Out in the woods on a search for goshawk nests

Posted: Sunday, May 26, 2002

On an early April morning, just prior to dawn, a piercing call sounds in the usually quiet rain forest. A pile of grouse feathers is found on a downed log. A hiker is dive-bombed by a large dark bird while walking along a nearby stream. Like any good detective story, finding a Queen Charlotte goshawk nest is all about the clues.

Searching for goshawk nests can be frustrating. Many days of nest searches result in nothing more than a few devil's club thorns to remove. The old-growth forests in which goshawks nest are vast, the shrubs are thick, the birds are secretive and retreating, and stumbling on a nest in one tree out of a large stand is like finding a needle in a haystack while blindfolded.

Sometimes clues to the presence of these birds are found. Spring is a great time to hear goshawk vocalizations. During March, April and May, goshawks are involved with courtship activities such as flights within and above the stand of trees in which they will nest, ritual feedings and nest building. Associated with these activities are loud calls that can be heard over long distances. The best time to hear these vocalizations is around dawn but they can occur at any time during the day.

On the ground, downed logs, stumps and root-wads, goshawks will stop to pluck the feathers and hair off of recently captured prey. These spots, called plucking posts, are often found in the vicinity of an occupied nest because the adult goshawks want to remove most of the indigestible material from the food before feeding it to their young. These plucking posts become more common around nests as May and June pass.

Perch sites and nests can be found by looking for whitewash; a white, chalky substance that is part of goshawk excrement. Beneath often-used perch trees, it looks like someone dripped several splotches of white paint. Beneath nests, it can look like someone took a paintbrush covered with white paint and shook it out.

However, if you are close enough to see the whitewash beneath a nest, you will probably have realized it already. The adult female goshawk becomes very defensive of anyone who enters her nest area. For some birds, it is enough to fly overhead and give her alarm call, "kak kak kak kak." For others, a high-speed dive through the trees will cause any normal human to scurry from the area before they lose their hat.

Once that nest is found, though, it is quite satisfying to walk out of the woods after the sight of little, fluffy juvenile goshawk heads poking out of the top.

For the past 10 years, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has been studying goshawk ecology in Southeast Alaska. This research has involved searching for nests, as well as identifying the movements and habitat use of goshawks, investigating their diet and looking at long-term survival of individual birds. In recent years, this study has been winding down while the mass of gathered data is analyzed and decisions on future research are made.

In the meantime, ADF&G continues to monitor known goshawk nests and search for new nests in Southeast Alaska. These nests will be used for a more in-depth look at the structure of the forests in which goshawks nests. You, the public, can be one of the best sources of goshawk sightings and clues that may lead to the discovery of a new nest.

If you find any of these clues while on your summer hikes over the next couple of months, please e-mail me at steve_lewis@fishgame.state.ak.us or call at 465-4265 and we can discuss it. There are several areas where we continue to find clues but not nests so any help with your sightings in the Point Bridget, Amalga Harbor and Goat Hill areas would be especially appreciated.

Stephen Lewis is a fish and wildlife technician for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Wildlife Conservation in Douglas. He has searched for goshawks in central Idaho and northeast Utah before coming to Southeast Alaska to work with Fish and Game, and continues to be intrigued by this fierce and elusive raptor. The Juneau Audubon Society will resume monthly meetings in September.

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