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BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Minnesota’s northern goshawks are finding plenty of suitable habitats

I spent many hours perched in ladder stands strapped to mature aspen trees in northwest Minnesota recently. Hours went by slowly, but Mother Nature was always there to entertain and challenge me in a show of her own.

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The adult goshawk displays a dark cap, a bold white “eye-brow” and a broad black eye-band. Adult plumage coloration is grayish overall, while immatures are brown with brown-on-white streaked bellies.
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I spent many hours perched in ladder stands strapped to mature aspen trees in northwest Minnesota recently. Hours went by slowly, but Mother Nature was always there to entertain and challenge me in a show of her own. From sun and warmth to gale force winds, and from blizzards to frigid cold temps, she gave her all.

Aside from the varied weather events, wildlife of many a feather and fur were present, too. Common feathered friends included nearly every Minnesota corvid — blue jay, common raven, American crow and black-billed magpie. Black-capped chickadees, a few dark-eyed juncos and brown creepers, ruffed grouse and bald eagles also made their appearances.

I also delighted in massive waves of waterfowl making haste for warmer climes when the north winds grew cold and gusty. Providing the tailwind that migrating Canada geese, mallards, and trumpeter and tundra swans prefer, not to mention the motivation to migrate when northern lakes and wetland began freezing up, the spectacle and vocalizations of giant flocks of waterfowl high in the sky is worth the price of admission.

One species of bird that I observed only twice during my nine-day visit, was the northern goshawk. On one enjoyable occasion, a juvenile rocketed past me as I sat 15 feet high and then landed just a dozen yards away in a nearby aspen.

My bird’s eye view of this gorgeous raptor while it perched on a limb was a rare glimpse that I savored. The young hawk stretched its right leg, briefly preened itself, and launched itself from its perch to resume a fast and graceful flight just below the canopy of the aspen woodland.

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At another time, I saw a mature goshawk swiftly and silently glide through a forest opening only to disappear into the forest seconds after it had suddenly appeared.

The northern goshawk occurs throughout northern Minnesota in mostly mixed deciduous/coniferous forests. A large bird (the largest Minnesota accipiter) with body lengths of up to 21 inches, wingspans to 41 inches and body weights of over two pounds, the bird is more than capable of capturing large prey.

Northern goshawks are unlike many raptors found here. To more closely monitor the raptors throughout its northern Minnesota range, biologists conducted nest surveys and radio telemetry studies to track the birds. This led to the discovery that goshawks do not migrate in the fall like most hawks and falcons do. In fact, northern goshawks stay in Minnesota all winter long.

Aside from the overall size of northern goshawks, distinctive markings set them apart from other accipiters. As a note, accipiters, when compared to buteos (red-tailed hawks, rough-legged hawks, etc.) typically have longer, narrower tails and shorter, broader wings than most of the latter group’s members.

No other accipiter, of which the Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks are classified as well, has a more boldly patterned head. The adult goshawk displays a dark cap, a bold white “eye-brow” and a broad black eye-band. Adult plumage coloration is grayish overall, while immatures are brown with brown-on-white streaked bellies.

Prey items making up the diet of goshawks include many species of birds and mammals. On the menu include ruffed grouse, species of ground and tree squirrels and other small rodents, hares and rabbits, and songbirds. Their hunting style is swift, aggressive and efficient.

Hunting within the forest or along forest edges and openings, northern goshawks will usually perch from vantages within the canopy and ambush unsuspecting prey below. They subdue and kill prey quickly with their sharp talons. Goshawks will often surprise prey by flying above dense cover, spooking the quarry into flushing and overtaking them.

Nesting season begins in April with egg laying, incubation and hatching all occurring by the end of May. Clutch sizes range from two to five. Though the actual northern goshawk population is unknown in Minnesota, some 48 active breeding territories were known to exist in the early 2000s. And that’s good news.

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It means that Minnesota’s northern goshawks are finding plenty of suitable habitats for hunting and raising offspring in. My observations of just two of these special species of birds within a very small patch of forest in a remote location of northwestern Minnesota was evidence that goshawks abound, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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Related Topics: BLANE KLEMEKNORTHLAND OUTDOORSOUTDOORS RECREATION
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