How Seeing a Northern Goshawk in Yosemite Finally Made Me a Birder

Northern Goshawk near Tioga Pass in Yosemite on 1/8/12 (Photo by Beth Pratt)I have always resisted joining the ranks of the official birders. I am more a charismatic mega-fauna kind of gal (with the exception of frogs—my favorite critter), and wolves and bears and other mammals have always appealed to me more than the elusive creatures flying overhead.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy viewing birds in the wild, but I didn’t want to do that whole life list thing or have to download birdcalls on my ipod and have them pop up in between U2 and Mumford and Sons at parties. And identifying birds is so complicated! You don’t have to study too much to identify a wolf or bear in the wild, but birds change their plumages more often than a model at a fashion show. My repertoire has always been manageable, consisting of knowing the Clark’s Nutcracker, American Robin, and calling any raptor I saw a red-tailed hawk, knowing I’d be correct the majority of the time. Oh, and bluebirds—those are pretty easy as well. When I lived in Yellowstone, bird identification was a little easier because they were all so big (swans and pelicans are pretty recognizable), but learning the endless species of songbirds in California is akin to figuring out programming code.

Last weekend, however, my aversion to becoming a birder finally dissipated with the help of a seeing a really cool raptor soar overhead while I was hiking in Yosemite, the Northern Goshawk. Of course I had no clue it was a northern goshawk as I snapped photos. My usual procedure as a naturalist is to take photo notes, then send them off to my birder friends for an ID.

The bird that made me a birder (photo by Beth Pratt)

This time I posted my photos on my Facebook page and tagged my ornithologically inclined friends for an ID. I also posted the photo on the National Wildlife Federation's California Facebook page, Audubon, California’s Facebook page, and my friend Rue Mapp, founder of Outdoor Afro, forwarded it to her network of birders.

I loved witnessing the enthusiasm for this bird as my photos raced across the social networks. First, it was fun to read the various debates about identifying it, but it was equally great to see the excitement this raptor generated. The photos even caught the eye of the wonderful organization, The Wild Bird Trust, and I now have an album on their Facebook page.

Hmm. This reminded me of when I posted a photo of wolf when I lived in Yellowstone! (absent discussions about color morphs and tail feathers and without mentions of elk carcasses).

After reading about this ferocious hawk, I quickly saw what all the excitement was about (and think he might be an even match for a wolf as far as hunting skills). Ted Beedy and Stephen Granholm write in Discovering Sierra Birds, “If approached too closely, these largest and most powerful of North American Accipiters will defend their nesting territories like demons. They peer down at intruders with defiant red eyes and fly boldly at their targets with talons spread.” The authors also tell of a goshawk hopping on a lake for over an hour in pursuit of Mallard ducklings—it caught three. David Lukas, in his Sierra Nevada Birds, observes that it’s rare to view this hawk from November to February, and also tells of the birds being quite prolific in mating—pairs may copulate up to 500 times in one season! I had no idea such a lover AND a fighter had soared above me last weekend as I hiked to the Dana Plateau near Tioga Pass.

A lover and a fighter (Photo by Beth Pratt)

So for my birding friends, who I had always poked fun at for their obsessions, I have finally come over to the dark side. Pete Devine, Jack Laws, Joe Medley (and his late father and my friend, Steve Medley), David Lukas, Paul Gallez and others, I am now joining your ranks and will carry a life list while hiking, buy a new pair of fancy binoculars, and be as religious about attending birding festivals as a Trekkie is about not missing Star Trek conferences.