Northern Goshawk and Gull

(A more detailed version of events that took place last Saturday and Sunday)

I’ve recently been listening to a set of recordings of Jon Young where he talks a lot about nature awareness and tracking. They’re pretty interesting and I suppose a kind of inspiring.

As a result, I have been trying to work on some of the skills like fox walking and wide angle vision, so the last couple of times down through the park, I’ve been trying to focus on spending a good chunk of the time doing these. As an aside, I think it’s funny that Connor usually says I go too fast, but when I was fox walking with him, he wondered why I was going so slow. He did not want to go this evening, which was probably alright, as I was heading out only an hour or so before sunset (and his bedtime).

I had seen a couple of strange shorebirds flying from in front of the Visitor’s Center, and I was kind of hoping they were out on the tide flats at the far end of the park. I had fox walked a little bit on the visitor center flats, then walked in the more typical fashion on the trail to get out to the beach at the battle site. From the battlesite toward the river, I fox walked along the flats. There were many gulls scattered along the flats, though most of the gull noise was coming from the river. I caught the motion of a small bird and recognized an American Pipit. I also saw several Savannah Sparrows working the seaweed washed up on the upper part of the beach. It was a calm evening, a little on the cool side. I was getting near the former river channel, and starting up toward the forest where I would go back on to the trail.

As I was walking, I felt the need to sit. Since I am not really used to doing it consistently, fox walking is a little tiring, but the feeling was a little more than that, as normally I would just start walking in the regular fashion. I don’t remember the full stream of thought, but I do remember thinking “… but first I need to sit down for a bit.” As I considered likely places, I first considered a rock to sit on, then saw a log. On approach to the log, I felt like I should sit facing the woods. This was a little strange, as there was really very little for me to see because the log was right at the upper part of the beach, and the trees were not far at all, but I sat this way anyway. As I was sitting, I wondered if maybe something like a grouse or an owl would show up in the trees that I could see in front of me.

I had only been sitting a minute or two when I felt through my entire body the sound of rushing air over wings as a fast moving bird streaked from the direction of the river very close to my head and out over the flats. My heart was pounding as I quickly turned in the direction it had gone. Many gulls had taken flight, and I saw this guided missile of a bird hit a gull and cause it to falter. I don’t remember whether I saw the markings of a Northern Goshawk on it’s quick loop back toward the gull still staggering in flight, or when it grabbed the gull directly and brought it to the ground. Once on the ground, the gull made a few feeble flaps, then lay still.

This caused quite a commotion on the flats with all the gulls taking flight. For several minutes many gulls circled over the kill site, with the goshawk now plucking body feathers from its prey. I resolved to stay where I was, at least until the gulls moved on, as it almost seemed like they were paying respects to their companion who had fallen. Slowly they thinned out and the tideflat, on which there had previously been several hundred gulls, was completely empty. However, around the corner just a short distance from the silent flats, I could hear the sounds of the gulls in the river carrying on as normal.

I got the sense that it would be okay if I walked down the beach a little bit to get a better look at the goshawk. In particular there was a certain log that I saw. Initially my impression was with the closer (to me) of the branches off that log, but I pushed on to the main body of the log, and just as I sat down, the goshawk took off. I felt bad about this, as it seemed as if I had gone too far. I remained seated and resolved to sit, not take any pictures, nor use my binoculars to watch the hawk, so as not to disturb it. After a couple of loops around, the hawk settled back on the beach a short distance from its prey. It seemed to consider my presence carefully before it made the short flight over to the gull and resumed plucking body feathers.

One of the things that Jon Young mentions repeatedly in the recordings is that an important part of awareness and human interaction with the natural world is thankfulness. Thankfulness is not something I feel especially good at, but I was definitely working on feeling thankful for this experience. I was feeling thankful to the gull, the goshawk, and whatever it was that got me to sit down when and where I did. It occured to me that perhaps it would be appropriate to say thank you in the language of this place, but I don’t know much about the Tlingit traditions for saying thank you, except that ‘Gunalcheesh’ (which I may not have spelled correctly) means thank you. I think that if/when the opportunity arises, I will ask someone if there are other terms for thank you in contexts like this one.

A very light rain was falling as the darkness really started to settle. The sudden sound of wind whistling in the wings of ducks as they dodged and weaved directly overhead in their rapid descent toward the river mouth was a little bit startling in the context of the quite tide flat. I think the goshawk was startled at least once by them as well. Several flights of ducks flew in, and I could hear the quacking of Mallards out at the river mouth. Still, the gulls in the river were calling, and the goshawk was working on its meal. As it became darker, it suddenly occured to me that the gulls at the river were now silent. I had the impression that they all stopped at the same time, but I suspect it was not quite so sudden as it seemed to me.

Now it was getting dark enough that I could only barely see the light colored feathers of the gull against the dark rocks of the beach, but no real detail. Occasionally I could see the goshawk move, when its pale underparts showed, or when it moved the gull’s wing. Originally I had planned to go look at the killsite when the hawk left, and perhaps collecting some feathers. However, after sitting and watching the goshawk eat for awhile, that seemed to not be a good idea. I kind of felt like by disturbing the goshawk, I had forfeited my right to do some investigation that might have otherwise been okay. As I had resolved to myself to sit until the goshawk was done, and it had gotten so dark that I could not really see the goshawk anymore, I began to wonder how I would know when it was okay to go. In the end, I heard the strong rapid wingbeats as the goshawk flew toward the river. I waited a few moments and then began slowly walking through the dark toward the entrance to the forest.

The next morning I returned to the park with Connor. Connor was very excited when he heard about the goshawk and the gull. He was hoping that we might get to see it happen again. I told him that was unlikely, but we could probably find the gull’s remains. He seemed just as excited by that prospect. There had been a high tide between the time the gull was killed and when we were down at the beach, and I was not sure what would happen to the remains. It had apparently washed up with the tide, as we found it partially covered in a large pile of seaweed that has been accumulating at the high tide line.

The goshawk had eaten the body, the upper part of the wings, and the neck. The innards seemed to be gone (whether they were actually eaten by the goshawk or something else, I don’t know), with one exception. I’m not sure what organ it was, but perhaps someone else will recognize it. It looked pretty meaty, so I am not sure why it was left uneaten. The outer wing feathers were still intact, and I could see that the gull had been regrowing several feathers on each wing. It looked to me like a Herring Gull, or possibly a Thayer’s Gull. The eye was not the bright yellow of Herring Gulls, but I thought that it might have darkened in death. Another thing I noticed is the normally pink legs had lost most of their color and were now more of a dull gray.

After looking the gull over and taking a few pictures, I was feeling a little sad as a witness to this death, so I sat a little distance on the beach to reflect about the experience a bit. Connor was still very interested, so I let him stay and keep looking at it. Eventually he covered it up with seaweed and we went down the beach. However, after I stopped to look at some other things, he decided to go back and look at the gull again. Each time we have gone to the park since then, he’s wanted to look for the gull’s body, but we have not seen it again.

Gull Remains Gull Remains

Gull Remains What organs are left uneaten? The liver or lungs, maybe?

2 thoughts on “Northern Goshawk and Gull”

  1. Some visiting friends, Dan and Kathy, saw a young goshawk pull down a large herring gull on the beach near my cottage on Lake Huron in northern Michigan. We all trooped down the beach and watched the goshawk tear the gull apart. An amazing sighting since we are at the southern end of the goshawk’s range; I’d only seen goshawks before in Alaska.

Leave a Reply