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Glimpses of Grey Ghosts (Simone)

After finishing my transect this morning I wandered the road watching a Steller’s Jay that was obviously up to something sneaky (stealing nestlings?), tried to find a drumming Pileated Woodpecker and although I heard a Hutton’s Vireo quite close (“tree! tree! tree! tree!”) I knew it would be next to impossible to catch a glimpse of it. Soon I heard a vehicle approaching. Although I may sound like a paranoid freak in the next sentence I suppose you can never be too careful. I knew it wasn’t Joe (who was due to pick me up) so I started up the small hill above the road where I wouldn’t be seen and stood behind a tree. A white Volkswagen rumbled up the winding road, leaving a trail of dust behind it as it went. Probably just some Hippies looking for adventure.

Now that I was up on the hill I thought perhaps I could finally catch sight of the Hutton’s Vireo still shouting “tree! tree! tree! tree!” at the top of the conifers across the road. After counting the rings on a cut stump of over 100 years and marveling at what this forest must have looked like back then I wandered a bit and settled below a live Sugar Pine on the small hill over-looking the road. Now the road was about 15 feet below me. It curved sharply to the left and out of sight but I had a view of about 20-30ft to the right down the road. I figured this way at least I would be out of sight but still able to spot Joe if he came down the road. Across the road was a dense line of young Douglas Firs, probably relishing the disturbance the road had created. Farther on beyond the young firs the forest opened up to mature firs, pines and cedars. Yet farther on a small stream picked its way through boulders, berms and downed trees.

The radio crackled again and Joe said he was fighting his way through a manzanita field and was still two points out. I didn’t mind at all as it was starting to get nice out and there were many birds around. As I sat on the hill I decided to do some goshawk calls, as I do whenever I’m waiting around and think the habitat looks right or even marginal. You just never know. I called a few times and thought it sounded pretty good! “Kak kak kak kak KAK KAK KAK” I then thought to myself how perfect it would be if a Mountain Lion would walk down the road right now, never sensing me but I would have the perfect view. The same with a goshawk or even a bear. Soon I noticed a neat piece of Sugar Pine bark laying next to me and picked it up. It looked exactly like a thick layer of puzzle pieces. I picked it apart and made a few more rounds of goshawk calls. Soon the bark was in little pieces everywhere and I brushed them off my pants.

At that moment something made me look up and straight ahead even though I didn’t hear anything. No more than 10 seconds later a gorgeous/stunning/striking/beautiful/perfect/red-eyes-glowing adult Northern Goshawk came barreling out of the woods, straight though the young Doug Firs without so much as displacing a needle from its resting place. She was coming right at me but below eye level, I don’t think she ever saw me. Once she hit the road she was perhaps 10-12 feet from me and banking to her left to head down the road. As she silently glided down the road, with wing beats so fast I didn’t even register them, she glanced back over her left shoulder as if checking one more time for where the goshawk-like sound had come from. Not sensing anything (I suppose) she disappeared down the road and as suddenly and starling as she had appeared she was gone. It was then that I realized I had not been breathing.

Did that just really happen? The bird was so beautiful, so graceful and exactly what I had been hoping for that I couldn’t believe my luck. I called again after she had disappeared thinking maybe she would turn around and come check out the sound now that she was closer but if she did, I didn’t see her. I contemplated getting up and walking down the road to try and see if she had landed. But the moment had been so perfect already that I stayed right where I was. What happened in a span of 10 seconds had just been a highlight of my summer.

Filed under: Birds, Field Work, Sierra Nevadas

About the Author

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I am a natural history writer and photographer, obsessed birder, naturalist, and artist. When I'm not learning by reading, drawing, painting, taking photos, or being outside, I am probably asleep.

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