Thursday, June 29, 2006

Dang Birds

Thursday June 29 2006

What’s wrong with these Northern Goshawks around here, anyway?
Last two years I was a tremendous goshawk findin’ machine. This week my goshawk findin’ machinery needs oil, or something. Came up empty at two sites!

You’ve probably all seen red-tailed hawks – common all over the US, usually soaring above open land. The Northern Goshawk is roughly the same size – about 22” long, bill to tail – but lives in the woods and has a longer tail and shorter rounded wings to give them agility and maneuverability among the trees.

Locating a goshawk nest is like discovering and putting together the pieces of a puzzle – do it right, and there is your female sitting on the nest. First you find the ideal habitat – which you know from having already seen a nest - that the birds prefer. Then you comb the area looking and listening for clues: flying birds, bird calls, whitewash (poop), big feathers, prey feathers, nests. As you walk along, your head is swiveling everywhere – up high in the trees, down where you’re walking, sweeping side to side among the trees. (And you’re keeping an eye out for snoozing bears, also).

The most straightforward clues are: a big bird flying through the trees, or the goshawk alarm call, which they give when they feel threatened in their territory. Sometimes you might hear a noisy Steller’s Jay, which may mean he is pestering a goshawk or an owl (despite the fact he may get eaten by the same bird).

If you’re lucky enough to stumble upon whitewash, the hawk’s is very distinctive: not a big plop, but a strung out white glop, like a sloppy painter spilling white paint from his can. If you’re under an active nest, you’ll see many strings of white – the goshawk (babies too) will back up to the edge of its nest and shoot over the side, so as not to soil the nest. The first time I stumbled upon one of these I couldn’t figure out who the heck would be way out here playing paintball.

If you are lucky enough to find feathers, they can sometimes tell you something… or just confuse you more. If you find a goshawk feather – ching! Then there is or was a goshawk in the area. If you find a pile of little bird feathers, such as blue Steller’s jay, or white-dotted black woodpecker, or orange shafted flicker feathers, it was likely a meal of a goshawk, sharp-shinned, or cooper’s hawk, as they will pluck the feathers before they eat their meal. If you find a great-horned owl feather, or a red-tailed hawk feather, well, maybe it was just passing through, or, maybe this bird has a nest somewhere nearby and the goshawks have acceded the territory.

You may already know the location of a goshawk nest… but they often don’t use the same nest every year. They often have 1 or 2 alternate nests within their territory.

The first site I went to this week, I easily found the active nest from 2 years ago. No sign of occupancy (though it was impossible to get a good view into the nest); the nest was a bit unkempt, and, below it, a big broken egg… I suspect a goshawk egg. I could not for the life of me find last year’s active nest, but I did find several trees nearby with gobs of whitewash below, plucked feathers, and two goshawk feathers… only I’d look up where the nest had to be – and there was no nest. I’d heard an adult goshawk call nearby 10 minutes after I arrived in the area; 2 hours later the male flew in giving his warning call; he stayed 1 minute then flew away. I searched and searched – and came up empty. My conclusion was, the first nesting attempt failed (the broken egg), and either they did not try again and were still hanging around the area (hence all the whitewash), or possibly the female was sitting on a nest (hence the male’s alarm call and approach), and she was just hunkering down, keeping quiet. Those goshawks had left me clues all over the place and I just couldn’t figure out this puzzle!
Today’s goshawk hunt was one big Goose Egg – nothing! I found last year’s active nest, but no goshawk clues – no birds, calls, whitewash, prey feathers, hawk feathers – nothing! I found one tiny great horned owl feather… but could draw no conclusions whatsoever.
A frustrating week - darn birds. Couldn’t have anything to do with me now, could it?

But enough of those birds – it’s the weekend, time to ride!

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