June 11: This afternoon I made a second visit to Bethany, CT to look for a Northern Goshawk after having missed this species there last month. It turned out to be one of the most adrenaline-producing experiences I have had in the field.
Although widespread, Goshawks are not commonly seen except at hawk watches during fall migration. They are well known to defend their territory fiercely against all intruders, including a passing human, so due caution was in order. After coming up empty last time, there was no guarantee a Goshawk would even be present, but if it was I didn’t want to disturb it. I made a few trial exposures and chose camera settings of shutter speed 1/160 and ISO 800. My plan was to proceed along this woodland trail very slowly, although not with completely silent footfalls so that, if present, the bird would be able hear me approaching from a distance, much like one purposely makes noise in bear country so as not to inadvertently surprise a bear. I planned to stop at the first warning call, try to spot the bird, hopefully get photos, and then simply unobtrusively withdraw back out from the edge of its territory. But things don’t always go according to plan.
All was quiet for about an hour, but suddenly, from somewhere high up and not too far ahead, a shrill ki ki ki ki ki pierced the solitude. I froze in place and, guided by the sound, finally spotted an adult Goshawk perched in a tall conifer, although largely shielded by branches and twigs. As I tried to position myself to get a clear angle for a photo, the bird took off directly toward my spot, missing me by no more than two or three feet and alighting on a more open branch on the opposite side of the trail. Quickly I snapped a few photos. I figured I must have just entered into its territory, so I began to slowly retreat back up the trail, expecting to leave it well behind, but the bird came at me again. Once more I retreated, and once more the Goshawk swooped. Each time it landed on an open branch, so a single burst of photos was possible, and it was a good thing I had preset the camera as there was no time to fumble with it now. No amount of retreat seemed to satisfy this bird, which apparently regarded this entire woodland as its sovereign territory. I had long since gotten its message, but this bird swoop-chased me nearly three hundred yards – almost back to the trailhead.
Some years ago I was buzzed by a Red-shouldered Hawk in Florida when I had inadvertently ventured too close to its nest, but a few steps away was all that was necessary to placate the Red-shouldered. Not so with a Goshawk. This is one magnificent, fiercely determined, single-minded creature, and he leaves no doubt that you are not welcome anywhere in “his” woods.
The first of these two YouTube videos shows an experience identical to my own, and just how spooky it can be alone out there when there is a Northern Goshawk in the area. The second shows the Goshawk’s astonishing flying maneuverability and why it is so hard to escape its pursuit. Listverse aptly names the Northern Goshawk the third most ferocious animal species on earth.