I am walking backwards in the woods, wearing a bicycle helmet, and experiencing an intense surge of cowardice. In one of my hands is a stick. On top of that stick, held aloft like a knightly pennant, is a Northern Woodlands hat. The echoes of Monty Python’s Holy Grail are not lost on me, but at the moment, dignity is not high on my priority list. My husband Tig walks beside me, facing forward. In theory, between us, we can monitor all directions, and can’t be ambushed by a dive-bombing bird.
It’s early June and we’ve come out to a remote woodlot in northern Vermont to visit a goshawk nest and, if we’re lucky, snap a few long-distance photos of chicks.
The Northern goshawk is the Northeast’s largest accipiter – a genus of short-winged, long-tailed hawks. They’re exceptionally agile fliers and excel in forest hunting. The goshawk is a beautiful bird, with herringbone markings on its chest, red eyes and a bandit mask. While goshawks aren’t rare, they’re not easy to find either. They tend to like bigger, less disturbed forests, and outside of nesting season, appear to be shy. In nesting season, however, their reputation is anything but.
Goshawks divide up hunting and guarding duties along gender lines. When the chicks are young, the male is responsible for most of the food procurement. The larger female typically tears apart prey into chick-manageable morsels, and defends the nest.
Sometimes she does so with a vengeance. A recent example: two weeks ago, my friend Barb Mackay had to change her hiking plans “because a resident goshawk was attacking people, even stole one guy’s hat off his head!” The birds we’re visiting today have also demonstrated their willingness to dive-bomb hikers, and the female has even left cuts in a person’s scalp.
It’s a blue sky day, but here on the trail the tree canopy makes for dim viewing conditions. There’s plenty of birdsong, but so far no goshawk alarm calls. We walk down the trail past a pile of firewood and an old fenced-in cemetery, and then up ahead we see the point of reference that the landowner described to me – a flat piece of sheet metal covering a spring.
We stop. I glance at my husband. He’s messing with the settings on his camera, and saying something about the challenge of taking images of fast-flying birds. Tig seems positively delighted with the prospect of a close encounter with a three pound, enraged hawk. When I ask if he isn’t just a little bit nervous, he shrugs, points at his own helmet, and says, “the camera will shield my eyes.”
We hear the alarm call. It’s extremely loud: a rusty, repeated note that seems to come from all directions. Then we see the female, briefly, through the trees. She disappears and her calls stop. No doubt she’s observing us from a perch, assessing whether we’re a threat. I grip my trusty hat-on-a-stick with both hands. We keep moving forward, and the alarm call starts again. She appears in the foliage above us, then swoops down at Tig’s head. It all happens so fast that I can’t track her, but somehow Tig’s camera is already at his face and she flares. Then she’s gone again, hidden in the trees.
Soon after this encounter we spot the nest, about forty-five feet up in a pine tree. To our delight, can both see and hear a goshawk chick. It sounds like a high pitched kazoo. Tig takes a few long-distance photos as the mother hurls imprecations from her perch. Then we leave. It’s a treat to see, but we know we’re adding stress. There’s at least one hungry chick, and the female and her mate – who may be out hunting, or may be close by – are unlikely to feed it while we’re lurking here, distracting them.
After this experience, I contacted Meghan Jensen, who specializes in research of North American accipiters, to ask why goshawks are so much more aggressive than their accipiter cousins. Her answer surprised me: she isn’t at all convinced that they are. Jensen (who clearly has an interesting job) explained:
“I have been dive bombed by both Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks. In fact, I was just in Puerto Rico where the primary trapping method for their endemic sharp-shinned species is simply holding a net over your head since the adults are so aggressive. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, my collaborator Brian Millsap originally started his research on Cooper's hawks because they kept popping up in the newspapers for dive-bombing people in city parks.”
In contrast, she noted that she has been to numerous goshawk nests where the female made a fuss, but never swooped down on her. What may be a factor in public perception, she said, is that goshawks are just so much bigger, and can do more damage than their accipiter cousins. So when they are aggressive, people notice. Or not. Maybe goshawks are truly more aggressive as a group. She doesn’t have hard data on the subject.
This sounds like a promising area for a research grant, which should probably also include a provision for helmets. Volunteers?
Incidentally, we have a couple interesting articles in our archive, related to this topic. If you’d like to learn more about accipiters, check out this article by The Vermont Center for Ecostudies’ Steve Faccio. For more on goshawks specifically, see Tom Ames, Jr.’s recent essay here, which also cites Jensen as a source.