The Fisher and the Goshawk

5:15 is when the day begins now. The first bird song has been the Eastern phoebe; it’s now being joined by a robin. That’s the early bird who gets the worm- phoebes prefer airborne foodstuff. The morning chorus is being overlaid this dawn with a soundtrack of pattering rain and car tires hissing on wet highway. The coffee is hot. Good morning.

I have a pleasing note of eco-news today. Environmental stories in general have not been a big source of joy lately so I’m happy to pass along this personal observation. There is still a wildness in the world.

Petersham is a lovely New England small town- there’s a country store (with great sandwiches), a post office, a Commons with a pond, meadow, and a bandstand; tall-steepled churches on Main Street ring the hours. It is at the eastern edge of the Quabbin Reservoir, the largest source of fresh water in Massachusetts and the source of what Bostonians can enjoy straight from the tap. The considerable watershed is well-protected and heavily forested, and there are a great deal of fine forests, rivers, lakes and reserves throughout the region. I’ve been tremendously impressed with the farsightedness of public and private conservation organizations which preserve this land and make it so easily accessible to hikers, campers, paddlers, and anyone else who wants to get out of their cars for some low-impact land-use. There are trailheads leading off from roads and highways everywhere. I keep my hiking boots handy.

There’s a nature preserve not five minutes from here, and once you hit the trail, you’re in another world. Cross a little bridge over a wild stream, stroll past the great meadow and the beaver pond, and the trees begin to grow bigger and older and less tame. Moss creeps up and over everything: fallen logs and boulders big as motor homes are softened by deep-pile green carpet. Fiddle-heads (fern sprouts) are rising from the leaf-litter like cobras, dead snags are contorted and patinaed by age, and in the gloomy hush you find yourself looking over your shoulder for bears or leprechauns. There’s enchantment in these woods.

The Northern goshawk is a symbol of wildness and ferocity; Attila the Hun wore the image of a goshawk on his helmet. I’ve been lucky enough to see one maybe three times in my life. And big mustelids are equally fierce and wild. Both species need good habitat, large areas of mature forest and good prey availability.

The mossy glade I chose to draw in last week turned out to be a fine place for goshawks. An adult bird perched in a white pine at the edge of the opening made the forest ring with loud hacking cries. I was properly awed. The glade was also a fine place for other wildlife, as I discovered.

If you sit very quietly sketching or painting, you’d be surprised what doesn’t see you first. A scrabbling sound caused me to look up to see a large, furry black mammal climbing a snag 60 feet away. It had long bushy tail, a wedge-shaped head, large paws and a golden wash across the shoulders. It was on the far side of the trunk and had it’s paws wrapped more than halfway around it (I went back and measured that trunk: it was a good 16″ thick). I reached for my camera when it saw me, wherupon it slid backwards and dropped to the ground, hitting the moss with a muffled thud. It ran like hell and was gone like a ghost. I’d just seen my first Fisher.

How rare are these two creatures of the northern woods? They are not common. Fishers are declining in the Southern and Pacific regions of the United States, mostly due to logging and other habitat loss, but here in the Northeast, they are increasing, as are goshawks. The Northeastern forest is renewing itself; and as forest habitat recovers, so do the goshawk and the fisher. I hope to see them again- yet another incentive for me to go sit quietly in the woods with a sketchbook and a paint kit. Good morning, indeed.

15 thoughts on “The Fisher and the Goshawk

  1. Janet Wilkins says:

    I’m taking such joy in reading your latest posts and seeing your observations in your sketches and watercolors … I’m “seeing” my own home state through new eyes! Thank you for that.

    Your use of light, too, is making me want to grab my daypack and take a walk through those woods. A fisher, eh? Just to let you know, you’re going to hear a lot of New Englanders refer to it as a fisher “cat” (but don’t be fooled, it’s not a cat at all!) 😀

  2. zeladoniac says:

    Back where I come from there’s an animal that gets called a “Ringtailed Cat”. It’s not a cat, either, it’s a close relative of the racoon. Cats are our common point of reference, aren’t they?

  3. 100swallows says:

    I may not see a goshawk until the Next World but I can sort of imagine him because of my little sparrow-hawk (cernícalo). I see him out on my walks and he sometimes hovers just a few feet above me (no fear), not wanting to lose sight of a mouse in a rubble pile.
    Thanks for these early morning walks in the forest, zeladoniac (sorry I called you “motmot” the other day). Those great watercolors with the sunlight are better than any photo could ever be,though you take a good one too.

  4. Julie Zickefoose says:

    Holy Smokes!!!
    I’ve never seen a fisher. Score one for Da MotMot!
    Watch those goshawks. Akking means nest nearby. My brother-in-law got attacked by a gos in Massachusetts while trout fishing and had to close the trunk lid on his head and upper body to keep from being whacked. Scary birds!I had a female in the Harvard Forest who was not nice to me, not at all, when I was working there. I believe fishers have had a resurgence since the mid-70’s when I was there, though they were present in much lower numbers.
    What a joy it is to see you experience Petersham. I loved that country store. We used to dance in the community hall. Are they still holding contra dances there?

  5. Troy Mullens says:

    Great story, post, sketching, watercolors.
    I loved ever paragraph, sentence, and word.
    Even the periods at the end of the sentences were spectacular.

    Seriously, great story,
    Troy and Martha

  6. April says:

    Beautiful paintings and wonderful description of your adventures in the wilderness. Enjoyed getting to know your corner of the world. 🙂

  7. gretchen says:

    I just discovered your wonderful blog via Julie Zickfoose’s blog; welcome to New England! I’ve lived most of my life here in New Hampshire, but for one year of my childhood I lived in the town next to Petersham and even then I was always charmed by its village. As a watercolor artist and want to be/try to be(!) naturalist, I keep journals of my daily dog walks through my woods and fields. I am so happy to have discovered kindred spirit in you! (Could I be so bold as to inquire what brand sketchbook BarryVan Duser was using in the photos from your last post? The paper looked fairly smooth and non buckling- a combo that’s hard to find in a watercolor sketchbook- I usually wind up making my own with hotpress papers! Just curious!)
    Thank you for these wonderful posts- your words, your artwork & photos are beautiful ( and your adventures are exciting- fisher cats are frightening-be careful!! ) thanks for sharing, gretchen

  8. zeladoniac says:

    On Barry’s watercolor field sketchbooks- we’ll have to ask him-stay tuned. I’m always looking for a good field book, too. At the moment I’m taping loose sheets of Arches 140lb cold press, torn into smaller pieces, onto a sheet of tempered masonite. And I just tried and fell in love with Somerset Textured Buff.

    Thanks for the welcome, and believe me, I’ll watch my step with those fishers, and the goshawks!

    Julie, I don’t know about the contra dances or the community center- I’m going to have to check around. The country store is wonderful, though!

  9. Barry Van Dusen says:

    gretchen asked about the field sketchbook I have been using,(i.e. the sketchbook used for the hepatica sketches). I’ve been using a STRATHMORE spiral-bound book called 400 series FIELD DRAWING. These 9 x 12 books have 50 pages of a cream toned 80 lb drawing paper. The sheet has a nice feel and I like the slight tone. It takes watercolor pretty well for a drawing paper, but if I had had some with my kit on the day I painted the hepaticas, I would probably have worked on a proper sheet of w/c paper, e.g. Arhces 140 HOTpress. Lana HOTpress is another sheet I use alot for field paintings of botanical subjects. Hope this is helpful!
    -Barry Van Dusen

  10. gretchen says:

    THANK YOU for answering my question re: your sketchbook! Arches HP 140lb. has long been my paper of choice, too; I have used Lana and Fabriano but seem to always return to Arches. For grab and go sketchbooks I’ve been using a hardbound one from Clairefontaine (6×8.5, landscape format) that isn’t too easy to find anymore- I believe you can still get them at Bob Slate’s in Cambridge. Nice HP paper but not as smooth as arches,extremely white, takes washes very well w/o buckling and yet still great for details (although building depth in a more finished work takes a little effort) -downside: not cheap ( $26 ea.-ouch!). I did experiment with making my own sketchbooks from Arches 140lbHP by cutting the paper to my desired size, making covers from a heavier cardstock and then having them spiral bound at Staples- they look beautiful but I’m already dealing with the page curling/buckling issue as I cannot now tape the pages to a support while painting- live and learn! So Clairefontaine it is for me right now, but I will definitely check out the Strathmore sketchbook and a few shts. of Somerset! Now if I can just tear myself away from reading through all your archives, ( which I am SO enjoying!) I may actually get back to my painting!! Again,many thanks to you both for your time and answers, gretchen

  11. Neil Visnapuu says:

    I was just attacked by two goshawks today, while walking in the woods (Warren, CT)…same path I hike regularly. I had no clue what was happening, just that two large birds where pinning me to the ground, making this ridiculous sound. I actually grabbed a branch, and swung at them while basically high tailing it out of there. I’ve been in the woods my whole life, but had to google “dopey hiker attacked by birds” to figure out what was happening.

  12. zeladoniac says:

    Wow, Neil, that’s pretty scary and outstanding, all at once. It’s nice to know goshawks are nesting in CT and it’s one of those things you don’t want to mess around with. The one I found is nesting here, too. I went back with a friend and we scoped the bird on the nest, whereupon she launched herself at us and we were forced to run out of there. She let us live to hike another day. Glad you’re unhurt!

    Gretchen, thanks for the Bob Slate Clairfontaine tip- I’ll go over there next time we’re in Cambridge. I went to Utrecht and picked up a Canson All-Media book, which I like pretty well and the paper takes washes nicely. If you close the book while the paper dries and use a rubber band around the covers it keeps things from buckling too much.I’m also trying out Somerset textured 250gm, which is a little softer than Arches and not so sized, and with more texture than HP. It’s a lovely paper and comes in buff and white.

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