A review by Luke Tiller
Looking for the Goshawk, by Conor Mark Jameson
368 pages, $26.95—hardcover
Mark Conor Jameson is best known for his well-received Silent Spring Revisited, a review of the highs and lows of the conservation movement since Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking work. In his latest book, Looking for the Goshawk, Jameson narrows the focus to provide a more intimate portrait of just one species, one that has faced its own silent spring.
The book starts on the border between England and Scotland, as Jameson sets off to come to grips with his avian quarry. The Northern Goshawk is an enigmatic bird, and with its inscrutable habits and preference for deep, dark woods, the great accipiter lends itself nicely to playing the main suspect in a detective story.
The problem Jameson has is that the goshawk, even given its small population, is an eminently findable bird, and in an area like the British Isles, Jameson’s quarry can’t remain hidden for long. In fact, the narrator’s inability to track the bird down sometimes feels just a little contrived: The goshawk is, after all, no Ivory-billed Woodpecker, no Pink-headed Duck, no Eskimo Curlew. But Jameson reminds us that, as Kenn Kaufman suggested in his Kingbird Highway, “the most significant thing we find may not be the thing we are seeking.”
A number of interrelated threads are woven through Searching for the Goshawk. Jameson researches the extirpation of the goshawk from the British Isles in the 19th century, and shows how the species also vanished from the ornithological literature before its clandestine re-introduction some one hundred years later. He reflects on the influence that raptors in general, and this species in particular, have exercised on our culture and its writers.
Jameson’s search, most of which takes place in England, Scotland, and Ireland, takes him from the curio shop where a mounted bird sparks his adventure through the gruesome records of a historic Scottish estate to the cottage where T. H. White wrote his 1951 classic The Goshawk. Jameson also meets several of the figures on today’s front line of raptor conservation.
In Britain, there are manifold reasons that Jameson can depict his quarry as difficult to track down, and some of those reasons will be instantly familiar to U.S.-based birders. Many will immediately recognize the disbelief with which many U.K. goshawk reports are greeted by the powers that be (in this case, the county reporter). Just as in North America, the presence of similar raptor species inspires skepticism about any goshawk sighting: Though the Eurasian Sparrowhawk ranges somewhere between a Cooper’s and a Sharp-shinned Hawk in size, anyone who has been birding a while knows the difficulty of judging the size of isolated birds, especially birds whose habit it is to rarely give more than a quick glance. One initial quibble I had with the book is Jameson’s seeming inability to parse the tantalizing sightings and reports he receives in his local area.
The difficulty in finding goshawks in the United Kingdom is exacerbated by birders’ concern about sharing information, or “gen,” about the location of certain bird species. Perhaps this is partly due to the somewhat misanthropic fear of causing a stampede of birders or “twitchers” coming to search for a rarity. In some cases, this unwillingness to share sightings is legally mandated, but more often it is couched in terms of what is best for the bird. With the goshawk, there are reasonable worries that harm might come to those birds that are reported, and Jameson at one point finds himself admonished by the internet birding police (another concept U.S. birders will be familiar with) for “leaking” information about nesting goshawks that was already in the public sphere.
Jameson’s writing often reflects some of this well-founded paranoia. Though the book sometimes takes the form of a diary, Jameson is careful to conceal dates and locations from his reader. He notes that though goshawk numbers have been stable in Britain for some 40 years now, and though pairs successfully fledge young every year, these young tend to disappear as they move from the safety of mainly publicly owned forests into the wider world beyond. Jameson tells us that of almost 2,000 British goshawks banded as nestlings, only a handful have ever been recovered.
It will shock most birders in the United States (and perhaps much of the British public as well) that raptors are still illegally, and methodically, persecuted in the UK. Here in the U.S., that kind of behavior brings to mind sepia-toned visions of bounty shooters on the ridges and mountaintops, and stories about Rosalie Edge, Maurice Broun, and the founding of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary 80 years ago.
Here is where Jameson’s book turns from detective novel to murder mystery. A third or more of Britain is still owned by the landed gentry, and vast swaths of undeveloped country are taken up by the estates of the aristocracy. Game wardens—not to be confused with the American law enforcement personnel of the same title—are still employed on some large estates to ensure that nothing interferes with the quarry of the hunts: partridges, pheasants, and grouse. Unlike pheasants and partridges, grouse cannot be reared intensively, which means that the land must be carefully managed to encourage their successful reproduction. This too often means destroying anything perceived as even a minor threat, and the goshawk fits the bill precisely, as do such other “vermin” as Northern (Hen) Harriers, Golden Eagles, and foxes.
Jameson traces the cultural history of UK raptors from the Middle Ages, when royal decrees protected Red Kites as valuable scavengers and falconers prized their goshawks, to the industrial period, when those same species were transformed into pests to be “controlled.” It is no longer legal, but the unofficially sanctioned persecution of raptors continues to this day on some large estates.
The author notes that some raptors, among them the Common Buzzard, have bounced back on their own thanks to changes in public (and more importantly gamekeepers’) perception, the recovery of prey populations, and the banning of organochlorine pesticides. Other formerly extirpated species—the White-tailed Eagle, the Red Kite, and the Great Bustard—have been brought back by governmental or private efforts.
The return of the Northern Goshawk to the British Isles was accompanied by less fanfare, accomplished in the midst of the typical secrecy surrounding the species. It is thought that the bulk of the new birds were escaped falconers’ hawks, their numbers bolstered by individuals surreptitiously released into the countryside by a handful of determined goshawk advocates.
Jameson argues that we are the poorer, environmentally and culturally, for the absence of goshawks in our midst. One of the main threads of the book is the author’s desire to discover a breeding pair in his area. Jameson reasons that if this species can carve out a niche in other suburbanized countries in Europe, and if Red-tailed Hawks (think Pale Male) can flourish in the cities of North America, then the goshawk, too, should be able to find a home in woodlots beyond its current British strongholds—were it not for the negative attentions of hunting interests.
In the end, Jameson never definitely sees the local birds or finds his much desired local nest. He does, however, receive word of a reported sighting that he finds compelling enough to believe. Though he hasn’t encountered the bird himself, the search ends with Jameson satisfied to simply know that the birds are out there somewhere. A friend who specializes in large mammals once told me that the encounters reported by others with bears, bobcats, and coyotes in the local woods made the land feel richer, more vibrant and more spiritually vital, even though he didn’t see the animals himself.
As an expat Englishman, it’s perhaps not the easiest for me to judge, but I feel the book translates well enough for an American audience, and not just because of Jameson’s U.S. jaunts. While here, he shares time with Marie Winn in New York, visits Ithaca to comb the forests of northern New York, and spends some time ruminating the fate of the goshawk in North America from the hallowed ground of Hawk Mountain. Though there are a few cultural references that may be lost on the average North American, there is more than enough common ground to draw the reader in.
Jameson’s writing is frequently vibrant, sometimes humorous, and generally well paced, and the different threads and themes are interestingly intertwined. Some elements of the book do, however, meander and become overly long. That said, anyone with an interest in the conservation of birds, especially of raptors, will find Looking for the Goshawk absorbing. Readers interested in the natural history of the British Isles, or nature writing in general, will find that Jameson’s explorations lead them to some lost or undiscovered gems. A recommended read.
– Originally from England, Luke Tiller transplanted to the United States in 2003. Surrounded by wildlife, he found his love of birds reignited. Thanks to his passion and knowledge as a hawk watcher, he was recently invited to join the board of the Hawk Migration Association of North America. Tiller, who lives in Altadena, California, also leads tours for Sunrise Birding and for HMANA.
Recommended citation: Tiller, L. 2014. Enigmatic, Inscrutable, and Absorbing [a review of Looking for the Goshawk, by Conor Mark Jameson]. Birding 46(2): 74.