By City Wilds by Bill Sherwonit
A friend who lives in my west Anchorage neighborhood and knows my keen interest in wildlife recently informed me that he’d seen a northern goshawk “zipping between houses” near a local park. He’s also found several kill sites in the park or nearby woods. Though not much remained of the eaten prey, it was clear that they were “larger birds,” considerably bigger than, say, chickadees or redpolls. One of them Josh identified as a gray jay; another was a mallard drake. In every case, the remains were concentrated within a small radius, suggestive of kills made by a large raptor, most likely the goshawk Josh had earlier spotted.
For those unfamiliar with northern goshawks, they’re large forest hawks, with wingspans of 3½ to 4 feet. Adults have blue-gray backs and a distinctive light “eyebrow” below the dark crown of their heads; their undersides are white, with pale gray barring. Immature birds have brown backs and white, brown-streaked undersides.
As predators near the pinnacle of the food web, northern goshawks are known to be wily hunters who’ve carved out a forest niche that demands patience, stealth, and remarkable maneuverability. They’re ghostly in a way, often appearing suddenly as if out of nowhere.
Though they are large raptors, goshawks fly swiftly and quietly through the forest, with great dexterity. I once watched a goshawk chase a raven through the woods at great speed, both birds twisting and turning and somehow managing to avoid hitting the trees through which they raced. It seemed as marvelous a flying exhibition as anything I’d witnessed.
Besides being secretive and talented forest flyers, goshawks are exceptionally fierce, in both hunting and parenting. They’re known to plunge through branches and thickets, if necessary, to capture prey. When they close in, goshawks stretch out their legs, open taloned feet, and grab their target with what biologists say is a remarkably powerful grip. Their choice of foods range from songbirds and shrews to much larger snowshoe hares, spruce grouse, and ducks.
I’m not surprised to learn a goshawk has been on the hunt in my Turnagain neighborhood during the depths of winter. They’re year-round residents of northern forests and I’ve seen them several times in winter during my dozen years in west Anchorage.
Josh’s report reminded me of an extraordinary goshawk encounter I had not long after I moved into the Turnagain area, one that I will recount here.
Shortly after leaving my house on a mid-winter day to shovel snow, I hear a loudly squawking magpie, hidden somewhere in the tight cluster of three tall spruce trees that dominate the front yard.
I’m intrigued by magpies and admire‘ their handsome black-and-white bodies and long iridescent tails. Now and then I’ll stop what I’m doing to enjoy their bold antics and loud-mouthed conversations among themselves. But I don’t like magpies to occupy my yard, because they scare away the smaller songbirds that are welcome visitors at my winter feeders. (Even worse, given the chance magpies will prey on those birds; in spring and early summer, they’re especially hard on nestlings and fledglings.)
This magpie appears to be high in the spruces and ignores my shouts, so I go back to shoveling.
Now and then a raven swoops closely past the trees. Maybe that’s why the magpie is hiding, I think, because the raven has been harassing it.
Not long after one of the raven’s fly-bys, the magpie bursts out of the spruces, then sharply turns and ducks back inside the thick green branches. Following the magpie in explosive chase is a large, brownish hawk. The only thing I can imagine it to be is a juvenile northern goshawk.
The hawk, like the magpie, swoops out and then dives right back into the spruce.
I can’t believe it. The hawk has been perched overhead since I’ve been shoveling, and perhaps much longer. That explains the swooping raven. And the incessantly whining, squawking magpie.
Only now do I notice that chickadees are talking loudly among themselves, their raspy voices raised in alarm. The hawk’s short chase of the magpie has really stirred things up.
The spruce’s dense branches hide most of what’s going on, but I can see small, silhouetted bodies hopping among the branches and the air is alive with anxious magpie and chickadee voices.
Minutes pass. Then the magpie flushes again and the goshawk too reappears, wings spread wide. Again both birds turn sharply and dive inside the spruce limbs.
I remain quiet and still, attention focused on the spruces. Several more minutes pass and then the magpie shoots out from the trees, followed a second or two later by the hawk, which bolts from its hidden perch.
The panicked magpie zigs and zags, swoops and dives, but it can’t shake its pursuer. Ten or 15 seconds after the chase began, the goshawk grabs the magpie in its talons and the two, now one, hit the snow in my neighbor’s front yard. He too has been drawn out of the house and watching the drama unfold.
I wonder if he’s thinking what I am: The goshawk made it look so easy.
The young raptor lifts off with the stunned, limp magpie. It doesn’t go far, though, before touching back down across the street, beneath another spruce. More comfortable at that distance from the presence of us humans, the juvenile goshawk may be getting a better grip. Or completing the kill.
My neighbor goes back inside his house, while I walk to the street and slowly approach predator and prey, partly hidden by a snow berm. The bird watches me with its pale piercing eyes, then lifts off again and flies west through the neighborhood, toward woods that stretch to the Coastal Trail.
My neighbor reappears, camera in hand. Now I understand why he went inside so quickly, and I apologize for spooking the hawk.
“Well, that was quite a ruckus, wasn’t it?” he says.
“Yeah, that was pretty darn amazing. Hard to believe, really.”
Then we grow silent, caught up in our thoughts. My neighbor might disagree, but I suspect the hawk, in concert with the magpie, has deepened each of our connections to this neighborhood and our understanding of what’s possible here: a wild ferocity far beyond our usual experiences.
I’d also wager that my neighbor and I have grown just a tiny bit closer this darkly gray afternoon. I wonder what other stories he has to share from his many years in Turnagain. Someday I’ll ask. But now I’m still reeling from the shock of what I’ve seen.
We exchange a quick wave, then walk slowly back to our respective homes.
Once inside, I glance through the front window. Already a red-breasted nuthatch is nibbling peanut butter from a hanging feeder just outside the house and a flock of redpolls moves undaunted along the street.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at email@example.com.