A Merlin With Meadowlark Prey

This series, which includes both before and after photos, dramatically illustrates the effects of fog on our images.

  • Note: I’ve posted other images of this bird previously but these three are new to my blog.


1/400, f/10, ISO 640, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

Merlins are usually difficult to approach but this one let me get close almost exactly three years ago (9/12/14) at Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Montana’s Centennial Valley. Raptors tend to be “stickier” in low temperatures and for mid-September it was damned cold on this particular morning. It was 11° F just a few minutes before I approached this falcon and one of the external water pipes in my camping trailer had actually frozen solid during the night so we had to improvise to even have our morning coffee. Without my coffee I can’t even find my shutter button!

I found the Merlin on a fence post next to the road only minutes after sunrise but even that low light wasn’t going to last long. I could see thick lake fog from Lower Red Rock Lake approaching fast so I knew my time with the falcon in reasonably good light would be brief.

After reviewing my many images of this bird I’m quite confident the prey item was a Western Meadowlark and it was frozen solid. I could actually hear soft clinking sounds of the beak on frozen flesh and the entire carcass was stiff as a board. Merlins are known to cache food so I strongly suspect it had killed the meadowlark the previous evening and then retrieved it for an early breakfast.



1/500, f/6.3, ISO 640, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

When the fog rolled in a few minutes later it hit like a brick (that’s a strange analogy but it works for me). Thankfully the bird allowed me to get significantly closer so I could get a little more detail through all those microscopic water droplets floating in the air but the effects of the fog are still quite obvious.

Just before I took this shot the Merlin had amputated an entire frozen leg, placed the foot of that leg under one of his/her toes to anchor it, and worked at pulling off that piece of meat sticking out from the side of the leg. While he was doing that his head was always in deep shade but occasionally he’d look up at me like this and I’d get just enough light on the face for a catch light.



1/400, f/7.1, ISO 640, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

Soon the fog became even thicker and from his posture I thought I might be making him just a little bit nervous so I drove down the road and let him finish his frozen meal in peace (he was still there when I left).

Fog is a natural event and I’m a nature photographer so I try not to complain about it but if pressed I’d admit to some serious grumbling when the fog bank enveloped me.


PS – While I was working on this post last night and preparing it for publication this morning I had a difficult time concentrating on the subject at hand because of the approaching weather event in Florida and points north. Many of my blog subscribers and internet friends live there and I became close to other Floridians two years ago while I spent time with my daughter Shannon in an Orlando hospital after her brain injury (thankfully Shannon and family no longer live in Florida).

My thoughts and wishes for the best outcome possible go out to everyone in Irma’s destructive path.  



32 comments to A Merlin With Meadowlark Prey

  • Marty K

    Great shot of the Merlin and his breakfast. The fog gives it sort of an ethereal quality that I quite enjoy. Makes me think of Merlin the Magician and Camelot.

    As for the weather, I just don’t know about people and their “beliefs” being more convincing than scientific fact.

    • Laura Culley

      Like you, I often think of Merlin the Magician. Beyond that I’m fascinated with Arthurian legend, when T.H. White transformed Arthur into a goshawk in in the King’s mews in “The Sword in the Stone,” the female goshawk teacher was named Cully (without the e). That resonates with me–Mariah has been such an outrageously profound and mostly patient teacher about The Real World, not this silly human construct. I keep hoping Merlin will show up with a WORKING magic wand. All I’ve got is this lousy stick! LOL!
      And as for the deniers, don’t confuse them with the facts. They have their own opinions! And Mother Nature will straighten them out. The lessons have begun.

  • Ron, I love this photo…beautiful light (before the fog rolled in), and just gorgeous in every way!!

  • Late to the party today (suicide awareness walk at dawn). We had frost but were nowhere near as cold as you and the Merlin.
    Love the Merlin and its popsicle.
    And yes, holding everyone in Irma’s way in my heart.

  • Laura Culley

    My falcon ID is reasonably pathetic, but I think this is a female (falcon). This SHOULD be an easy ID given that Merlins are one of the three NA raptors that you can (in theory) ID male from female by the plumage (but there’s the issue that I’m reasonably hopeless and if there are two alternatives, I struggle to keep them apart except with Kestrels. But I’ve lived with both a male and female Kestrel and I could always cheat, if necessary and sneak a look at Skye). 😉
    In medieval times, Merlins were the lady’s hawk. Mary Queen of Scots flew one. I’d LOVE to give one a try, however, I doubt I could keep up with one. Then, there’s the caching thing.

    • Laura, I understand that Merlin’s have become more popular in falconry these days.

      • Laura Culley

        Yes, a number of folks are flying them. As fields disappear into shopping malls, it’s getting harder to find places to hunt, so flying the smaller birds is becoming more of an option. They’re neat little pocket rockets and they just love starlings and pigeons. I’d love to try one, along with a tiercel (male) prairie, but we’ll see this season if I can handle field operations. But the falconer’s lament is, “so many birds, so little time.”
        There’s another one, circa 1542 (Nothing’s changed): “Verily, doth she weigh too much. She scorneth the knavely lure and in pursuit of herne, she covets the heavens and soars on high. What care she for her master cast so low, when all before her is her own heart’s delight? Come, let us sit upon the ground and whisper lightly, ‘Damn and blast that bloody hawk!’” LOL!
        I just love the antiquity of falconry.
        I can’t resist a story…a couple of years ago when Helen MacDonald was doing her book tour with “H is for Hawk,” we ended up at the home of a SERIOUS antique book collector who specialized in falconry books from around the world. To make a long story shorter, he handed me the original copy of Symon Latham’s (Henry VIII’s falconer) “First Book of Falconry,” published in 1615! The ORIGINAL!! I sat there, absolutely mesmerized at his words, describing the same things that I experienced oh these many years later. It was like he was sitting there beside me, reaching across the centuries to engage me in conversation. So now you know how to shut me up for a couple of hours…LOL!
        That book has just recently been transcribed and republished, and it’s on its way to me right now! I love books!

        • Pam Skaar

          So, we’ve been living with these small “dinosaurs” and trying to understand and work with current raptors for many years. I’m in the game as a mammal

          Try looking at ARKives’ Nile crocodile files for the archosaurian base of birds and dinos. Watch the breeding and predation clips for this croc. It makes me way more concerned about Nile Crocodiles in the US Everglades.

          What do you think?

          I believe EC has crocs like this in Australia human occupied territory already.

  • Susan Stone

    This Merlin is beautiful. As usual, I love being able to look at its feet (seems weird to suddenly develop a foot fetish…) And I’m very glad to hear that Shannon is no longer living in Florida. I have quite a few friends there, as well as one in Turks and Caicos, who I hope are all okay/will be okay.

    • Susan, I gather you’re not the only one with a foot fetish around here! 🙂

      I can’t imagine how worried I’d be if Shannon still lived in Florida…

  • Patty Chadwick

    I’ m with you on Irma…friends, relatives all along her path from South Mismi, on up… friends recently moved from Wounded Knee to Myrtle Beach, sister on Bald Head Island, grandaughter a freshmsn at Elon, No.Carolina…others inbetween….

  • April Olson

    I like to photograph scenery and wildlife in the fog if it is thick enough to give an eerie effect. But I do not like this smoke. I have not gone out shooting for sometime due to the air quality. I am hoping it will stay clear for tomorrow morning.

    Fires, floods, hurricanes, it has been a hard year for humans too.

    • The smoke has also limited my shooting, April. That and the dearth of birds…

      • April Olson

        I have noticed less birds at both BRMBR and FBWMA. Do you think it is due to more water in areas we can not travel to and the birds have spread out more away from where people travel? I can see birds in the distance but not in the auto loops.

  • Levi V.

    Beautiful pictures!
    The earth is finally getting fed up with it’s misbehaving children. Harvey, Irma, Jose, earthquakes and fires, tsunamis, extreme heat, maggots and flies everywhere. The people who I feel worst for, though, are those who contributed least to climate change, and are most connected to the land out of all of us, but are getting the bulk of the effects (like native people all over the world). I guess our Mother thinks one glove fits all. But at least in all this chaos we will (hopefully) see why it is important to grow more connected to the land.

  • Linda Covey

    As always your pics/blog are most entertaining. Glad you found your shutter button!!

  • The fog makes for atmospheric shots. I Ed enjoyed these.

  • Ron: Really beautiful images! A pleasure to see. Thank you.

  • Dick Harlow

    Interesting post Ron, like the shots, even in the fog!
    Have family in FL and GA, been a TV junky concerning Irma since yesterday. Unusual for me since I’m outside most of the time.
    It is past my understand, regardless of politics, why people deny climate change when the results are right in front of us and in the Newspapers!

  • Judy Gusick

    Dramatic difference for sure! The smoke here is like bad fog this morning – can see/taste/smell it. Watched cars with headlights at a distance navigating it. Had hoped to photograph Northern Lights last night, BUT the smoke took care of that – if they were there as predicted. 🙁 Glad Shannon and family no longer live in Orlando with the wretched hurricane approaching. Had crossed my mind that she was there.

    • Judy, I’d likely be up in Montana right now if it wasn’t for the smoke. Most of our smoke cleared out yesterday but it’s still too dark to really tell what it looks like out there this morning.

      I’m very grateful Shannon no longer lives in Florida (yesterday morning she told me she feels the same).