Ghost of the Forest

Aug 23, 2023 - Written by Ben Wymer
After four months of checking this site, finally, I caught a glimpse of the young one. As I peered upward through my viewfinder in awe, I heard the faint rustle of a branch, as though it had been weighted down. A second later, the tranquil scene was broken by the assault of a protective mother.
In late March of 2021, I was walking in the woods around Squam Lake with a friend. The remains of Winter’s snow spotted the forest floor, crunching underfoot. Coming out of a dense wooded wetland, we walked beneath sturdy, broad-limbed white pines, casually chatting and looking for wildlife sign. Suddenly, our conversation was cut short by a sharp, “Kak-kak-kak-kak-kak-kak.” Immediately, I knew it was a raptor, but my ears had never heard this call. Scanning the surrounding trees, the report of the raptor sounded again. “What is that call?,” I pondered aloud. Slowly, we proceeded in the direction of the calls when the raptor called again, this time from a new tree. Turning in the direction of the new call, a shadowy figure was just distinguishable between the forked trunks of a pine. I raised my camera to my eye; dialed in the exposure; and fired. Quickly, I brought the image up on the screen, it was my first goshawk.

First glimpse of the goshawk.

I couldn’t believe it. After capturing a few photos, my friend and I retreated for the raptor was seemingly distressed. Once at home, I contacted local ornithologists and experts to relay this exciting news. It wasn’t long before I received excited replies. Sightings of northern goshawks are an uncommon occurrence, and random prolonged encounters with these elusive forest denizens is a rarity indeed. Something significant must have been in that stand of pines.

A couple weeks later found me back at the site, this time with a jovial crew of experts in tow. Weaving my way through the New England wood, we entered the white pine grove. Silence was all that greeted us. Ope, scratch that, and the chatter an unhappy red squirrel. For half an hour, we searched around and played goshawk calls, all in an attempt to draw out the individual I had seen prior. My spirit was beginning to dampen, and I felt a little foolish for bringing out these folks for nothing.

Persistence paid off though. As I rounded the base of a particular tree, my gaze drifted upward, revealing a nest just above me…a very large nest (nearly four feet in diameter)! Our spirits renewed, we all assumed different angles to see whether there was anybody home. To our surprise and jubilation, peering back at us from over the lip of the nest was the fiery gaze of a female goshawk. Motionless, she was as low as possible, incubating newly laid eggs. This discovery was profound. Upon confirming the location as an active nesting site, we left forthright, all of us in high spirits. This was one of a very few known goshawk nesting sites, and the only current nesting site, in the Squam area.

Female goshawk eyeing us while lying down in the nest.

We returned to the nest once a month for the following two months to monitor the success of the family. On the final visit in June, I went alone, as finding a common time to meet was proving challenging. Grabbing my camera, monopod, tripod, and pack from my car, I stepped into the woods. To the casual observer, I must have looked

Female goshawk eyeing us while lying down in the nest.

awfully ridiculous, for protruding from my backpack a couple feet above my head was my tripod. By this point, I had heard stories of the intense encounters many researchers have faced when studying goshawks. This included everything from threatening dive bombs, to actual contact by goshawks’ talons, to being laid out face first on the ground by a hit from behind. Thus, the tripod acted as a decoy for my head, as goshawks attack the highest point on your person. Towards the nest I forged on. This time, feeling that at any moment, I could be beset upon from behind by the stealthy raptor.

Cautiously, I approached the nesting area until it was just in sight. All I had to do now was find a hole through the canopy of leaves – not an easy feat when you are trying to see into a nest 50 plus feet up a tree. Each footstep I took felt like an invitation for attack, as the leaves crackled and crunched beneath my feet. Finally, I found the perfect gap in the leaves; I set up my camera; and I peered through my viewfinder. Staring back at me was a healthy goshawk chick, nearly ready to fledge. I couldn’t believe it! Its camouflaged brown and buff speckled plumage was brilliant to observe. To think, this youngster would someday turn into a regal, ghostly phantom of the forest, just like its parents.

The juvenile goshawk in the nest.

That’s when I heard it: the rustling of a branch. In most other cases, the sound would not have been anything less than the wind; however, this was not any old case. Two seconds later, my biggest fear in that moment became reality. Mother goshawk was home.

Down she came from on high, before I could process the first sound. Her desire to protect her chick whom she and her partner had invested so much time and energy in raising spurred her into action. SWOOOSH! The wind from her dive rustled my hair as I ran! And boy did I run! Leaves and branches were not my concern as I barreled through the forest, with the mother goshawk making pass after pass at me. The tripod above me was doing its job, despite

being pelted by passing tree limbs. All the while, she proclaimed, in no uncertain terms, that I was not welcome. For nearly two-hundred yards I ran, until I heard her alight in the canopy above. As she stopped, so did I. It was in this fleeting moment, peering up at her, that I was able to appreciate her terrifying beauty, but she decided that I had not run far enough.

Again, she pursued me, for another fifty yards or so. Finally, feeling and seeing that her lesson had been received, she arrested her pursuit. Perched high in the canopy surrounded by the golden-green of sunlit leaves, the message passed along through her piercing red gaze was amplified. With a final, “Kak-kak-kak-kak-kak-kak,” I turned and left her in the peace she desired, a bit bruised and battered but appreciative for the experience. Never again did we return to the nest. Often my mind wanders back to those individuals, and I wonder where that youngster, who is not so young anymore, may be. Did they learn to be as adept and protective of a parent as their mother?

The last glimpse I had of this terrifyingly beautiful individual.