Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
North Woods Hawk Trapping
Falconer’s Phone Call Launches Superior Adventure
The big female goshawk was growing weary. Drifting southward above the Ontario wilderness, the hawk had been on the wing for a long while. Although she had killed and eaten the better part of a snowshoe hare the day before, the energy gained from that meal was waning. She had been empty for several hours now and growing pangs of hunger were a constant reminder that the migrating raptor was in need of a meal. But the cold autumn wind had shifted to the northwest and was currently providing a free ride of sorts. The forested landscape was rolling by at an accelerated pace. In spite of increasing hunger, the raptor pressed on.
Two Harbors, MN. — I could tell by the excitement in Ben Ohlander’s voice that something extraordinary was about to happen. A Minnesota falconer and longtime friend, Ohlander was calling from a ridgetop located somewhere between the Canadian border and the north shore of Lake Superior.
Ben knew that for the past couple of years, I’ve had a growing desire to capture and train a new goshawk to use in falconry. As a published authority on the species, Ohlander has been studying, trapping, banding, and flying wild goshawks for decades. When Ben gets excited, fellow Hawk Heads listen up.
“It’s been raining, but the skies are clearing and the wind is going to the northwest,” said Ohlander. “Things are really looking good for a big migration up here. I think today will be very significant; a lot of hawks will be moving”
“It’s really getting late in the year, and this could be our last chance for trapping a new ‘gos,” he added.
“Think you can make it up?”
I love getting to know new birds. During my time as a licensed Iowa falconer, I’ve formed a hunting alliance with many birds of prey. My list of winged partners has included red-tailed hawks as well as a number of falcons – including sixteen peregrines, which have always been my favorite.
But my experience with goshawks is limited. I’ve only flown three; mostly because the species is hard to come by. Northern goshawks are the largest and most powerful of our woodland hawks. They are tremendous hunters. An inhabitant of northern forests, goshawks subsist on a deep woods diet of snowshoe hare, red squirrels, and ruffed grouse. Although they may occur here as occasional winter stragglers, goshawks remain a rarity in Iowa. The best way to obtain a bird for falconry is to travel to the North Woods.
With a nonresident Minnesota capture permit and Iowa raptor import permits already in hand, I couldn’t think of a single reason to decline Ohlander’s invitation. “I can be on the road in ten minutes,” I quickly responded.
Big adventures are always best when shared and I asked my wife, Carol if she wanted to ride along. Fifteen minutes later, we were heading due north. The miles ticked by until familiar farm country landscapes were replaced by northern forest. Arriving at Duluth, we turned east along the north shore of Lake Superior. Before reaching Two Harbors, we pulled off the main highway and headed north toward the blind.
Although each site is unique, hawk trapping facilities share some common characteristics. Nearly all are located on prominent ridgelines offering maximum visibility to migrating hawks. Most sites are equipped with a pair of large, finely-meshed mist nets that are stretched between ten foot tall poles. A pulley line is attached to the top of one of these poles; and a live pigeon wearing a leather vest is hooked to the end of the line.
line. The hawk trappers hide within the confines of the blind, usually a canvas covered wood frame with small observation windows. When trappers spot an approaching hawk, they hoist the pigeon into the air and then quickly allow it to settle back to earth. Thinking the pigeon is injured, the raptor launches an attack. But just as it attempts to seize its prey, the hawk hits the wall of nearly invisible netting and becomes entangled in the mesh. The hawk is captured while its intended victim remains unharmed behind the net.
Hawk Watchers Paradise: Lake Superior’s north shore is one the world’s best places to observe or capture wild goshawks. Each autumn the lake is visited by tens of thousands of migrating raptors ranging in size from the petite merlins and sharp-shinned hawks to the more intimidating red-tails and goshawks. Soon after crossing into northern Minnesota, southbound hawks come face to face with the migration’s greatest obstacle — the mighty expanse of Lake Superior. With a width of 160 miles, Superior is an inland ocean that birds are reluctant to cross. When conditions are right, hawk numbers increase exponentially as the ongoing migration stacks up against this watery barrier. Most hawks will eventually turn west, following the shoreline until they arrive at the lake’s western tip. Reaching Duluth, the birds turn south again and disperse across northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. During peak migrations, hawk trappers may see upwards of 2,500 raptors in a single day. It’s a sight like no other.
As the big goshawk continued her flight, miles of wilderness forest continued to pass beneath her wings. Running on fumes, the hawk needed to make a kill. Straight ahead, a prominent ridgeline jutted above the tree tops and the raptor altered her course to take advantage of its lifting air. As the hawk followed the contour, a sudden flicker of movement caught her eye. A hundred yards out front, a medium-sized bird was fluttering to earth. Whatever it was, the bird was clearly injured. Instantly switching from migrator to hunter, the hawk launched the attack; her velocity visibly increasing with each rapid wing beat. Within seconds the goshawk had arrived at what was sure to be an easy kill. But just as the speeding hawk reached to grasp her prey, the raptor collided with an invisible wall of fine netting. Instantly entangled, the hunter had become the prey.
Detecting additional movement, the entangled hawk watched in horror as two strange creatures emerged from the confines of a small canvas structure. The creatures, the likes of which she had never seen before, rushed in her direction. Struggle as she might, the hawk was powerless to escape. Arriving at the net, one of the creatures grasped the hawk by her legs while the other gently placed a leather hood over the bird’s head. The hood’s draw straps were pulled tight, and the world turned suddenly and mercifully dark.
Ben Ohlander was delighted with the catch.
“We’ve trapped a really nice bird here; she’s the best of the day,” Ohlander exclaimed while intentionally stating the obvious.
It was true. The big goshawk was absolutely stunning. When I saw her, I became so caught up in the reality of the moment that it was hard to say who was in more shock; me or the hooded goshawk. I don’t remember everything that was said, but I do remember chattering like a monkey. By now, it was late afternoon and the wind lying down. As we stood atop that marvelous ridge, a brilliant wilderness sunset provided a spectacular conclusion to an incredible outing.
Final Thought: The freshly trapped ‘gos adjusted quickly and I offered her food the following day. In a dimly lit room, I sat with the hawk on my fist and gently removed her hood while slowly moving a piece of pigeon breast back and forth across the glove. The hawk remained understandably suspicious, but was not totally fearful. Still trying to figure out what was happening; it was likely that the bird had never even seen a human until arriving at the trap site. The hawk stoically refused the meat for a full half hour. But in the end she lowered her head and took the first hesitant bite, followed by another and then another. After eagerly consuming every scrap of pigeon breast, the goshawk allowed me to replace the hood without protest. Our initial manning session ended without incident; a very good start. I’m hoping it is just the first step of a long and exciting partnership.