Sep 26 2008
I was sitting outside the Harbourside Inn at dawn drinking my morning coffee when I heard a rustling sound and a red squirrel’s frightened scream.
Fifty feet away a hawk was chasing breakfast, hopping fast through the trees with wings outspread. His prey, the red squirrel, was cheating death.
Brown and white with a bold white eyebrow and long, powerful, yellow legs the bird had the wingspan of a red-tailed hawk. “Oh my gosh!” I thought, “it’s an immature northern goshawk!”
Until that moment I had never seen a “gos” (*) on the ground. I’d only seen them during quick fly-bys at hawk watches and often needed help identifying them. Not so with this bird. This one fairly shouted “I’m a gos!”
Northern goshawks are the largest North American accipiter. Truly a northern bird, they don’t leave their territory in winter unless their food supply crashes. In Pennsylvania they nest in the northern tier and only come to the southwestern part of the state in winter, but because they prefer forested areas to cities and suburbs it’s unusual to see them in Pittsburgh.
Goshawks are well known for fiercely defending their nests, aggressively attacking humans and even killing raptors who nest nearby. If this bird had been an adult during nesting season I would have been in serious trouble sitting only 50 feet away.
Fortunately the goshawk was young and intent on his meal. I watched the red squirrel escape and the goshawk fly to a perch deeper in the woods.
What a privilege to see him! Though it was a stressful morning for the squirrel, I’m glad he was there to tempt the hawk into the open.
(Thank you to Debbie Waters, Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, Duluth, Minnesota for her photo of an immature northern goshawk)
(*) A note on pronunciation: “Gos” (pronounced “goss”) is the birders’ nickname for the species. “Goshawk” is pronounced “goss-hawk.”