My afternoon with a nankeen kestrel family seemed like the most intimate wild-raptor encounter a wildlife photographer could hope for. But that’s the incredible thing about nature: it likes to surprise you, especially in biomes you foolishly think you’ve mastered.
Last weekend I joined other lens-toting pilgrims at the botanical gardens on quest for a scarlet honeyeater sighted near the treehouse. Still squeamish around groups, I took a circuitous solo route through the tea-tree thicket. Signs on the walkway warned of a “Swooping Goshawk in this area.”
“You promise?” I asked aloud, casting an arch smile at the flat grey sky. Ever since reading Helen MacDonald’s magnificent book H is For Hawk, a lyrical account of her experience training a goshawk, I’ve harbored a particular curiosity about the bird, notorious among austringers for their independence and spirit. Getting swooped would almost be an honor.
Shrill chitters tore from my imagination and echoed through the quiet garden. A sharp-winged shape skimmed through the leaves. I dashed around the plot in pursuit and almost slammed into another photographer cowering on the trail.
“Watch out for that goshawk!” she exclaimed, wide eyes scanning the canopy. “It swooped right over my head!”
“Must’ve made a great picture.” I nodded at the heavy camera around her neck, evidence that she’d also come in search of the honeyeater. “I hope I’m so lucky!”
She laughed nervously, with an expression that suggested I might be more worrisome than the kamikaze bird glaring at us from a nearby tree.
I tried to photograph the goshawk, but it was too far away for a quality image. Disappointed, I continued toward the honeyeater site. Twigs crunched underfoot. Other than a few sleepy bees, the glade seemed still.
Whump. A blast of air and wingbeats exploded just behind my shoulder. I snapped my head up in time to spot the goshawk soaring up to a branch.
“Did you just swoop me?” I asked it.
Unblinking ochre eyes replied with silent disdain. We regarded each other a moment, then the hawk took off again. Feet planted, I shot a burst sequence:
Talons unlocked from the branch. Click-click-click.
Wings tucked in, the feathered torpedo hurtled towards me. Click-click-click.
“Hey, aren’t you going to pull up?” Click-click-WHOA!
Blurry, baleful bird filled the frame. I ducked with the goshawk a meter from my lens. It alighted in a new tree and folded its slate-grey wings (my field guide later informed me that in spite of this coloration, the species is called the brown goshawk). One yellow-scaled leg withdrew into its rufous chest, poised like a ballerina awaiting the music cue.
I straightened my baseball cap. “So you want to dance, huh?”
Now, I have a strict do-no-harm policy for nature photography: I never deliberately provoke or disturb subjects for the sake of a picture. But if I’m minding my own business on an authorized trail, and an overprotective bird decides to harass me, I don’t mind making myself a passive target in the name of art and science.
So the goshawk and I danced our tango through the tea trees. I’d proceed calmly down the path, camera poised; when my partner stirred, I’d snap a few action shots and step aside just before the bird reached me. We repeated this choreography, the goshawk’s staccato cries keeping time. Adrenaline and grevillea perfume made me almost giddy, sending delightful prickles from my toes to my shutter finger with every round.
After about a dozen dives, the hawk seemed to lose interest. Perhaps I’d finally reached the edge of its unmarked territory. This was a public garden, after all, not some wild moor. Relaxing, I allowed my senses to wander in search for other birdlife. A pair of eastern spinebills—sprightly little creatures I’ve struggled to photograph for months—fed in a shrub right beside me. Crouching behind the zoom, I immersed myself into their close-up world. Curved bills slipped into blossoms, filament tongues glistening in the weak light…
Impact rattled the side of my head, and my cap landed in the mulch a meter in front of me. I blinked at it, then at the goshawk leering from across the bushes. All the prior near-misses had lulled me into believing the swoops were merely feints, no contact intended. But those searing yellow eyes held no restraint.
“Not nice!” I scolded. The raptor preened its rust-barred breast and ignored me. Retrieving my hat, I jammed it back on and tucked my hair behind my ears. My finger came away speckled red. I dabbed it again in disbelief. The hawk’s talon had grazed the upper part of my helix, drawing a tiny vermillion blossom of blood. Astonishment and warped delight escaped in a laugh. Well, I’d wanted a swoop. Now I had a souvenir. Digging the hand sanitizer from my backpack, I rubbed a generous dollop into the cut—just in case those talons had been digging around in roadkill recently—and strolled off to the treehouse.
The previous victim was there, hunting the honeyeater. “Did the goshawk get you?” she asked in jest. Her smile puckered in concern when I showed off the nick.
“Not well enough—I’ll have to go back and let it attack me properly, so I can have a scar with a cool story!”
“You’re far braver than me.”
“Or far more foolish,” I replied with a grin.
Either way, I’d had a more exciting avian encounter than the other photographers, lined up like troops with tripods before a callistemon hedge in hopes the honeyeater would make a fleeting appearance. (I did glimpse it, but after my interaction with the goshawk, a flicker of red wings in the undergrowth didn’t impress me much.)
The sun reemerged the next afternoon, so I dodged out of work early and returned to the gardens, hoping to dance with the goshawk again in better light. It already had a partner: its mate. They sunned themselves high up near their nest. Half a dozen photographers clustered around the tree’s base, but none drew so much as a dirty look from the raptors, much less a swoop.
It illustrates how special and ephemeral such experiences are. I might not have snapped the perfect image, but a moment in the prey’s perspective—a humbling position that ignited some primitive core of my brain—is something no camera can capture. My tiny cut has already healed, so I might get the spot pierced as badge of adventurousness, and a reminder of nature’s power even in a seemingly tame urban environment. Hopefully I can find an earring shaped like a sleek silver talon!
UPDATE, DECEMBER 2022: I finished the goshawk’s work with a commemorative helix earring! The piercer confirmed the presence of a tiny scar, and placed the hole adjacent so jewelry would frame it. A year to the day of my encounter, I swapped the stud for this notched triple hoop that evokes a raptor’s talons gripping my ear. Wherever my avian antagonist has flown off to since, I’m proud to carry its mark and its memory.