslow's sparrows in northern Indiana was discovered at Arrowhead Prairie on Aboite Road.
The sighting was enough to bring a noted bird expert from New York to Fort Wayne. Henslow's sparrows aren't on the endangered list but are deemed a species of concern.
On Wednesday, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources was trying to explain why the merlins are here.
"They are expanding their range and in some instances becoming more urbanized," said Phil Bloom, communications director for the DNR. "They do migrate through here, but these stuck around. There are a lot of conifer trees at Pokagon and they do nest in them. It could be that they looked familiar and the birds decided it looked like home."
Bird enthusiasts are flabbergasted.
"It's simply unprecedented," Brad Bumgardner, president of the Indiana Audubon Society, said in a statement. "There is no breeding anywhere within 150 to 200 miles of the park." Bumgardner is the park interpreter at Indiana Dunes State Park and previously worked at Pokagon.
"Merlins are a wintering species," he said, and typically migrate through Indiana beginning in October. "I had one at the (Indiana Dunes) pavilion all winter long last year. They tend to follow shore birds, and we see them a lot at Dunes in the winter, but never in the summertime."
Pokagon park interpreter Fred Wooley said three merlins were identified at the park last week, including an adult female and two juveniles. A nest site has not been confirmed, but the presence of the adult and juveniles makes it likely the youngsters were hatched at the park.
"It would be the first nesting record of merlins in Indiana," John Castrale, a DNR biologist specializing in raptors, said in a statement. "It's kind of a big deal."
The National Geographic Complete Birds of North America reports that adult merlins weigh about 9 ounces and are about 12 inches tall with an approximate wingspan of 25 inches. They are active hunters that primarily feed on other birds by taking their prey in midair.
Fast facts about merlins