By Ben Long
Some birders prefer pretty, showy waterfowl. Some like little perching birds that sing so lovely. Some of us go for goshawks, because they are enormously gifted predators, and dress the part.
The Northern Goshawk is the largest of the tribe of hawks called accipiter. These are the fighter jets of the hawk world. They are long-tailed and blunt- winged, built for extreme aerial maneuverability.
They earn their dinner chasing other, mostly smaller, birds down on the fly, dodging and swerving through dense forests until they are close enough to pluck their prey from the air with their talons. Such performances are a sight to see, if only because this race tends to last only seconds before “poof” go the feathers of the prey. (If you want to be amazed, search for the online video “goshawk flies through tiny spaces in slo-mo” on Youtube. It’s
North America hosts three accipiter species: the diminutive Sharp-shinned Hawk; the middling Cooper’s Hawk, and the granddaddy Northern Goshawk. All of those are found here in the Flathead.
The Goshawk ranges across the forested regions of the northern hemisphere, including North America, Europe and Asia. In North America, the Northern Goshawk is found across Alaska and Canada and much of northern United States, their range tapering down the Rocky Mountains into the mountains of Mexico.
It can be quite challenging to distinguish one accipiter species from the other, especially since they are of the same general shape, share distinctive characteristics, and can overlap in size.
Mature, classic goshawks, however, stand out. For one thing, their heads, backs and shoulders are a uniform, beautiful slate gray. They have a sharp white “eyebrow.” No other hawk has plumage like that.
Secondly, mature goshawks have deep red eyes. These are eyes that belong in a horror show, if the audience were made of small birds and woodland creatures.
But the red eyes of the goshawks are not cosmetic. The red pigmentation is there to help the bird see clearly in shadowy woodlands. It’s interesting to note that another coursing predator bird – the Common Loon – has similarly red eyes, although the loon uses its eyes to hunt down fish underwater, not sparrows and thrushes in the air.
The name, “goshawk” translates to “goose hawk”, is based on the old European belief that they prey upon geese. While a goshawk might eat a goose upon occasion, waterfowl is not high on the menu, as they tend to focus on forest species.
In spite of their predatory acumen, goshawks are not favorites of falconers because they are notoriously difficult to train. (The delightful and popular 2015 memoir, H is for Hawk by British naturalist Helen Macdonald, depicts how difficult that task can be.)
Goshawks can be seen around the Flathead Valley, although it’s always a rare treat. They tend to spend their summers in the deep woods, often nesting in a “witch’s broom” cluster of branches in a Douglas fir struck with dwarf mistletoe. They can be seen in town, waiting to pick off passerine birds that come to bird feeders. In the winter, they are more often seen out in the open, hunting pastures and farmlands. Karen and I have seen goshawks at Lawrence Park and Lone Pine State Park and the Owen Sowerwine Natural Area near Kalispell.
Because they haunt the deep woods, one often only catches a fleeting glimpse of a goshawk as it coasts over a logging road or zips along the edge of a meadow. You can sometimes coax the bird for a second look by kissing the back of your hand to make a squeaking sound, mimicking a mouse in peril. (While they mostly pursue birds, goshawks will also hunt hares or other small forest mammals.) Several times I’ve had goshawks and other raptors double back and swoop at me, when I make such a sound.
Goshawks were persecuted in much of their global range by humans with a lethal bias against predators. They had to be reintroduced after being extirpated from, for example, Great Britain. Happily, Montana’s Northern Goshawks are living here, making a dramatic living, the way they have done for uncounted centuries.