Last Sunday morning's goshawk was unexpected, but the sighting wasn't a complete surprise. Goshawks are not common here, nor are they dependable, but they show up every once in a while.
In other words, I didn't set out to find a goshawk, but I was pleased to see one.
The goshawk is a noble bird, according to its scientific name, which is Accipiter gentilis. As a group, the accipiters are known as "bird hawks." The last one I encountered had taken a sharp-tailed grouse from a pile of sunflower seed spilled from a feeder in the backyard of our place west of Gilby, N.D. That was five years ago - about the right interval for goshawk sightings, a notion that Dave Lambeth, dean of local birders, confirmed when I asked him about the goshawk's status. On average, he said, he sees one every five years or so, almost always in the winter.
My appeal had a different impetus, however; I wanted help solving a riddle that David Thompson-a British-Canadian fur trader, surveyor and mapmaker-left in his journal of a trip to the Missouri River Valley in 1797. The undertaking took him across what became north central North Dakota. He spent Christmas Day near Dogden Butte about 50 miles northeast of the Mandan villages, which at the time were both a trading emporium and the metropolis of the Great Plains.
As far as history is concerned, Thompson succeeded spectacularly, though overall, the results of the expedition disappointed his employers, who had hoped to lure the Mandan into their trading system. The Mandan demurred, and Thompson's geographical calculations proved that many of his company's trading locations were south of the 49th parallel, beyond what both they and their American competitors expected would become an international boundary.
The territory didn't meet Thompson's expectations; he thought the weather would be milder (in fact the temperature dropped to 32 degrees below) and he hadn't imagined the force of the wind and the strength of a blizzard that delayed his progress. He had anticipated better hunting, but wildlife and the buffalo he procured proved meager. In an account of the journey constructed from notes made on the spot, Thompson lamented, "Even the long, strong-winged hawks are not known."
That's the riddle I was trying to solve. What hawk had Thompson expected?
The answer is unknowable, of course. But in common with other explorers Thompson provided tantalizing hints. There aren't many possibilities, based on what we know of bird life on the Northern Plains.
My first guess was rough-legged hawk, a common visitor from the Arctic. Gyrfalcon was another early guess. Neither of these was quite satisfactory; both are open country birds. While "strong-winged" could apply to both, neither would strike an observer as "long."
Thompson's experience was in the woods. He'd been at a number of trading posts in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan. His visit to the Mandan villages took him farther south than he'd previously been - a circumstance that might have influenced his expectations.
The goshawk is a bird of the north woods.
The goshawk is an adept woodland hunter; it has relatively broad, rounded wings ideal for rapid acceleration (and avoiding collisions with tree limbs) and a long tail that acts rather like a rudder, improving the bird's maneuverability.
Accipiter gentilis is a long, strong-winged hawk, and that it might be the answer to Thompson's riddle struck me the moment that I saw one Sunday morning.
This sighting was fortuitous and amounted to an avian hat trick. Not only does the goshawk seem a plausible (not certain) answer to Thompson's riddle, it also provides a potential (now actual) subject for a column. Plus, it meets one of every journalist's goals, providing follow-up to previous columns.
The goshawk, this week's bird, has much in common with last week's bird, the black-billed magpie. Both are broad-winged, long-tailed birds favoring woodland edges. Both species are northern birds and both occur in Eurasia and North America. Both have attracted attention from early European visitors to the Northern Plains. Meriwether Lewis sent four magpies captured at Fort Mandan to his patron, Thomas Jefferson. Also like the magpie, the goshawk has a tarnished reputation. A bird eater, it was blamed for stealing chickens. The goshawk is also known as a feisty bird, fierce in defense of its own nests.
The goshawk earned its scientific name, gentilis, because it was a favorite of falconers, who were often members of the nobility. The relationship between a hunting bird and its handler is the subject of a remarkable book, "H is for Hawk." The author is Helen Macdonald, a British writer, and the hunter is a goshawk.