Oh my gos(h)!

Immature northern goshawk (photo by Debbie Waters, Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, Duluth, MN)
Immature northern goshawk (photo by Debbie Waters, Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, Duluth, Minnesota)

September 26, 2008:

Two weeks ago in Maine a red squirrel and I both had a close call. He escaped with his life and I got a thrill.

I was sitting outside the Harbourside Inn at dawn drinking my morning coffee when I heard a rustling sound and a red squirrel’s frightened scream.

Fifty feet away a hawk was chasing breakfast, hopping fast through the trees with wings outspread.  His prey, the red squirrel, was cheating death.

Brown and white with a bold white eyebrow and long, powerful, yellow legs the bird had the wingspan of a red-tailed hawk.  “Oh my gosh!” I thought, “it’s an immature northern goshawk!”

Until that moment I had never seen a “gos” (*) on the ground.  I’d only seen them during quick fly-bys at hawk watches and often needed help identifying them.  Not so with this bird.  This one fairly shouted “I’m a gos!”

Northern goshawks are the largest North American accipiter.  Truly a northern bird, they don’t leave their territory in winter unless their food supply crashes.  In Pennsylvania they nest in the northern tier and only come to the southwestern part of the state in winter, but because they prefer forested areas to cities and suburbs it’s unusual to see them in Pittsburgh.

Goshawks are well known for fiercely defending their nests, aggressively attacking humans and even killing raptors who nest nearby.  If this bird had been an adult during nesting season I would have been in serious trouble sitting only 50 feet away.

Fortunately the goshawk was young and intent on his meal.  I watched the red squirrel escape and the goshawk fly to a perch deeper in the woods.

What a privilege to see him!  Though it was a stressful morning for the squirrel, I’m glad he was there to tempt the hawk into the open.

(Thank you to Debbie Waters, Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, Duluth, Minnesota for her photo of an immature northern goshawk)


(*) A note on pronunciation:  “Gos” (pronounced “goss”) is the birders’ nickname for the species.  “Goshawk” is pronounced “goss-hawk.”

2 thoughts on “Oh my gos(h)!

  1. Speaking of raptors, a wonderful 15 minutes…
    Leaving the Tanger Outlet Mall near the Meadows last week, we were driving on the road that edges the mountain top where the mall is located. Looking out at the broad vista, our gaze landed upon a raptor “sitting” on the air currents. With wings outstretched, it hung perfectly still with its feet hanging down and its head turned downward to scan the scrub of a hillside below. Searching for a meal it was. I jumped out of the car, grabbed my camera (love those little digitals!), ran to the guardrail between the edge of the flat road and the steep hillside, and looked at the creature suspended appx 25 feet above and out from me. Wings perfectly still, it did not move from it’s place in the air. It did not soar or flutter; it was perfectly still in mid-air. With a flick of a muscle, it turned to take position a few feet away. I ran to that spot. It lowered it’s altitude to carry it a bit further down the hill, then returned to the upper perch in the air. The duration of it’s air perch was breathtaking. I could have stayed forever and could hardly take pictures for fear of missing its beauty, but remembered I had left my son behind the wheel in his idling car, tucked along the roadside. Turning to return to the car, I saw another woman taking pictures with her cell phone and a young boy snapping shots with his camera. My son, not a bird watcher, had his sight afixed on the bird and said from the car window, “That’s the coolest thing I‘ve seen!” We could hardly pull away and leave what was one of those moments in time.

    With all the material worth in the stores of the huge mall, the best find of our trip was the spectacular raptor.

  2. If you’ve been watching this space, the photo has changed.
    Debbie Waters of Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth, Minnesota is very familiar with northern gohawks – handles them all the time, brave woman! – and remarked that the original photo did not look like a goshawk. The new photo is certainly a gos!
    Click on the photo to visit the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory website.

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