My first encounter with a Northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) was in June 1980, while guiding a group of Dartmouth College students on a 10-day canoe trip in the St. Regis Wilderness Area of the Adirondacks. We had just finished paddling across one of the many ponds in that area, and had started portaging, or carrying, our gear over a fairly long trail to the next pond in the chain along the canoe route we had chosen to explore.I had hoisted one of the aluminum Grumman canoes we were using, trying to balance its thwart on the least bony part of my shoulders while I shuffled along the well-worn portage trail. Near what I estimated to be the halfway point, I slid the bow into a suitably elevated crotch in a trailside tree and set the pointed stern down on the ground for a rest.
Two of the students were already returning for a second load, having dropped their packs at the far end of the portage trail. Reaching me, they excitedly described being attacked just ahead by a huge, fierce-looking bird that dove at their heads and scared them into an awkward trot with their cumbersome loads, and a full-on sprint on their unladen return.
I thanked them for the warning—and kept my skepticism about their report to myself—and we headed off in opposite directions.
Sure enough, not far down the path, I heard a loud series of “keek-keek-keek!” screams coming my way. With a 17-foot-long and 30-inch-wide metal “hat” over head, I never saw the bird—but, boy, it did sound very pissed off.
I was looking forward getting a good look at the creature, which I assumed was some kind of bird of prey, and after dropping the canoe I backtracked on the trail, looking up in the tree canopy as much as possible so as not to miss the bird.
Keeping a sharp eye out was not necessary. After crossing some indiscernible boundary near its nest, which I never saw, I heard the loud, rapid, “keek-keek-keek!” screams coming my way. I looked up just in time to see the goshawk hurtling straight at me. Our eyes locked for a second before I dropped to the ground to avoid a sharp-tipped talon to the head. This bird meant business!
The Northern goshawk, weighing in at 2 pounds, standing 21 inches tall and having a wingspan of 3.5 feet is the largest of our three accipiters, the other two being the mid-sized Cooper’s hawk and the smaller sharp-shinned hawk. All three have relatively short wings and long tails designed for quick bursts of speed and nimble maneuverability while chasing their main prey, other birds, through woods and thickets. Their strong toes and sharp talons are designed for capturing prey in flight, and repeatedly puncturing them for the kill. Their long legs hold struggling prey at a safe distance to protect their head and eyes from potential collateral damage.
Sharpies are the most common of the three here on Long Island, especially along the south shore during fall migration. But our local population of Cooper’s hawks has definitely increased in recent years, and a Cooper’s is no longer an uncommon sight. According to the 1998 edition of “Bull’s Birds of New York State,” and the “2000-2005 New York State Breeding Bird Atlas” data, both of these accipiters nest on Long Island, and both take advantage of the abundant prey congregating around our bird feeders during the winter months.
Goshawks do not nest on Long Island, and are rarely seen here. They inhabit large expanses of boreal and mature forest. Frank Quevedo, an avid birder and executive director of the South Fork Natural History Society, helped confirm the identity of the immature accipiter photographed by Juliana Duryea in Amagansett last week. Frank has only seen this bird once in his life.
Key features distinguishing a yearling goshawk from a Cooper’s are the white “eyebrow,” bulky chest, and pale bar on the upper wing coverts.
Goshawks are quite distinctive in their adult plumage, with males and females dressed alike but the females being much larger in size. She’ll do all the nest-building, incubating and feeding chores, while her smaller mate will strictly hunt to supply him, her and the young with meat. Unlike the Cooper’s and Sharpie, which stick very close to a diet of other birds, goshawks will mix in a fair bit of mammal meat. Much of the latter is cottontail rabbit and snowshoe hare.
The importance of the latter prey, and its 10-year population cycles, results in a 10-year irruption, or sudden increase, in the goshawk population that mirrors that of the snowshoe hare.
In their three-volume “Guide to Bird Behavior,” authors Donald and Lillian Stokes describe the goshawk as a “powerful and thrilling bird to watch.” They also describe the female’s defense of its nest site as “relentless,” even upon human intruders. “They will give the keek-keek call and repeatedly make dramatic dives, possibly even hitting the person with their feet or actually scraping them with open talons. Therefore, it is wise to take a territorial female goshawk seriously and keep your distance from the nest site.”