PAXSON — A few days ago, I had the privilege of watching two goshawks gang up on a sharp-tail grouse.
I live in some of the best goshawk habitat in the country and see these big raptors almost daily. In this instance, a sharp-tail cut across a swamp at top speed. A goshawk flew somewhat leisurely behind. Just as I puzzled over the reason for the slow-flying hawk (normally, they go full-bore), another hawk, which had been sitting unnoticed in a small spruce, shot out and blasted the unsuspecting sharptail.
A half-hour later, on my way back through, both birds were feeding on their catch. Normally, goshawks are solitary hunters. I often see them pursuing rabbits and grouse, but this was the first time I have seem two of them hunting together. Both birds were youngsters, identifiable by their brown backs and streaked underparts. Adults are gunmetal gray.
Goshawks are one of the larger hawks and judging by the number of young birds in the Delta Junction and Paxson areas, they've had a successful breeding season. Goshawks do well in areas with heavy cover so the Delta area is ideal habitat. The availability of prey is extremely important, and 80-90 percent of the young birds don't normally make it through their first winter due to starvation or predation by martens, wolverines and owls.
Snowshoe hare population up
The sharptail population is very high in the Interior and snowshoe hares are on the increase, too. Both species are important food for the hawk. In the Paxson area, ptarmigan are the primary prey species for goshawks. It also has the excellent cover that goshawks require. This past summer it was a common sight to see goshawks working heavy willow cover for willow ptarmigan.
Goshawks are often confused with gryfalcons, as the two species are similar in size and coloration. Their ranges and habitat overlap somewhat and in many areas, their feeding habits are similar. Gyrs have the characteristically pointed wings of other falcons, while the goshawk has rounded wing tips suited for quick maneuvers in heavy cover.
Few raptors are more aggressive hunters. I once caught a goshawk in a rabbit snare in a tight willow thicket. It is common for these birds to follow their prey on foot.
Their single-minded focus on prey has made the goshawk one of the most popular birds for falconers. In medieval times, they were known as the "cooks bird", due to their utility in hunting. Today they are still the most common hawk used for falconry, though peregrine purists may scoff. That scorn may be tinged with the discomfort of knowing that the larger goshawk will prey on an occasional peregrine when an opportunity arises.
A hawk that winters in Alaska needs to be adaptable if it is to survive. And the goshawk menu doesn't exclude much. Voles, weasels and red squirrels are all fair game. Spring is the toughest time; the female goshawk is on the nest by mid-April and while the male may take a turn at incubating eggs, he mostly hunts for his mate.
Healthy predators, healthy ecosystem
Easy targets gone by spring, and the young prey species of the year are not available yet. In many areas of the state, the timing of the hatchlings corresponds to that of young hares. The recent low population cycle of hares has limited goshawk chick production. However, an upturn in hares and a healthy grouse population has been a boon.
But why, exactly, are there goshawks? That isn't an easy question to answer. There are plenty of horned owls and other predators to handle any sick or weak hares. Grouse and ptarmigan seem more limited by weather conditions than predation. Maybe we have goshawks for us?
The presence and abundance of primary predators is an indicator of the health of our ecosystem. Goshawks keep us honest in the care and cover of our free-range poultry. Maybe.
Personally, I'd like to believe we have goshawks as an example of perseverance and focus. After all, their striking red eyes and aggressive demeanor led Attila the Hun to use the image of a goshawk on his helmet.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing