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Tommy J. DeBardeleben

Miracle in the Mountains (My first Northern Goshawk)

Have you ever looked in a birding field guide and picked out a favorite bird just by looking at it and reading about it's nature?  I sure did!  A favorite bird can take awhile to come up with as birding goes on, or it can be met by taking a first glance.   For me, the Northern Goshawk was that bird from the start.  After my very first summer of birding, I got more and more familiar with North American Birds by studying field guides.  Soon enough, the goshawk caught my attention and quickly became my favorite bird, number one on my wish list.  Many birders don't have a favorite bird, which I agree with in a lot of ways.  There is such a high volume of different species and families as it is, making it hard to pick that favorite bird.  I have many birds near the top, but none of them have ever come close to the goshawk.  The goshawk has something much different about it.  It's majestic, powerful, and almost seems like a gray ghost in the forest.  It's agressive and fearless, and works hard for it's prey.  Goshawks are even aggressive towards humans and have injured people who have ventured too close to nesting sites.  It's also the mountain lion in the bird world.  Just as many people would love to see a mountain lion in the wild, the fact is, they are elusive and rarely come into human sight.  The goshawk is that bird in the bird world, and I wanted to see it more than a mountain lion itself if I had a choice.  Until I found my first goshawk, I sometimes had a hard time believing they were around until I did see one, the gray ghost was a long sought-out journey to finally catch sight of. 

Gray ghost is the perfect nickname for a Northern Goshawk when they reach adulthood.  Both sexes look alike, and they are an overall gray raptor, a dark grayish blue above, light gray below.  A young goshawk, or properly, a juvenile goshawk, is a heavily streaked brown bird that looks similiar to several other raptors in North America.  However, the adult is distinctive and unlike any other raptor in it's range, and is the true treat to see.  They also belong to a genus of hawks known as Accipiters, in which three, including the goshawk, are found in North America.  Northern Goshawks typically favor forest habitat, especially conifer and mixed-conifer forests, often with stands of aspen trees.  They like forest edges with a nice clearing to hunt prey near a high mountain meadow.  During the sunny days, they sometimes soar above the tree line in plain view.  They are a retiring and shy raptor, and spend most of their time sitting motionless in the deep woods waiting for prey.  Even in areas where Northern Goshawk populations are very dense, they are still rarely seen.  I read this information on goshawks in my book.  I thought to myself, "If I go to the right habitat and continuously look for a goshawk, I should eventually see one".  Unfortunetely, wrong was what I was to almost every degree in my expectations.  From the summers of 2001 through 2007, I thought I would see a goshawk despite it's elusive behavior if I was in the right places.  I was always in the right places as my family took annual camping trips to the White Mountains, which are located in northeastern Arizona, in Apache County.  Conifer forests are the dominant habitat here.  But despite my major searches, the bird became my nemesis, and wondered if I would ever luck out with a goshawk in front of my face.  I had several instances where thought I heard a goshawk and possibly saw one.  On two separate occasions, I heard calling birds that I felt were goshawks in different places in the White Mountains.  In 2001 while hiking with my family on a White Mountain road by Sunrise that goes back to a Ski Resort, I heard a bird up in the conifer forest calling that I felt was the bird.  It was rather faint and only called once.  On the Mount Baldy Trail the same thing happened.  The calling bird was close by and possible to chase, but when I went back in the woods, the bird was gone.  I also had a accipiter-like raptor fly over our family vehicle while driving through Flagstaff in the snow.  The size and flight pattern were all right for a goshawk and my Mom claimed that's what it was by what she saw, but the looks did not satisfy me at all.  The sky was dark above and the bird's field marks weren't shown well enough for me to make an identification on the bird.  It haunted me and drove me crazy. 

Sometimes I went to forest rangers and expert birding sources asking for advice of finding a goshawk.  Most answers were the same.  "They are tough to see".  "There aren't a lot of them around".  "We do annual goshawk counts, and there aren't many of them up here".  Stuart Healy's opinion mattered the most out of them all, due to the fact he is one of Arizona's premier birding guides, but he said the same thing too: "Hi Tommy, Northern Goshawk is a tough find.  I almost always see them flying low through the forest (and not ever looking up).  You have to be in the very right place at the right time in order to see one.  My recommendation would be Escudilla Mountain, where there is great conifer/spruce forest mixed with high elevation meadows".  I asked Stuart this before my family and I went on our annual White Mountain vacation to Greer in July of 2008.  I wanted to look for a goshawk badly at Escudilla Mountain.  However, I didn't have a vehicle of my own with me, and my family members didn't want to drive that far out of the way from Greer.  So if I would see a goshawk, it would have to be elsewhere away from Escudilla.  What Stuart said made me doubt my chances even more.  Seeing this bird was most likely going to be a lucky find in a forest lurking bird, not an open sighting of a soaring bird above the trees.  I needed a miracle.  Five days into our 2008 Greer vacation, a miracle is exactly what I got. 

About noon-time on July 20th, 2008, I sat down for a rest on the Mount Baldy Trail # 95 in the Mount Baldy Wilderness.  My family and I were having a wonderful hike, as we have a tradition to hike a large portion of this trail annually.  It is a beautiful area, and an area a goshawk would certainly favor.  But we were an hour away from the trailhead and there was no goshawk during the hike.  I thought to myself, zero out of a million tries, once again.  Many nice forest birds were around however, as I particularly enjoyed watching the Clark's Nutcrackers flying from tree to tree and calling back and fourth amongst themselves.   As I ate while I rested, I looked into the forest and thought how cool it would be if a goshawk was perched on certain branches of different trees that were in my view.  It was definitely a form of daydreaming.  I then started to pray to God about seeing this bird that meant so much to me, a bird that would complete my trip.  I prayed, "Lord, thank you for this awesome time I have up here and thank you for allowing me to see everything I have seen on this trip.  More than anything though, I would love just one glimpse at a goshawk, especially an adult.  I'd love to see it close enough to get a picture that I can remember it from.  Please Lord, help me find one, just one please, one is enough".  After my prayer, I hoped that God would help me find the elusive bird, and being a Christian and a believer in the Lord, I felt asking God for important things in my life would increase my chances.  I didn't want anything else but a nice adult goshawk, a juvenile was nowhere as cool as an adult.  God always knows what I want and what's important to me, and if He wanted to bring the gray ghost my way, He would find a way!  Once I got back home from Mount Baldy to our Greer cabin, I wanted to rush out to the field immediately.  I had this time of day usually reserved for Bible reading and fellowship with God.  I thought to myself that one day skipping it wouldn't hurt.  But I wanted to stay true to my committment and making the right choice, I decided to take the time to do my Bible reading.  The passages where great and I was glad I didn't skip my daily devotions, putting God first is something I believe in and was striving to do.  It felt tempting to skip it or save it for later and rush out to go birding, but as I went out to the field I did feel a lot better knowing I took time to do my Bible readings first.

It was around 3:30 P.M. that day on July 20th, 2008, when I took one last hike for the day, which was to be a shorter afternoon hike after I finished my reading.  The candidate I chose was a trail right by the Greer cabin (Julie's Cabin) I was staying at.  This trail was the West Fork Trail # 94, and it was about one-fourth of a mile away from Julie's Cabin.  I wanted to add a few birds to my day list.  The West Fork Trail has some good birding on it, often Green-tailed Towhees and Red-faced Warblers along the first few hundred feet.  A small creek runs alongside the trail for about a half of a mile before it dams up into a small pond.  My initial plans were to walk this trail only back to the pond and then continue onto different parts around Greer to close out my day.  The area leading up to the small pond is beautiful, starting off in ponderosa pines and turning into a mixed conifer forest.  Starting on this trail, one would go south for a fourth of a mile and then the trail would turn to the west shortly after, when the forest got more dense.  Once at this part, mountainside slopes went up on both sides of the creek, one mountainside to the north, the other to the south, making it seem much like a small forest canyon in a way.  By the time I arrived at the pond, I had added a few birds to my day list.  I enjoyed the area around the pond for several minutes before I decided to head back to try more areas around Greer.  The north mountainside had a lot of fallen timber on it and as I just started to walk back, an object caught my eyes that was on top of a large log.  It was a juvenile Great Horned Owl!  I thought to myself, "Wow, an owl, amazing!"  This was only the fifth Great Horned Owl sighting I had ever had, and I wanted to capture it on film.  On previous Great Horned Owl sightings, I was able to get very close without spooking the bird.  This time, I took one step towards the owl, and it took flight.  I was frustrated, but I saw the owl wasn't flying very far.  On my second attempt as I was climbing up the mountain side, I failed to get closer.  Third attempt, same result.  The owl was getting tougher and tougher to follow as I was on the mountainside.  I then heard a loud, "Peeek"!  "Peeek!"  "Peeek!"  It was the call of a concerned American Robin coming from the area the owl flew into.  I followed the robin's calls and came to the scene.  Immediately, I saw the robin in a pine tree and eventually I saw the owl sitting about ten feet above the robin.  Once I had the chance to get a good view of the bird, it took off again quickly.  The robin was still upset and followed the owl, continuing with it's "peeek" calls.  The owl continued to be difficult and I was very discouraged when I saw it fly off further into the wilderness and watching the robin give up, flying back over my head, probably glad that the owl had left it's comfort zone.  Then a Steller's Jay helped me out by calling away.  This was my last chance at the owl, but it outsmarted me again and disappeared.  I was running all over that mountainside, covering directions going north upward, and returning south down to the main trail.  The owl was gone and I was angry.  I felt like I blew an excellent opportunity.  Great Horned Owls had always been pretty cooperative and allowed closer approach before this bird, which this bird was oddly beyond spooked.  I decided for one last try up the northern mountainside again to spook up the owl again, but it was gone, I didn't have any idea where it was, even though it was still close by and out of sight somewhere.  Heading back was my best option.  I was exhausted and out of breath from the chase, and I had more birding to do before the day's end.

As I was heading back down from the mountainside towards the main trail, I heard a very familiar sound, one I was hoping for more than anything else.  It was a loud hawk, a high and piercing scream, "kek-kek-kek-kek-kek".  It was the scream of a Northern Goshawk!  I thought I was definitely hearing things or I was crazy.  I listened again, "kek-kek-kek-kek-kek!"  Again, "kek-kek-kek-kek-kek!"  I wasn't hearing things at all. The sound was coming from the the opposite mountainside I was on, the one to the south, on the other side of the creek.  The gray ghost continued to scream.  By this time I was sprinting through the forest and jumping over logs and rocks in order to get to the spot as fast as I could.  I still had a ways to go.  "Kek-kek-kek-kek!"  The goshawk still kept screaming, I felt like my stakes were high.  I finally arrived to the creek and jumped across, and continued up the mountain that the goshawk was on.  The screams were getting louder and louder.  I was nervous and I was shaking, this was my chance to see a goshawk.  Fear set in too.  I asked myself, "What if the bird vanishes into the forest before I can get a look?"  Two things were going to be the outcome, one, I see the bird, or two, I miss it by a heartbreaking few seconds.  I ignored the fear that was there, I believed I would see the bird.  Once I got closer and closer, I slowed down.  "Kek-kek-kek-kek!"  As I crept up on the noisy bird, I looked up and got my first glimpse ever of a Northern Goshawk, who was on a dead tree that must have been split in half from a storm.  This tree was about twenty feet up.  It was an adult bird, exactly what I had wished for, right in front of my eyes.  I was out of breath, and my views were amazing.  Still nervous and shaking, I tried to film the bird and couldn't hold my camera straight due to my shaking hands.  I walked five feet closer.  The goshawk continued to scream and stayed perched in front of me, despite the fact that I kept on moving closer to it.  I thought, "Why is this bird not bothered at all that I'm so close to it?"  I began to wonder why it was acting this way, and why such an elusive bird was giving me the easiest looks anyone would dream about.  It continued to sit there, and it kept screaming.  Then as I slightly moved, a large bird flew out from underneath the goshawk.  It was the Great Horned Owl!  I had completely forgotten about the owl once I heard the goshawk, and I was shocked the owl came this far over after flying to closeby trees every time I caught glimpses of it.  And it was still very scared of me, and coincidentely flew into the goshawk's territory.  The owl was the reason the goshawk was screaming.  The goshawk was angry and took off right after the owl.  I watched as the goshawk caught up to the owl quickly, striking it multiple times on the back.  The owl landed in another closeby tree and the goshawk once again landed near the owl, looking down on the young bird.  I approached again and got point blank views of the goshawk once again from where I stood.  I couldn't see the owl, but it could see me.  It was still scared of me, and it took flight again, as I never spied it when it was perched.  Once again, the angry goshawk mobbed the owl, striking it hard again on the back.  I hoped the owl wouldn't end up dead.  Even if I wasn't there, I don't think the goshawk would've given up.  It was an amazing sight to see.  I had clear views of two amazing raptors battling at it, from thirty feet away, with eye level views.  After the owl landed once again, the goshawk followed it and perched up about thirty feet high in a pine tree.  This time, I had incredible views of the goshawk, who was literally right above me.  I couldn't believe it was actually happening, I didn't know how to take it all in so fast.  The hawk continued to scream, and every once in a while, would take a glance at me.  For the most part, this territorial goshawk didn't care about my presence, the young Great Horned Owl was much more of a threat.  I was only a "human" who didn't matter, I was in their home.  It was their battle.  I stood under my prize bird and watched it for about five minutes different ways, looking at it through my binoculars, naked eye, and of course taking film.  Finally, I started to relax and settle down, but a slight movement I made spooked the owl, and the goshawk followed the owl wherever it went.  The goshawk struck it on the back, but this time, the owl kept going.  As I watched the two, the owl continued to where I previously saw it on the northern mountainside, crossing the creek.  The goshawk stayed close to it most of the chase, but as the owl flew further, the goshawk didn't fly as fast.  Once the owl was clearly heading to the other mountainside, the goshawk was satisfyed and swooped up to the very top of a tall ponderosa pine tree, which did not cross the creek.  It looked down and probably watched to see where the owl went.  The battle between the two birds was over as the owl went back out of the goshawk's territory.  As I had my eyes on the goshawk, I was going to try to get under it again for more extended looks.  I quickly got my notebook out and wrote "Northern Goshawk" for the first time in my field notes.  My trip was now complete, and to me, so was my birding life list.  After recording the name in my notebook for about a short ten second span, I looked up, and the gray ghost was gone.  That fast!

I went home right away and shared my sighting with my family, who listened to me for years say how much I wanted this bird.  I'm sure they got sick of hearing the word g-o-s-h-a-w-k.  The series of events that unfolded during that hike were no doubt in my head a miracle from God.  If the owl wasn't in those exact places when I was following it around, there would be no goshawk.  It was a series of miraculous events, and it was incredible the goshawk happened to see the owl flying around because I flushed it across the creek into it's territory.  I also was tested when I was about to leave for the rest of the daylight to bird instead of doing my Bible study.  The goshawk to me felt like God's reward for obeying and putting him first, which he blesses us often for doing so.  He gave me way more than what I prayed for when I was resting earlier in the day at the Baldy Trail.  I was amazingly reminded of the Bible Verse in Ephesians 3:20, "Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us".  This story is one that is constantly a reminder to me of a gift from a God who loves each and every one of us.  There is no doubt in my mind He will pour in more blessings like this for me throughout my life and for anyone who chooses to put their faith in Him.

Instead of going far out into the wilderness for my ideal goshawk search, I got it less than a half mile from my cabin, which blew me away as well.  As I walked into my cabin room after I shared my experience with my family, I entered the video taken from the sighting.  I got nearly five minutes of video, which also has an accurate time code on it.  The time code of the first clip taken was four-twenty P.M., and the last was four-thirty P.M.  I watched the goshawk for ten minutes with the incredible close up views, the sighting I thought was too good to ever happen.  The gray ghost was right around my cabin in the Greer area, and this time, I was finally on the lucky end.  -TJD

 

VIEWS OF THE NORTHERN GOSHAWK:

1.  My initial view as I first caught sight of the bird

2.  My second views after the goshawk chased the owl

3.  After another chase and owl strike, my final shots as I was right under the bird

Birding in Maricopa County

My online guide to the birds and birding locations of Maricopa County

 

The Maricopa County Big Year

Two Big Years I did in Maricopa County

 

Birding in Arizona's White Mountains

My online guide to Birding in Arizona's White Mountains