Birders Journal: Attack of the Flying Goshawk

Robert Winkler
for National Geographic News
August 23, 2002
For early summer, it was a cool day. I drove to the northern end of a
Connecticut reservoir to walk along the river that feeds it. Striking
out on the rugged, hemlock-lined trail, I felt cold, even in a vest and
long-sleeved shirt. A few days earlier, a pine warbler sang at a pond
near the trailhead, but not today.

As I followed the trail up a steep ridge, I forgot the cold and listened for other birds. From the woods sloping above me, I heard a thrush.

The song was distant and faint. I thought it was a wood thrush until I stopped and, concentrating, heard the distinctive keynote and ethereal strains of a hermit thrush. Like the pine warbler, the hermit thrush is an uncommon nesting bird for southwestern Connecticut, keeping to cool, coniferous woods resembling territory farther north.

I walked the rest of the trail thinking how pleasant it was to have the hermit thrush for a summer neighbor. On the way back, I stopped and listened for it again. This time, the song sounded much closer; I could distinguish even its highest notes. Yet occasionally the thrush sounded far away, and I wondered if I was hearing two birds.

Another sound distracted me as I approached a stream—a single emphatic note like the first note of an Acadian flycatcher's two-note song. An Acadian flycatcher would be another unusual find, so I strayed from the trail, hoping to glimpse it and hear it break into full song. Each time I went toward the sound, the bird moved away. At times it was no farther than 20 feet, but under the light-blocking hemlocks, I never saw it. Tiring of this hide-and-seek, the bird became silent. I returned to the trail unable to confirm my hunch. Whatever it was, this bird didn't want to be seen.

Ahead, blue jays were in an uproar. Perhaps they were screaming at a crow, but on this overcast day I hoped for an owl. I headed uphill to the commotion and could see the jays moving about, but the cause of their distress remained hidden.

I was relying on the cacophony to mask the leaves and sticks crunching under my feet, but the mystery-bird detected me. A large, dark form flew to another tree with the jays in pursuit, but I lost sight of it. I steered toward the noisy jays and stared at the forest canopy they encircled, but what they had followed was still invisible to me.

Taking a step or two more, I froze to the piercing cry—klee, klee, klee, klee!—of a northern goshawk. Finally, my eyes caught a large bird of prey spreading two broad, stiff wings. But it was not preparing to escape. This bird's object was attack.

The goshawk dropped from its perch and shot straight at me, somehow streaking through the trees without stirring a branch. Its battle cry crescendoed as it veered off only feet from my head, landing on a branch that gave me an unobstructed view.

I focused my binoculars on this imposing hawk, the incarnation of wildness. In the genus Accipiter—short-winged, long-tailed hawks that prey heavily on other birds—females are larger than males. The robust bird filling the glass of my binoculars was undoubtedly a female. She bristled with wild energy, glaring at me with orange eyes made fiercer by a broad white eyebrow stripe. Now and then, she flinched. The blue jays still dove at her.

Klee, klee, klee, klee!—she came at me again. I ducked reflexively as this formidable raptor with a four-foot wingspan swooped down on me at, by my estimate, 30 miles an hour.

When she veered away, I had to admire her courage. Without hesitation, she challenged me, an intruder more than three times her height. I admired the audacious pack of blue jays, too. Goshawks are deft killers capable of snatching a blue jay out of the air, but this one had lost the crucial element of surprise.

In southern New England, early summer is fledging time for the goshawk's brood. This female was probably guarding one or two young goshawks nearby. Perhaps the unseen father was preparing to join the battle.

A human being's large size and vertical stance do not deter the goshawk. Neither does a hiker's innocence. That I meant no harm was irrelevant. As a member of a predatory species, I had to be challenged.

Not wishing to cause the family further anxiety, or provoke the wrath of the male, I withdrew as the female's call signaled another attack. I must have crossed the perimeter of the defended area, because this attack never came.

I was elated when I reached my car. I'd found a rare nesting goshawk and faced nature at its wildest. I turned up the stereo on the way home. I noticed a runner and a cyclist, but fought off the urge to stop and tell them about the goshawk.

Robert Winkler's book of essays on his adventures with birds of the "suburban wilderness" will be published in 2003 by National Geographic Books.

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