Gratitude Friday 9/17/21 – The Noble of the Northern Forest Skies
“One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, "What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?” ― Rachel Carson
This gratitude Friday I am writing about Raptors. When I say this, most people think I am talking about dinosaurs. A raptor is a bird of prey. Most people are thinking velociraptor. Related, although distant cousins, far removed. Bird watching is one of the few things I can do that stop the chatter in my head and holds my attention, so I stay in the moment. To watch birds is to be one with the forest. Spending time being one with the forest is a huge part of my self-care process. Forests and swamps are healing, at least to me. Nature is part of my recovery self-care plan. I need to spend time in nature for my mind, body, and spirit.
September is the beginning of the Fall raptor migration. That crisp hint of winter to come is in the air. The cycle of the natural world carries on. A huge mass of wildlife moves south down the North America continent, traveling from the arctic all the way to South America in some instances. All happening right over our unaware heads.
I am fortunate enough to live along the Blue Ridge Mountains that stretch in a rough north south orientation 550 miles along the eastern seaboard. The ridge is a mode of transportation for raptors. Winds hit this ridge and create lift; birds then move down the ridge for hundreds of miles, conserving energy along the way. Natures highway.
On this ridge is Hawk Mountain, a legendary place in the realms of both conservation and ornithology. Research efforts on these hallowed grounds of ecological history helped save the Bald Eagle from extinction. Rachel Carson used data from the migration counts to show the relationship between post WWII use of DDT and the population crash of several raptor species. She did that with data and the power of the written word in her book, Silent Spring.
The picture above is of Maurice Broun’s hawk counter. The very one he used when he was the caretaker of the sanctuary between 1934 and 1966. Clicks on this little device saved the Bald Eagle, the Peregrine Falcon and several other species that were being killed off by DDT. Once a year, the staff of Hawk Mountain bring it up to North Lookout in honor of his immense contributions to our understanding of raptor migration. I happened to be there on September 16th 2016 when it made its annual pilgrimage to this celebrated ridge, a place he loved so much. I was able to take this photo as the sun rose over that rocky crag. Thank you, sir. May you rest in peace.
If you go up to Hawk Mountain now, we are at the peak of the Broad Winged Hawk migration, they move through in the thousands under the right weather conditions. Broad winged hawks are buteo’s they have large wings and short tails. Buteos can glide and can catch drafts with those big wings. They use up drafts to ride the air and look for prey below while conserving energy. Their larger cousins, Red Tailed Hawks, are relatively common and are often seen perched on highways light poles. My favorite buteo is the Red Shouldered Hawk, they tend to be more reclusive. I observed a pair close up on a few other occasions this spring in the Delaware Water Gap. Something about such experiences recharges me in the way that few other things can.
There is another type of raptor, it is called an Accipiter. They have long tails and short, rounded
wings like a Spitfire. They can maneuver quickly through dense forest, using those long tails as a rudder. They are natures jet fighters, able to outmaneuver prey at high speed. My favorite raptor is the Northern Goshawk, (accipiter gentilis). Accipiter is "hawk" in Latin, from accipere, "to grasp", and gentilis is "noble.” This species was deemed nobility upon its very naming.
The largest accipiter in North America, Goshawks are known as true hawks. Adults have blood red, piercing eyes. They have been known to attack humans, particularly in proximity to their nests. I once saw a picture a hapless photographer took moments before getting the business end (the talons) of one of these magnificent creatures. He got too close to a nest. They are hunters, not prey on the food chain. Not afraid to let you know your place.
The Northern Goshawk live in old growth forests in northern latitudes. I have had the opportunity to see a few in my life, most often on top of Hawk Mountain in mid to late November when a stiff northwestern breeze is blowing and a cold front moving through, creating that lift off the mountain crest. Hawk Mountain currently average around 70 sightings a year. I recall sitting on that summit and one flying towards me like a missile, using the ridge to move rapidly south. It passed twenty feet over my head. Being so close to one is awe inspiring, it is rare to see them otherwise.
The most memorable time I saw one was when I was in Worthington State Forest in New Jersey. I was in a remote area in 1998, sitting on a log and looking out across the forest. I caught some swift motion out of the corner of my eye. This huge bird was coming at me, darting through the trees at the speed of a car. Birder’s run through a catalog in their heads, size, shape, color and wing beat pattern. As it drew closer, I realized I was observing a Goshawk in the deep woods. It was an amazing moment. Over two decades later, that memory is with me now.
I am grateful that in 1951, the Pennsylvania Game Commission terminated the $5 bounty on Northern Goshawks. This week, sadly I saw a news article that the Pennsylvania Game Commission was now putting this magnificent bird of Prey on the Pennsylvania Endangered Species list following a public comment period held this summer. I am happy it is getting these protections. I dread that such protection is necessary. I don’t even want to think of a world without “the Gos” as it is affectionally known.
This pandemic has helped me understand more fully something I already knew. Nature is vital for our physical and mental health. We share an eco-system with all of our fellow creatures and what happens to one species affects all living beings. We are all interconnected, and impact on any one species reverberates across the system. We are also at the top of a food chain, or perhaps more aptly perched on top of a house of cards.
Even an occasional glimpse of a Northern Goshawk reminds me of the deep boreal woods and a world we don’t get to experience very often, but a world we are still connected to in all ways. Our connection to nature is across the mental, physical, and spiritual dimensions in my opinion. Is the Northern Goshawk worth saving? The “noble hawk.” If it is not, what is?
I am grateful for the opportunity to have these experiences and an occasional glimpse of such an awesome creature out in the field. I want others to have such experiences for many generations to come. I hope that this additional protection status here in Pennsylvania will result in conservation strategies to save it. I am grateful to share a planet with Northern Goshawks. I am grateful to people who devote their energies to conserving our world. Grateful that I could see this thing of wonder and fully experience it, even for just one moment in time.
What are you grateful for today?