Looking for Grace, and Goshawks

“In real life, Goshawks resemble Sparrowhawks the way leopards resemble housecats. Bigger, yes. But bulkier, bloodier, deadlier, scarier and much, much harder to see. Birds of deep woodland, not gardens, they’re the birdwatchers’ dark grail. You might spend a week in a forest full of gosses and never see one, just traces of their presence. A sudden hush, followed by calls of terrified woodland birds, and a sense of something moving just beyond vision……..Looking for Goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say how or when.

                                                                         – Helen Macdonald, from “H is for Hawk”

After a summer spent in forests and fields of Northern California, I headed to the Sagehen Creek Field Station in late July, the final destination for my sabbatical project. I rolled into Truckee with great trepidation, this marked the end of a journey I was not (and am still not) ready to let go of. Sagehen Creek is a magnificent place to explore the natural world, but my heart felt heavy. The prospect of leaving behind the spaces that had brought me so much contentment and inspiration, as well as the freedom of detachment from a schedule and expectations, felt like a burden in those moments.

It was a quiet morning. The Hairy Woodpeckers had been calling up a storm, but they fell silent. The intermittent sounds of Mountain Chickadees and nuthatches now seemed distant. I was walking by a meadow of Woolly mule’s ears, past their prime, edged by a forest of Jefferey Pines. A tremendous raptor, soaring in large circles with slow wingbeats, caught my eye as it moved west. Without even a moment of consideration, I knew it was a Northern Goshawk – a bird of prey I had never seen, but had long romanticized encountering.

Enjoying the view, moments before spotting the Goshawk
Northern Goshawk at Sagehen Creek Field Station


This incredible raptor soared in the distance, and did so for long enough for me to completely absorb the moments. Northern Goshawks are large but stealthy predators, comparable in size to Red-tailed Hawks, with broad, powerful wings and distinctly long tails. Adults are dark gray above with paler gray barred underparts. Their slate gray is interrupted with a dramatic white stripe just over their piercing red eyes. They dwell in the type of forests that call my name – mature and old-growth forests, with a significant portion of closed canopy, of the northern latitudes. They search for prey from a perch, but are adept at maneuvering at high speeds through dense forests, utilizing that long tail as a rudder.

There is just something about Goshawks that has always struck me as particularly wild. They are secretive and difficult to find in the large tracts of forest they occupy. This morning, in my crowded Southern California neighborhood, I made coffee to the “kik” calls of the resident Cooper’s Hawk. I paused and felt grateful for this brief moment of wildness before braving the 405 freeway to work. But, I was also reminded of the Northern Goshawk, whose fierceness and wildness prohibit it from prowling suburbs and backyards, as its Accipiter cousin does.

I admire the Goshawk its wildness. Like the Cooper’s Hawk, I have adapted to the suburbs and backyards, but I am inspired by the Goshawk and by the places it deems wild enough to roam. The heavy-hearted feeling of the morning dissipated, and I spent the remainder of my time at Sagehen reveling in its wildness and all its creatures, and knowing that I would return.

Northern Goshawk (photo from Macaulay Library/Paul Roisen)

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