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01/04/07
The Goshawk and the Bear
Filed under: General, Birding & Outdoors, NM & SW US
Posted by: Ken @ 10:25 pm

Northern GoshawkIn May, 1994 Mary Lou and I were walking in the Sandia Mountains when we encountered a pair of large hawks about 30 feet up in a Ponderosa Pine. They were facing each other on a large horizontal limb and calling loudly. We identified them as Northern Goshawks. One, in brown immature or juvenal plumage, had a dead Steller’s Jay in its talons, and the other, in sleek gray adult garb, was flapping its wings and appeared to be begging to be fed. Nearby, about 40 feet up near the trunk of a tall Douglas Fir, we found a large stick nest that had some fresh green branches in it. We presumed it to be the Goshawk nest.

As soon as we got back to the house, we contacted Hart Schwartz, a biologist with the National Forest Service, to report our find. Because it was early Spring, Hart surmised that we had actually witnessed a courtship ritual. He informed us that Goshawks had not been found breeding in the Sandias in the past 10 years. He was anxious to confirm our sighting.

We found it a challenge to describe the exact location of the nest without GPS coordinates, but we referenced its relationship to a distinctive canyon which had a recent burn, a spring and a dry creek as well as an old fire ring. To our surprise and delight, Hart found it the next day and tied a small red plastic strip to a shrub underneath the nest tree so that we could then confirm that it was the right one.

We observed the nest frequently and watched the pair successfully raise three chicks. They would go on to nest successfully in the same general area for 6 more years. We held the secret of the Goshawks closely as we feared that hackers might try to collect their chicks, or worse, that local Pueblo Indians might shoot them to use as decorative shields for their ceremonies. We had already seen Coopers and Red-tailed Hawk bodies displayed in such a manner. Empty .22 cartridges near the bottom of the hawks’ nest tree increased our anxiety, though they probably were left there during the winter by squirrel hunters, when the magnificent Goshawks were not even likely to be present.

In the summer of 2000, Justin, our eldest grandson, then thirteen years old, was visiting us in New Mexico. He very much wanted to go on a hike with us, so we walked about 2 miles into the Sandias on an unmarked trail that led to a beautiful secluded spring which happened to be in the heart of the Goshawks’ nesting territory.  We had not yet seen the Goshawks return for this, the sixth year, and had failed to find their nest tree that year. We had almost reached the spring when we heard what sounded like a truck horn blaring loudly from some point higher up the mountain. Since there were no roads, we thought it unusual enough to plan to return to the house by another trail that passed near the source of the sound.

Then, we came across two trees that had been marked by Black Bears. They had claw marks about 6 feet up on the bark, and one smelled of fresh urine. We started looking for tracks, but found none. Then, for no particular reason (except perhaps to heighten the mystery of the situation), I sucked on my knuckles to imitate the bleating call of a rabbit in distress. At that point the Goshawks were farthest from my mind. Suddenly, a large adult Goshawk with blood-red eyes appeared about 10 feet over our heads, hackles up and screaming angrily. It circled us a couple of times, coming as close as 15 feet. Goshawks have been known to attack humans, so we avoided looking at them, ducked down and covered our heads as we made a hasty retreat, back up the way we came.

We had entirely forgotten about the horn sound and our plan to investigate it. Later that evening, I checked my e-mail to find one from a neighbor who lived only four doors away, entitled “Bear Encounter.”  This man enjoyed running on the forest trails. He said he was far out on the mountain when he suddenly saw a Black Bear cub ahead, running down the trail right at him. Behind that cub was another one. Their very large mother followed them. He froze, but they continued running towards him. He pulled out his emergency air horn and gave it several blasts. This caused the lead cub to turn and quickly climb a Ponderosa Pine. The second cub and then the mother bear also climbed the tree. He slowly backed off and when safely out of sight, resumed his run, this time straight towards home.

His air horn was the sound we had heard and promptly forgotten earlier that day! A few days later, Mary Lou and I returned to the place of our Goshawk encounter, and found their nest in a tree very close to where the bird had challenged us.

My old neighbor Al Rodney, who met the bear on the trail, helped me recollect the facts surrounding this event. He added this entertaining footnote:

Regarding the Bear! Your account is accurate. I believe it was August of 2000. You might agree - or disagree. My recollection is based on my memory of meeting a friend at Arroyo del Oso  Golf Course later that day - and he and I were talking about the bear story last summer. We were talking about August, 2000. Does that timeframe make sense to you? The other thing I recall is that the female (mother) bear was beautiful - a cinamon (sp) color - with scattered sunlight filtering through the ponderosa needles shining on her. A beauty she was! During my descent from seeing her I encountered a lady walking up the trail with her dog. She had a big walking stick. I told her about the bear. She casually said, “Oh yes, my dog rubbed noses with her yesterday while on the trail..”

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