Merlin In Warm Light (plus some falconry and family history)

Only minutes after dawn on September 12, 2014 I spent some quality time with a cold and hungry Merlin in Montana’s Centennial Valley.


1/500, f/9, ISO 640, Canon 7D, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

When this photo was taken it was unusually cold for that time of year (11° F.) and veteran blog followers may remember that the pipes in my camping trailer had frozen up during the night which meant we had to be creative to even have our morning coffee. I’ve posted a few images of this falcon previously but these two and the poses are new to my blog.

The Merlin had a Western Meadowlark in its clutches. The prey was frozen solid so I suspect it had been cached the previous day and then retrieved as it began to get light. In this shot, taken soon after we found the falcon, I love the warm golden light of dawn but it didn’t last very long. Minutes after this photo was taken a thick bank of lake fog began to roll in that completely engulfed us.



1/400, f/9, ISO 640, Canon 7D, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

This shot was taken only two minutes after the previous one and it’s the last decent light we saw before the fog enveloped us. If you compare the two images you’ll notice that the light is significantly warmer in the first photo than it is in the second. Most of the photos I posted of this bird previously were taken in the thick fog which gave the images a bit of a surreal look.

This bird had to struggle to tear apart the frozen meadowlark so soon after these shots were taken I drove on down the dirt road (that I could barely see because of the fog) and left the merlin on the post to enjoy its frigid meal.


Every time I see a Merlin I think of my English family history and wonder….. In medieval times Falconry was all the rage in England and much of Europe. Merlins were considered a “lady’s hawk” and Mary Queen of Scots was an extreme falconry enthusiast who delighted in flying Merlins. She almost married into my family when she very nearly married Sir Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester (though in the end Robert refused to marry her and almost married Queen Elizabeth I instead). Mary was even allowed to fly her Merlin from her window while she was imprisoned for 18+ years by Queen Elizabeth I. That story didn’t end well for Mary when Elizabeth eventually had her beheaded for treason on February 8, 1587.

But mostly my thoughts go to Dudley Castle which was owned and operated for generations by my direct ancestors, the various Barons Dudley,  (previously the family name was Sutton – it’s a long story…). Falconry was a significant part of medieval life at the castle and to this day the castle keeps falconry birds on the grounds. Who knows, maybe I have falconry blood in my veins and perhaps that’s part of my interest in raptors… 🙂

So yes, my mind does tend to wander a bit whenever I see a Merlin.


Addendum: I should make it clear that Sir Robert Dudley wasn’t my direct paternal ancestor. He was only an uncle of one of them. However Gov. Thomas Dudley and several of the Baron’s Dudley were my direct paternal ancestors .



35 comments to Merlin In Warm Light (plus some falconry and family history)

  • Laura Culley

    So sorry to be late to this post. Yes, I know the story of Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I and Dudley well. I love British/Irish/Scots history as well as American/Native American. If you ever get that round tuit to scratch the falconry itch, I can hook you up royally! Well, maybe not royally, but…LOL!
    One of the (many) things I love about falconry is its language that goes back before Chaucer. I’m pretty certain you could easily have slipped on a mute (falcon poop) in just about any big home during Tudor and Elizabethan England. BUT they didn’t have redtails! Nanner, nanner, nanner! 🙂

  • Joanne OBrien

    Hey Ron, Nice post and Sweet merlin photos! Your ancestors founded my old stomping grounds in Harvard square. Seems like many spots around here are named for Gov. Thomas Dudley! Veddy interesting…

    • Thanks, Joanne. Yes, including Dudley House on Harvard Yard.

      I was on the campus years ago when I took some science students to Harvard. That was before I knew anything about my family history and I never did visit any of the Gov. Dudley related places on campus or in Cambridge because I was ignorant of the connection. I could kick myself…

  • Robyn Kemp

    I love the warm light that tinges the merlin’s feathers with gold in the first shot.

    I consider myself something of a history buff, with particular interest in the Tudor and Jacobean periods, but it never crossed my mind you might be one of “those” Dudleys! As the comedian Arte Johnson used to say, “Very interesting …”

    • Thanks, Robyn. I have a book titled “The Uncrowned Kings of England – The Black History of the Dudleys and the Tudor Throne” by Derek Wilson. It’s a long, complex book but I’ve read it twice and likely will again.

      I love Tudor history partly because it’s so convoluted, sinister and bloody. My family connections to the Tudors make it all the more interesting for me.

  • Alice Beckcom

    Ron, that poor Merlin looks cold. At ll degrees it might have to wait a while to eat its ‘frozen dinner’!

    Your ancestry stories are quite interesting. I wish I knew more about my ancestry. The one thing I know is that my maternal Grandmother herded sheep in the mountains in Norway.

    In reading the Wikpedia attachment, I noted that families handed down this castle through the generations.

    Thanks for the photos and story.

    • It didn’t wait to eat, Alice. It tore a frozen leg off of the meadowlark right after these photos were taken.

      They did hand the castle down through the generations – at least untill they got to the 3rd Baron Dudley. His nickname was Lord Quandom (which means “Lord Has-been”) because he was a poor financial manager and went heavily into debt so the castle was forfeited to the Crown but later Queen Mary restored it back to the Dudleys.

  • April Olson

    Beautiful photos. We have had a Merlin in our neighborhood this year. It is the first time I have seen one in the wild. When I leave for work it is often on the same pole waiting for sunrise to warm itself.

    We have giant white fluffy snow falling right now. Despite the grey skies the snow is making it beautiful. My bird is always terrified of large snow flakes, he alarm calls and looks terrified of the falling flakes.

    • Which bird is that, April?

      It’s starting to snow here in Murray too but just barely.

      • April Olson

        One of our rescued parrots. He is a Lorie and has decided he is my mate. We have several birds that are from the pet trade that are no longer wanted and are given to us at the rehab. Most of us have a few of these birds we have adopted, we keep them for their or in some cases our life. We try to rehome others to good permanent homes.

        • Robyn Kemp

          Thanks for your good work, April. I wish people would make an effort to understand the commitment involved BEFORE they bring a parrot into their lives! 😡

  • Yet another fascinating post.
    Love the Merlin,love the light.
    In a rented house we lived in years ago the plumbing consisted of hose pipes tacked to the outside of the house. Of course they froze (and split) often in winter. We only had tank water. Appreciation of water, electricity and plumbing were firmly instilled in us.
    I am pretty certain that if I could track my forbears down they were peasants and flunkies. Perhaps they were allowed to clean the Falcon’s mews.

    • Wow, you do get up early during your Aussie summers, EC!

      I had plenty of poor peasants in my ancestry too. Some of them barely eked out a living, especially in the 1700’s and early 1800’s. One of them back in Mass. or New Hampshire was described as a “dandy” because despite his extreme poverty he insisted on constantly wearing a white powdered wig and fancy red coat in the British formal tradition.

  • Marty K

    That poor Merlin looks sooooo cold!

    I love the glimpses into the Dudley family tree. If you and Sheila need someone to carry your bags during that trip to England… 😉

  • Dick Harlow

    Like the warm shots of the Merlin. It sure looks cold, but at least it had something to eat.
    Very cool story and somewhat similar, except my story goes back to Scotland and the presumptive king deposed by Bruce and the King of England.
    Do you think there is a tad of genetic material that might linger generations since, that would cause us to love Falconry? Love to think so!!

    • “Do you think there is a tad of genetic material that might linger generations since, that would cause us to love Falconry?”

      It’s very possible, Dick. Back then they actually used their falconry birds to hunt for their own food so it could be argued that those who practiced falconry survived at a higher rate than those who didn’t and passed those genes on to their offspring. That’s genetic selection in my book, though I’ll admit it isn’t quite in the classical form of natural selection… 🙂

  • Sheila Olson

    Very cool back story! Maybe we should plan a trip to England after I retire to see the old family haunts…

  • Love that warm light. No need for a sepia filter! Glad you were spared having a headless ancestor to haunt you!

    • Ken, I actually wasn’t spared. Sometimes I have nightmares (figurative, not literal) about being beheaded because two of my direct paternal Dudley ancestors (a father and son) were beheaded at the Tower of London – one by Queen Mary (Bloody Mary) and the other one by Henry VIII. Not at the same time but many years apart.

      Any more and I’m afraid beheading might become a family tradition… 🙂

  • Susan Stone

    I love that your family history is apparently so easy to find. I’ve had plenty of info on my mother’s side, but absolutely none on my father’s side. I like the way the background in these photos picks up all the colors in the Merlin. It shows the great beauty of the bird.

    • Susan, compared to most others much of mine has been relatively easy to find. That’s because others have done much of the research because of the historical significance of Gov. Dudley and the Baron’s Dudley and their ancestors and descendants.

      I actually found mine harder to trace from about 1700 to 1851 than I did from the 1600’s to the 1200’s and that’s pretty unusual. It’s fascinating stuff.

  • DianefromZion

    Enchanting threads of interwoven introspection today…merits a second cup of coffee and gratitude I have electricity and warmth. Thank you “One and All”.

    • “merits a second cup of coffee and gratitude I have electricity and warmth”

      We don’t realize how much we rely on those “essentials” until we lose them, Diane – especially when you’re an old fart out camping in temps like that! 🙂

  • I found it very interesting that you might have had family history with falconry…….several times in the past I’ve learned how a predilection for a particular interest will show up, independent
    of actual practical exposure, generations down the line, and it will usually show up as a passion ( like yours for birds in general ) not just a hobby– seems to enter the genes, somehow !

    • Perhaps it does, Kris.

      All I know is that from the first time I saw a raptor up close through my lens (that bird was a Swainson’s Hawk) and watched it intimately for a few minutes I was hooked on birds of prey. Can’t be sure of where it came from but you have to wonder…

  • Judy Gusick

    Beautiful shots, Ron! And nice history…. Frozen food and frozen pipes are no fun… Did you fire up the truck and heat water on the engine? 🙂
    Forwarded it to my sister who lives in Cambridge after retiring from DOD as a special ed teacher in England for many years…….. She is a avid photographer and gets around over there a lot. Made zero last night and have about a foot of snow now – no wind to speak of so far……..

    • “Did you fire up the truck and heat water on the engine?”

      No. If I remember correctly I had extra water that wasn’t frozen in a 5 gallon plastic jug so I used that. Heating it up wasn’t the problem because everything else in the trailer worked properly. I just couldn’t get water from the holding tank to the sink because that pipe was frozen solid. Ever since then I’ve had that pipe wrapped with insulation so it hasn’t been a problem.

      Your sister might be interested in this. My direct paternal ancestor Governor Thomas Dudley of Massachusetts was the founder of Cambridge in 1632 (it was called Newtowne back then). As governor he also signed the original charter for Harvard College. Thomas and his daughter Anne Bradstreet (the first published author in North America – she was a poet) and her husband Simon Bradstreet were the first residents of Cambridge.

      In one of his letters Thomas was the first (that we have record of) to describe the humongous flocks of Passenger Pigeons in North America. I love stuff like that!

      Edit: Oops, In reading your comment again I’ll bet you meant that your sister lives in Cambridge, England rather than Cambridge, Mass. Sorry about that – my mind went elsewhere. But the Massachusetts city was named after the English one so there’s still a (tenuous) connection…

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