A chance to spy northern goshawks

Migration time gives us a chance to see birds that otherwise escape our detection. Rare and elusive species are now being coaxed into view by the urge to migrate south. Early autumn is the time to visit woodland edges, inland escarpments, and premier coastal birding sites.

With hawk migration now in gear, we have the opportunity to see one of the most evasive of all raptors: the majestic and awe-inspiring northern goshawk. Though mostly nonmigratory, a few head south or move to lowland forests and may be sighted at this time. Birders never see many of them — not like the broad-winged hawks that often turn up in the thousands at hawk watching sites. Northern goshawks are different; they turn up individually, and they migrate later, a month later, in October or even in November.

But like the broad-winged, the northern goshawk is a shy, forest-dwelling raptor, rarely seen or even thought of outside of fall migration time. It is only now, when they leave the shelter of their summer territories, that birders give them any attention. Broad-winged hawks, however, take center stage every fall, as they soar in giant arcs across the brilliant blue autumn sky, and though birders are impressed by the goshawks size, their true magnificence is still not appreciated.

Perhaps, it is just as well, that their agility, mystery and fierce disposition be left for only the most observant and passionate birders to experience: those motivated to seek them out while in their forest homes. You will find goshawks in places few of us ever cross, far beyond earshot of distant traffic or human voice, and where the light is filtered and diffused. There, among great and impressive stands of deciduous or conifer trees, this gray ghost is at home. Shadows and silence are a part of their lives.

Whether it is a sense of being watched, a silent passing shadow, or alarming call notes that alert you to its presence, the chance sighting of a goshawk is usually an ephemeral experience. Few get to observe them for any length of time, but one thing is for sure, and that is the sighting will be a memorable moment. One cannot help but feel inspired and uplifted by this large hawk’s majestic power.

Little wonder, then, that Helen Macdonald, author of the best-selling "H Is for Hawk," found the encouragement she needed after her father’s death by caring for a goshawk. Helen, a falconer, trained and hunted with an intimidating, prickly European goshawk. The species has been used in falconry for eons because of its efficiency in securing small game.

Goshawks are fierce predators that pursue their prey with relentless determination. Their long rudder-like tails and short wings allow them to maneuver through thick forest stands, around tree trunks and through dense understory growth. I once witnessed a goshawk glide down from the high forest canopy, wheel around a large boulder, then, without a single flap of its wings, grab, talons first, an unsuspecting immature ruffed grouse.

In the next few weeks, as the broad-winged hawk migration winds down, goshawks will begin to move out from northern forests. Look for them, by chance, (they are a rare migrant) later in the fall at Light House Point in New Haven and Quaker Ridge in Greenwich. Remember, the elusive goshawk is just one example of many little-known species that are now moving through the region.

Robert Tougias is a Colchester-based birder. You can ask him questions at rtougias@snet.net.

 

 

 

 

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