Winter around here, thus far, has been a mixed bag with rain, snow, freezing rain and the occasional wind warnings presented. Today we awoke to thick fog which lasted well into the afternoon. After a little work on my computer I decided to venture out this morning to see what species I might encounter.

As I drove through the fog, en route to the fields where I regularly find northern harriers hunting, I wondered if I had made a mistake. The fog was that thick. 

Driving slowly down one of the country roads I stopped to take a couple of ‘test shots’ to see what exposure might work on a harrier if one were to suddenly appear. The light would be a challenge.

Anyone who spends time looking for wildlife can tell you that your eyes become accustomed to quickly seeing shapes that somehow don’t belong which could be birds or animals. As I passed by a cemetery I did a double take and pulled over. There, on top of a grave stone, a merlin was perched. 

One of several hundred images taken of this merlin who showed no hurry to leave its perch.

I positioned my car perpendicular to the bird, lowered the window and shut off the engine. The merlin was at eye level. I poked my camera lens through the opening to let it adjust to the cooler air and waited for something to happen. 

Merlins are larger than an American kestrel but smaller than a crow. Like kestrels they are members of the falcon family. This one I have seen many times along this road. In fact a few days ago it suddenly shot out between some tree branches to chase away the much larger northern harrier I had patiently been waiting to arrive.  Having spoiled my chance of a shot of the harrier I figured this merlin owed me, right?

As long as I remained in my car I could observe. Had I opened the car door I am quite sure the bird would have left immediately.  The light was extremely poor but this was another experiment of sorts. So, I waited. And waited. 

For the first hour the merlin surveyed the grounds of the cemetery in every direction occasionally looking over at me. I had Rilo, my daughter’s dog next to me and although he is patient I had to keep plying him with dog treats. The noise of him chewing the treats seemed to interest the merlin though.

I could tell that the fog was thinning somewhat because the trees in the background were coming into view. The merlin started preening, cleaning its feathers, scratching its head. It became more animated bobbing its head up and down which is what raptors do to get a 3-D map of an object or prey. Any time now and I might see some action.

The merlin preened and scratched its head as the fog continued.

When the bird pooped I thought ‘ok, it’s game on.” Raptors do this to be as light as possible for the hunt. Another half hour passed. I was in it for the long haul. As Steve Winter, the award winning National Geographic photographer told me while in the Brazilian Pantanal six years ago,  ‘when you find a jaguar, you stick with that jaguar.’

I have retained that bit of advice ever since applying it to any wildlife species. Even if it appears nothing is happening just wait!

Something caught the merlin’s eye and it turned slightly then flew down to the ground about five metres away. It was just as well – the cemetery fence would have interfered with my camera autofocus.  But the merlin did a circle and went out through the trees and landed on the road.

Circling the foggy grave yard in pursuit of an unseen prey.


Eating part of its prey.

Now, I got out of my car and knelt on the wet grass. The merlin had something in its talons and began eating it. As I snapped away it turned towards me and looked. I kept my distance and made myself appear smaller which is comforting to a raptor with prey. For the next five minutes it was lunch time for this bird.

Leisurely dining as I snap away.

Mealtime is over and this merlin wonders why I am interested.

Having eaten every morsel of whatever it was it caught the merlin decided it was time to seek higher ground. So away it flew into a nearby tall tree.

On the last three or four visits to this area I have come home without a single image. Today, I had a wonderful encounter with this bird of prey and, although the light was not conducive to great photography, I was able to capture some images that tell a story.

I hope that you are also getting out even on the less appealing days. As I have said often wildlife is near and always entertaining no matter the conditions.


If you have not registered for my upcoming January 31st Snowy Owls Photo Presentation and would like to you can cut and paste this link to your browser:


    1. Paul E Gains

      Hey Jeff, great to hear of your adventures on bikes. I hope you have lots of wildlife encounters down there in Mexico and on your return journey. Thanks for staying in touch! Hi to Leigh!!!

  1. Megan

    Absolutely brilliant photos Paul. Some of your best in my opinion. Hope you will consider getting these published. I saw my first male Merlin this past week but we both startled each other, so not a good photo yet!

    1. Paul E Gains

      Very kind of you to say, Megan! In addition to my January 31st ‘Snowy Owls – Visitors From the Arctic’ presentation I am speaking to a group of wildlife enthusiasts on birds of prey, February 6th. So I am always on the lookout for interesting images to include. AND, I am in touch with a couple of editors who may well commission stories in which I can use such images. Thanks again! Enjoy nature!

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