Skip to main content

The Catbird Seat: Merlin Encounter

By Pete Dunne

It was midmorning, midweek, midseason and the skies were blue. The last few seats on the hawk watch platform at Cape May Point State Park were filling fast when someone shouted:


Two hundred lives went on hold.

Up in the Peanut Gallery, where the inner circle circles their wagons, conversations stopped midsyllable.

“So I says to this Bozo, if you call this wood well-seasoned, you got another thing . . .”

“Oh, sure, he might think that he saw one. But I’ve seen this guy in the field, and let me tell you, he couldn’t tell a . . .”

“No, I was there this morning. Spent two hours watching the feeder. But aside from a couple of ruby-throated hummers I didn’t . . .”

“You don’t like capers in your egg salad? Oh, man, how can anyone not like . . .”

The interruption hardly mattered. At the hawk watch, conversation is just what happens between hawks and chances are nobody would remember what they were talking about when post-Merlin conversation resumed.

Down at the end of the platform, C. and O. were discussing the pros and cons of buying the new Uberglasse binoculars that he coveted (but insisted they couldn’t afford) and that she wanted him to buy (because it opened the door, tit for tat, for the spotting scope she wanted).

Standing by the rail was L., who was quietly seething about: “That bum! That lousy, lying, two-faced bum. He’s been angling for my job ever since he joined the company, just waiting for an opportunity to rub my nose in . . .”

On the upper deck was U., who was working on the London Times crossword puzzle and mulling over the possibilities inherent in the suggestion: “a venatic adornment, fit for m’lady’s fist, in Latin” (eleven letters). Next to her was M., who was mulling over the merits of scopes—i.e. riflescopes—and whether to mount a Mil-Dot reticle or Heavy Duplex on his new deer rifle. He’d always used a Mil- Dot but thought, maybe, given his failing eyesight, the crosshairs on the HD would be better in heavy cover.

Speaking of dots, not far away was B., who was trying to convince her two home-schooled children that searching for little dots in the sky (these were hawks) was much more interesting than playing Ultimate Super Mega-Universe Destroyer III. And just down the row was A., who was thinking that B. was really cute and (apparently) unbanded—a state that did not apply to him or to the young, chic, thirty-something couple who had just walked up on the platform only to discover that they were surrounded by bird watchers!

Not quite sure how to proceed (i.e., give any indication they noticed that they were surrounded by bird watchers or show via smiles and nods that they didn’t mind being in the presence of bird watchers), they made their way, oh-so-very-casual-like, to the far edge of the platform so they could make their disparaging comments in whispers (so as not to offend anyone).

On the lower deck, R was talking to her mother on her cellphone. I. was worrying about the “check engine” light that had just gone on in her Volvo. U2. was studying the raptor plates in her 1972 edition Golden (Field) Guide, and S. was just getting up to head for the bathroom because he really, really, really . . .”

Then someone shouted “MERLIN!” And as the small, dark falcon flashed past the hawk watch, 200 lives went on hold (except the thirtyish couple who wondered what all the excitement was about).

Three-point-eight seconds later, the bird was gone. Everyone (except the thirtyish couple) exchanged nods and smiles and retreated back to their lives.

The Cornell Lab

All About Birds
is a free resource

Available for everyone,
funded by donors like you

American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library

Get Living Bird Subscribe Now