The Goshawk and Other Birds

June 4, 2017

Our house sits on a leveled spot halfway down a small hill. Bounded by the base of this slope on one side and a stream on the other is a small meadow, at the end of which stands the huge old dairy barn. These days it is only used by the pigeons that nest in its eaves and perch on its ridge line, watching with apparent interest as the life of the farm unfolds. I assume these were the target of the goshawk I saw a few days ago while I was drinking coffee and looking at the goldfinches on the feeder. It was flying so close to the ground that it rose from below me, coming across the thin strip of yard and then rocketing on a near vertical trajectory over the roof.

Such a moment of intensity leaves a lingering afterimage, almost like lightening, at once still and kinetic in the mind's eye: a head streaked with black bars, pale belly and underwings, a hooked beak and talons tucked close beneath a tail held in a perfect rectangle. It was a hawk the size of a red tail, but it flew with fierceness and direction, churning through the air. The only thing that detracted from the magnificence of the scene was that it let slide an impressive poop just before it vanished from sight. 

While spotting the goshawk is the highlight so far, it's been a good year for birds in general, or perhaps I'm just paying more attention. Though there are once again only a few bobolinks - I'm beginning to think the hundreds that filled the pastures the first few years I was on the farm were the exception rather than the rule - I've spotted quite a few new species. There are yellow warblers in the willows right where the culvert cuts under the road, and for a couple weeks white crowned sparrows were visiting the feeder every day. The usual barn and tree swallows swirl around the cows and dip low over the stream, and a striking scarlet tanager was hanging around the pigs earlier this spring. There are some rust colored birds in a brushy swamp near the garden that I can't get a good enough look at to identify, so I've started listening to recordings of veeries and brown thrashers. A pair of king birds are nesting atop the beam that supports my house's western gable.

I'd been hearing the drumming, but I hadn't seen a ruffed grouse in over a year, other than a few glimpses of them vanishing through the trees in a flutter of wings. Last week some pigs got loose, and after Oban I herded them back we were doing a final sweep through the woods to make sure there were no stragglers. In the clearing beneath a stand of hemlock I spotted a beautiful male in full display. He'd stretched his neck out, and the feathers on it were puffed into a regal mane. His tail was a broad fan brushing the forest floor, and he was looking around to see if his efforts had attracted the attention of an available lady. All at once he spotted me, did a double take with impeccable comic timing, and then sprinted away. Grouse is a favored food of goshawks, so he would do well to pay better attention now that one seems to be in the area. If I could get within spitting distance before being noticed, I imagine a bloodthirsty predator that habitually rockets through the woods in search of  prey would have no difficulty turning him into a meal. 

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