northern goshawk

Searching for Two Secretive Forest-Raptors

By Lauren Sarnese, Goshawk and Broadwing Project Field Assistant 2018
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Working on the Pennsylvania Goshawk and Broad-winged Hawk projects has given me a whole new set of experiences and has opened my eyes to a different sector of field work. My degree is in biology with a personal focus in entomology from East Stroudsburg University (Spring 2016). Coming into this, I had no experience with raptors, but I did come with enthusiasm, passion, and a general love for ecology.

It began with sifting through gear lent to me by Hawk Mountain—a plethora of technical resources mixed with lists of places and names I had never heard before. Dr. Laurie Goodrich and Rebecca McCabe helped prepare us for the upcoming field season with a training session at the Sanctuary. I took notes and wrote down names and dates in preparation to make calls and schedule site visits for the upcoming weeks. As the end of March approached, I was eager to get out in the field and start searching for these raptors.  

searching along the creek.jpg

The field season began with nest-searching for northern goshawks. Being inexperienced, I was pointing out squirrels’ nests, insignificant stick clusters, and nests that I now know would crumble under the weight of a goshawk. Over time, I developed an eye for large nests, large birds, and an ear for raptors (and maybe a few passerines). The work always gave me more energy than it took from me, which is how I classify a passion. It became increasingly more exciting with each new thing I saw; I became hyper-focused when looking for nests and listening for raptors.

The first day conducting goshawk broadcast surveys was wonderful and challenging! As to be expected for the northern part of the Pocono Mountains, the terrain was rough. The surveys were interesting in a way that they challenged you to pay attention to all visual and aural details of your surroundings in a fixed period of time. The anticipation was much like fishing: you don’t know if you’ll catch anything, but if you do, it’s a stellar day! This mindset persisted and carried us through the rough terrain, and there was only a minor mishap of accidentally spraying my former professor with bear spray.

However, at the fourth broadcast point (a total of 19 were done at each historical site), we got a response. That initial callback gave us all an electric amount of energy; this was what being in the field was about! We continued forward in hopes of crossing paths with this elusive creature that I had yet to see. We played more calls but those few responses were all we were fortunate enough to hear that day. The excitement was still overflowing as we finished the survey and walked to the car anxious to call Laurie. She, being equally as excited, immediately reached out to Chelsea, a Penn State graduate student overseeing goshawk surveys statewide, who instructed us to schedule another day of searching at that site.

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During the time of Goshawk broadcast surveys, I also began searching for broad- winged hawk nests in the Delaware State Forest. This was definitely a learning curve for me. Spotting a broad-winged hawk female on the nest was more difficult than I anticipated. She would hunker down only looking at me with one eye. If you were lucky, her tail might have been sticking out of the nest too. The broad-winged hawks were equally as exciting and easier to find than the goshawks. I found myself attempting to anticipate their movements, so I could track them back to their nests in hopes of finding a female incubating.  

 Working on both projects, I gained so many unique skills that will carry me through my career as a biologist. I developed relationships with foresters, private landowners, and, of course, the wonderful team at Hawk Mountain. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with such a fantastic organization and team. I look forward to seeing all of the ecological advancements they make in the future.

Lauren with a banded red-tailed hawk. 

Lauren with a banded red-tailed hawk. 

Click to learn more about Hawk Mountain's PA Goshawk Project and Broad-winged Hawk Project, and how you can support these efforts

A Day in the Field Searching for Goshawks

Photo by Rebekah Smith

Photo by Rebekah Smith

By Rebecca McCabe, Graduate Student,
& Zach Bordner, Broadwing Field Assistant
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

With our backpacks on and GPS units in hand, we set out on an early Friday morning to begin our quest for the ‘Gray Ghost’ aka the Northern Goshawk. This is the first time Zach and I have searched this tract of forest along the Kittatinny Ridge.

Becca and Zach surveying and recording data in the field.  Photo by Rebekah Smith. 

Becca and Zach surveying and recording data in the field. Photo by Rebekah Smith. 

We begin by making our descent down to the valley floor where a stream flows through a thick corridor of rhododendrons and hemlocks. We cross over to the opposite bank and start our climb up the North facing slope, where the habitat changes dramatically with the elevation, from lush riparian vegetation to large hardwoods and an open forest floor. The sounds of the early morning songbirds pulsate all around us.

We spend the next four and a half hours hiking off-trail on varied terrain, zig-zagging up and down,  jumping from rock to rock. In between watching our footing, our eyes scan the trees looking for nest structures. We jot down observations in our field notebooks and GPS any stick nests we come across.

Photo by Zach Bordner

Photo by Zach Bordner

One in particular looks good so I walk around it looking for a good place to prop the scope up for a closer look. As I was setting up the scope Zach comes across a log under a tree where a pile of feathers lay. He calls me over and we investigate the scene. A plucking perch and a stick nest less than 50 meters from one another, a good sign indeed! Unfortunately, our excitement quickly dwindled as we scoped the nest with no signs of recent activity.

We continued to search the area surrounding the old nest structure and plucking perch but had no other signs of a Goshawk let alone another raptor. We started our journey back to the car, a little defeated, but intrigued by the habitat and the possibility that the Gray Ghost is somewhere in this forest. 

YOU can help support this important project by purchasing a Northern Goshawk t-shirt! A percentage of the proceeds will help fund our research and conservation efforts. 

For more information about our Pennsylvania Goshawk Project, visit hawkmountain.org/PAGoshawkProject

In Quest of the “Blue Hawk" on the Blue Mountain

By Dr. Laurie Goodrich, Director of Long-Term Monitoring
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Hawk Mountain straddles the Blue Mountain, aka Kittatinny Ridge, which runs 150 miles from New Jersey almost into Maryland and forms a highway for migrating birds.  As the southernmost ridge of the Ridge and Valley province, the Blue Mountain seems to mark a border in Pennsylvania’s landscape and nesting bird communities, as it provides a large swath of forest on the periphery of a highly fragmented landscape to the south.

Northern Goshawk in flight. Photo by Holly Merker.

Northern Goshawk in flight. Photo by Holly Merker.

 In 1890 B.H. Warren (Birds of Pennsylvania) reported the “Blue Hawk” or Northern Goshawk  (Accipiter gentilis) as one of the most rare, and most maligned, raptors nesting in Pennsylvania.  A large forest hawk, the Northern Goshawk has always been rare across the state, nesting primarily in large, mature, and mixed conifer-deciduous forests away from human activity.  It was most often reported in more remote, less populated northern counties of the state even a century ago.  “Maligned” because people disliked the Goshawk’s penchant for eating grouse, rabbits, squirrels, and other birds and regularly shot them on sight until legal protection was enacted in 1960s.

During the 1980s, the Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas recorded 120 possible or confirmed nest locations.  But by the 2000s despite greater birder effort, the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds of Pennsylvania (2012, A. Wilson, D. Brauning, and R. Mulvihill authors) reported nesting goshawks had declined by 28% with only 86 sightings or nests.   Recently, goshawks disappeared as a nesting bird in Maryland as well  (D. Brinker, pers. comm.) suggesting a range retraction or regional decline with reasons or causes remaining as elusive as the bird itself.

Eager to learn more about the distribution of goshawks, Hawk Mountain garnered  a small grant from the Kittatinny Coalition and PA DCNR in 2017 (from Kittatinny Ridge conservation initiative led by Audubon Pennsylvania and Appalachian Trail Conservancy) and a grant from the Pennsylvania DCNR Wild Resources Conservation Fund to Penn State University.  I and a small group of ornithologists and volunteers began a search for signs of nesting goshawks in Pennsylvania. 

One goal of the effort is to try to revisit many of the 100 plus historical nesting territories to see if goshawks still can be found nesting and/or  to document habitat attributes or other factors relevant to their presence or absence.  Is the habitat still suitable for goshawks?  That is just one of the questions we want to answer.  The four historical nest sites reported along the Kittatinny Ridge and several areas on the ridge with large unbroken forest are the main priority for Hawk Mountain efforts this spring.

April 12 7:45 am. 

Rebecca inspects a stick nest.

Rebecca inspects a stick nest.

Overcast with heavy clouds portending drizzle. My first day afield searching for goshawks.  Myself, Rebecca McCabe, and Zach Bordner, a team who has worked for four years studying nesting Broad-winged Hawks, another forest denizen, set out from our vehicle armed with GPS units, tick spray, food and water, binoculars, and our cameras in a quest to revisit a remote historical nest site along the Kittatinny. 

After hiking more than a mile we encountered an adult broadwing being chased by crows and jays through the trees.  Nearby we found several old stick nests, reminiscent of old nests of broadwings.   We examined each nest with our binoculars to see if there was any sign of recent use.  Rebecca spotted a few new sticks in one nest and possibly a feather,.. but no other signs of recent use, so she marked it in her GPS unit and we continued on.  

Forest cut on Kittatinny Ridge.

Forest cut on Kittatinny Ridge.

Drizzle started at 8:40 am but we continued undaunted.   When we reached the coordinates of the historical site, we found a nearby 10-year old forest cut, spanning more than 15 acres but still edged by older forest. Since goshawks can hunt forest cuts, we were not dissuaded.  We circled the thick 10-year old vegetation and continued down slope to a dirt access road and found another, larger forest cut. A red-tailed hawk circled above, not a good sign for seeing goshawks here but the birds could have moved.  After consulting the map we moved farther east towards a large ravine cut by two to three streams.  We hoped to locate mature, more remote forest possibly with a mix of conifers.  During the hike we spot several birds, chickadees, a Tufted Titmouse, Downy Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, Eastern Towhee, Pileated Woodpecker, and hear a Pine Warbler singing in the distance.

After lunch we continue along stream and begin to see occasional hemlocks mixed in with the oak and maple trees, perhaps a good sign!  However, our optimism shortly dies as we discover the ravine forest abruptly ends at a newer forest cut extending for more than 50 acres.  Our hope for possible goshawk habitat near the area quickly waned.  With aching feet we hike back several miles to the vehicle. Six hours and 11 plus miles of forest hiking later, a good workout! 

Our report  for this site will suggest the habitat appears no longer suitable for goshawks with forest canopy changes, redtails observed, and other evidence of more frequent human activity.  However, as Dave Brinker, well-known goshawk researcher, reports, goshawks can shift territories in response to such disruptions.

Our drive home was full of speculation about which nearby secluded forest blocks to search next.   Last summer we three had a good look at a goshawk nest when visiting the Allegheny National Forestin northwestern Pennsylvania with researchers Dave Brinker, Don Watts, and Scott Stoleson.  The image is riveted in my mind.  I was struck by the wild nature of the bird as well as their vulnerability.   If we find any nest sites along the Kittatinny Ridge, the sites will remain secret and locations only reported to state agencies so they can be protected from disruption. 

The “Blue Hawk” may no longer inhabit the Blue Mountain but we searchers are not giving up hope just yet.

To learn more about the goshawk project in Pennsylvania, visit www.pabiologicalsurvey/goshawk.