A merlin perches on the branch of a pine tree on May 13, on an island in Phillips Lake in Dedham. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki / BDN

When asked what I wanted to do for my birthday, my first thought was something outdoors. The older I get, the more I value experiences and quality time over gifts or big parties. And because we live in such a beautiful state, planning a fun outing — whether it’s a hike, paddle, camping trip or bike ride — is easy and inexpensive.

Keeping it simple, my husband Derek and I decided on a paddle on Phillips Lake, a lovely body of water right near our home. Dotted with small, undeveloped islands and gigantic boulders, Phillips is also known as Lucerne Lake. You might know it as the backdrop of the historic Lucerne Inn.

It was our first canoe trip of the season, so we had to dig a few things out of storage. Life jackets? Check. Whistle, lights and bug dope? Check. Patience, teamwork and arm muscles? We tried our best.

Giant boulders border the edge of an island on Phillips Lake in Dedham. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki / BDN

I wanted to practice steering from the stern, something that my husband, Derek, usually does. And let me tell you, it’s harder than he makes it look, especially when a brisk wind insists on pushing you to the side of your destination. I had brushed up on helpful paddle strokes ahead of time by watching a few YouTube videos and reading the canoeing chapter in “Master Guide Handbook to Outdoor Adventure Trips” by the legendary Maine guide Gil Gilpatrick, and I’m glad I did. It helped. But only practice on the water can really drive the movements of a J-stroke into muscle memory.

Striking across open water, we left the blackflies behind and visited one of our favorite islands.

A jumble of large boulders covered by ferns are found on an island in Phillips Lake in Dedham. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki / BDN

An unofficial footpath strikes across the island, traveling along a ridge to visit viewpoints atop granite outcroppings and boulders as big as houses. In May, some sort of bush or tree produces large white blossoms at the overlooks, adding a dash of additional beauty to the scenery — though it really doesn’t need it. I think Mother Nature is just showing off at that point.

While Derek and I sat on the exceptionally rough granite bedrock at one of the overlooks, we heard a loud, chattering cry from high up in the trees on the neighboring island. With a little inspection, we located an adult bald eagle tending to a large nest that was tucked into the branches of a towering pine tree.

A bald eagle can be seen sitting in its nest from a rocky outcrop on an island in Phillips Lake on May 13, in Dedham. The photographer took the image at a distance, on a neighboring island, using a 400mm camera lens. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki / BDN

“I don’t think eagles make that sound,” I said to Derek, scanning the trees with my camera.

Sure enough, a second bird was perched up there, not far from the eagle. It was much smaller and I had no idea what it was. It was too far away to make out any details. But soon enough we had our answer.

As Derek and I walked through the forest along the island trail, the bird’s piercing call came closer and closer. And through the trees, I spied the noise-maker as it landed on a tree, right on our island. So naturally, I crept closer and snapped a photo.

It was a merlin.

A merlin perches on the branch of a pine tree on May 13, on an island in Phillips Lake in Dedham. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki / BDN

Merlins are powerful falcons that primarily prey on songbirds and small shorebirds, according to a fact sheet on falcons provided online by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. However, they’ll also eat small mammals and large insects, such as dragonflies, snatching them right out of the sky. An especially agile bird, they can often be found patrolling along shorelines and open areas. They also perch out in the open, which makes them easy subjects for wildlife photographers.

I couldn’t remember ever photographing a merlin before that day, so I was quite pleased. Birding is similar to metal detecting or searching for sea glass. When you find something that’s new to you — even if it’s fairly common in general — it gives you a jolt of excitement. That’s why many birders create a bird list or “life list,” jotting down each species they observe in the wild.

As my husband and I watched the merlin, we witnessed it produce its alarm call and fly over the bald eagle’s nest several times, as if it were pestering the much larger bird. This type of behavior isn’t uncommon, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Merlins are known for being aggressive toward larger raptors, such as eagles and large hawks.

What do they get out of it? I don’t know.

But that’s no surprise. I often find something that puzzles me when I take the time to observe nature. Sometimes those puzzles remain unsolved. And sometimes, with a little research or help from other nature enthusiasts, I find some sort of answer. For example, thanks to a Bangor Daily News reader, I now know why I saw a group of at least a dozen bald eagles on Seawall Beach last week.

Bud Brown of Georgetown reached out to me via email with an explanation. Bud was born and raised in the area. From his home near Popham Beach (which neighbors Seawall Beach), he has watched the spectacle many times.

“What you saw happens every year at the time you took [the photos],” he wrote. “Simple answer, they are after alewives. We watch [the eagles] out our windows and off our porches. Often the trees and the flats are full of them, sometimes 30-plus [eagles]. You were looking at the typical aerial combat when an osprey catches an alewife and the eagles run it down until the fish is dropped.”

Thank you for solving the mystery for me, Bud. I’m sure I’ll stumble across another natural phenomenon that has me scratching my head in no time.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...