Kiteboarders compete with birds of prey for space in the sky near Curry Hammock State Park. In the late summer and fall, tens of thousands of raptors fly over the Keys. (Richard Morin for The Washington Post)

Migrating birds of prey draw visitors to the Florida Keys

High in the baby-blue sky above Curry Hammock State Park in the Florida Keys, a very small merlin falcon with a very big attitude repeatedly attacked an osprey five times its size.

"Look, it's pecking the osprey," said Luis Gles, binoculars pointed up at a 30-degree angle to the battleground 100 feet above us. "They are scared of nobody, they attack even peregrine falcons."

The merlin wheeled, darted and dove again on the osprey. Then the two birds broke off hostilities; the merlin to continue its migration to its wintering grounds far to the south and the osprey to hunt for a fish dinner.

"When I arrived, I was in love with peregrine falcons," said Gles, a native of Colombia who now lives in Miami. "But merlins stole my heart."

The temperature was fast climbing to 90 degrees on this shirt-soaking humid day in late September. Gles stood in the sun on the second-floor observation deck of the building that houses the park's bathrooms. He searched the skies for migrating raptors - birds of prey, a group that includes falcons, hawks, ospreys, eagles and kites - as they soared, flapped and glided past on their months-long journey to their winter homes in the Caribbean as well as Central and South America.

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