Tom's Corner

On the Wings of a Merlin

By Tom Irons

       Many times I have been asked why I go to the arctic and what do I do there? The answers are many and some can be long and convoluted. One of the most plain and sincere reasons is: I love the interactions I have with the wildlife. Those special occurrences can happen at any moment, anywhere, from the ermine that comes into the cabin and plays with the trash bag to the porcupine that lays in the yard and chews beautiful dainty designs in a caribou antler, or the ravens, the spruce hens, the bears and the fox. All of these creatures of God give me joy.

       In the summer of 2013 I was privileged to receive a visit from a merlin. Within 30 minutes of our first meeting (as described below) the same bird returned to me while I stood on the bluff overlooking our river. He landed about 6-feet below where I stood, cocked his head when I greeted him, and locked eyes with me. He appeared to have something of extreme importance to say, remaining on the ground for about a minute, while his piercing eyes never strayed from mine. I could detect the intricacy of the individual feathers, observe the polished beak, and admire the needle sharp talons. It was an experience that made the summer’s trip worthwhile.

       Air coursed over and under the elegant bird’s wings like flowing water caresses a submerged rock. He was a Merlin: a bird of prey once known as a pigeon hawk to those unable to appreciate the speed, grace and beauty of this elegant raptor.

       Merlins haunt taiga forests, prairies and steppes— environs that provide excellent habitat for their prey while affording an unrestricted view. Fleet of wing and highly aerodynamic, the merlin can whip through stands of trees to outfly its next meal.

       Noonday sun flashed off the back of the gliding Merlin as he traced the creek bed down from the mountains. He knew this— where the mother moose had birthed her calf, the wolves had their den, where the ptarmigan nested. Keen of eye he missed little as he drifted down the drainage showing no apparent purpose— no specific destination. His two-foot wing span held him stable in the warming air currents.

       Two miles or more away the creek entered the river. It was there a lone man walked across the rock and sand-strewn delta. He had two poles over his shoulder: one was long and had a flag or pennant attached to the trailing end and the smaller pole had one end that was flat and shiny.

       The man crossed the dancing water and stopped atop a small sand bar that had been formed during the spring floods on the shore back from the river’s edge. Placing the pole with the pennant on the ground he used the small pole to move the sand at his feet. In the time it took the merlin to cover one mile the man had placed the pole with the pennant into the hole he had dug and tamped the sand tight around the base. Once the pole was erect the pennant rotated along a north-south axis ballooning into the windsock that it was.

       Most merlins are inquisitive and, like a weasel, will stop whatever it is doing to investigate anything new. Abandoning his route along the watercourse our merlin directed his large head and notched beak directly toward the man who was now standing next to the windsock and gazing at the buff colored, blue-grey bird.

       As the merlin drew nearer to the man he changed his course of flight to one that allowed for a gradual decrease in elevation. Both creatures were intently focused on each other; both inquisitive, both at apparent ease. On, on he came, closer, lower— larger. The merlin’s speed and rate of descent never varied as he continued to glide down toward the silent, immobile man.

       The merlin had moved to within half a mile of me before I identified his species. The intermediate plumage had been masked by the juxtaposition and candle power of the sun. Even shading my eyes with my hand had not aided in identifying the raptor until it had closed the distance. The size of animals, trees, and even mountains can be difficult to determine in arctic terrain. I had once thought a martin was a much larger animal when I saw it in slanting winter sunlight after a fresh snowfall.

       As the distance between me and the bird reduced to only a few yards and he was only a few feet above the ground, it became apparent to me that something of import and uniqueness was taking place. Quickly I made a fist, slowly straightened my arm, and extended it high above my head, offering a perch on which the bird could alight.

       The gliding merlin closed the remaining distance and at the last possible second sideslipped to his right, rejecting the proffered perch. Immediately after passing me, he dipped his left wing tip, raised his right, commenced to gain elevation, and started a slow turn that would allow him to continue watching me as he circled.

       I slowly turned about watching the merlin move in the tight arc. As I turned, I gradually lowered my arm and relaxed the fist. Speaking for the first time I said, “Well, hello my friend.” The raptor did not speak.

       Like a slow motion replay the merlin completed a full 360 degrees before he altered his course. When he did move out of the orbit he aimed himself for the stand of spruce and poplar trees that edged the gravel bar along the river north of the creek. In silence, awe, and a feeling of having just been blessed, I watched the merlin until, like a wisp of fog warmed by the sun, he was subsumed by the forest.

Tom in the morning

BACK                      NEXT