I have a long history with Northern Goshawks in Colorado. When I was 10 years old, I photographed an adult male Northern Goshawk hunting ground squirrels at summer camp around the horse corral. He would perch on a fence crossbar, close to the ground, and launch his attack using horses as cover. Nearly every hunt I witnessed ended successfully, to my delight in his hunting prowess. since then, I have been fascinated by the bird, diving into falconry to satiate my accipitrine interests. Miles off of a county road, is a Northern Goshawk territory I have spent hours searching for, and once discovered I felt a strong connection with the pair. Each time I visit I learn more about their habits, diet, and the young's personalities as they learn how to hunt Abert's squirrels, and are fed birds by both adults.
Needing Northern Goshawk for my year list, I bundled up and trekked into the backcountry of Colorado. The cool air stung my cheeks as I navigated through the impenetrable wall of pine branches up into the foothills, a blip on the map compared to the magnificent backdrop of the snow-capped 14,000 foot peaks of the Collegiate mountain range. The forest floor was blanketed in knee-high crusty snow, interrupted now and again by a meandering stream of elk tracks. Judging by the tracks, the elk had as much difficulty crossing the snowpack as I did. I would take several steps on top of the hard crust before plunging through, sinking up to my knees in the first snow of my Big Year. Reaching the nest site and peering upwards through the sprawling branches triggered the excitement and wonder I felt the day I discovered the nest.
I sat down under the tree and leaned against a fallen log, winded from the trek. I looked around at my surroundings, different from every plant community I've seen so far this year. The tall Douglas Fir trees swayed in the wind, tickling the clouds which sprinkled small snowflakes with each passing gust. Staring at the aspen's ivory fingers grasping at the patches of blue sky, my eyelids began to close until I heard a familiar rising alarm call. The Goshawk's wing beats punctuated the silence and the female appeared overhead and landed in front of me on a branch, obscured by the aspen grove. I didn't dare move a muscle. Minutes passed- maybe longer. She continued her harsh scolding, as I understood it to be since I was in her woods interrupting her affairs. Soon the smaller male appeared, his breast was so finely vermiculated it seemed like a talented painter had tested his finest brush on a feathered gray canvas. I admired each commanding move of the male as he inspected he area. His head bobbed up and down, judging my character which he could clearly see through me with his piercing red gaze. He seemed approving of my presence by preening after moving to a branch with a clear line of sight to my sprawled out form on the forest floor.
Half an hour blew by, with some snowflakes and a chilly March breeze. The Mountain Chickadees were the only avian souls brave enough to feed in my vicinity with two alpha predators for company. Soon the natural clock chimed, and both gray ghosts went silently on their way, melting into the shadows of the forest.