Forests Restored After Fire

My colleague Tonja Chi and I are entering a forest two years after fire. Our work is part of a series of surveys directed by Dr. Chad Hanson to search through forests that rapidly recover after wildfire. The trees towering all around us had been engulfed in the flames of the 2013 Rim Fire, which burned massive areas of Yosemite and Stanislaus National Forests.

The tallest trees are pines and firs. Some have been blackened from their base to eye-level; others higher. Yet the forest floor is packed with conifer saplings, mosses, blazes of saffron-petaled wallflowers, mushroom heads standing like bright beads. It is a veritable carpet. Splashes of white blooms the size of small faces adorn the dogwoods. Rapid regeneration is at work everywhere. Dark, flaky remains of fallen trees are crumbling into soil. Fire brought the forest’s own fertilizers back to earth. It was an agent of rejuvenation.

Earlier today, Tonja found a nest of the most elusive raptor living in these forests—a northern goshawk. We have returned in search of her.

And she is diving headlong towards us.

Wings whip the forest’s shadowy air. Her rain-gray feathers are taut. With a wingspan of over three feet, more than the length of my leg, her velocity is superior to anything a human could accomplish in a split-second decision to sprint away.

Moments ago, my colleague Tonja Chi and I were carrying my dome-shaped blind in as quietly as possible. The soft cracking of twigs underfoot was unavoidable. Inevitably, the goshawk detected us from her perch some 200 feet away. With an admonishing call, she opened her wings and plunged.

For an instant, she flashes through a slant of sunlight spilling in from the west. Then she blends in again—with the forest’s spectrum of greens, browns, and blacks.

She’s over our heads. Milliseconds stretch out like minutes. The long tail, that rudder perfecting her pivoting, crashing maneuvers through branches while chasing prey, is fully fanned out. We duck, swinging the blind so it covers us.
Before I can shape the word, “wow,” Tonja sets it down with a whisper. “Will wait in the car.”

I slip inside my blind. Sitting on my knees, holding my breath. All is still. Through a window screen, I can see a dense expanse of understory, the great colossi of tree trunks—firs and cedars. A red-breasted sapsucker utters its puppy-dog-like squeal. Where’s the raptor?

The Northern goshawk, Accipiter gentilis, is like a phantom of the forest. Largest among the accipiters, which include Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks, goshawks are highly secretive, tough to study, and utterly dependent on deep forests. Increasingly rare in areas fragmented by clear-cuts, they are recognized as a California species of special concern. Surveys in search of them must typically operate on a tight timescale, punctuated by vigilance. If she reacts again, we must retreat quickly and quietly—to minimize disturbance.

About three-quarters of the trees are alive and green—the Rim Fire was lower in intensity here than elsewhere. One charred snag, a standing dead tree, is rich with wood-boring insects, peppered with woodpecker holes. The trees stand in silent conference, ancient axioms of post-fire survival, of life renewed. This place is a swath of beginnings.

Even in the high-intensity burn area, where many trees turned into snags, we have found the forests are a flurry of birds, deer, bears, wildflowers, oak and conifer saplings. The new-born landscapes are practically bursting with life. One bear clawed open a white-headed woodpecker nest cavity with the ease of peeling open a chocolate bar. The little nestlings that were shrilling for food were munched down.

I also spotted a goshawk in the snag forest. It was hunting, sitting rock-still, eyeing the bustle of white-headed woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, mountain bluebirds, western bluebirds, rock wrens, house wrens, and lazuli buntings. Within seconds, the hunter caught my eye and slipped away.

Now twilight is turning the trees into a gathering of giants. They are solemn in black, thick with tangles of branches and knots that could be nests. Finding her nest takes an intense search. Two-thirds of the way down a fire-rinsed Douglas fir, I find a messy platform of sticks in a crook of tree trunk. There it is! The nest is perfectly located. It’s so well hidden I have to conduct my search all over again every time I look away.

She’s there. A small ball of downy feathers is moving around. It catches the late light and the goshawk pecks it gently. A chick! Have all the chicks hatched?

A faint, guttural, call emanates from trees close to the creek bed. That must be the male goshawk calling for her—with her evening meal. The female is standing to attention. Now she swoops away, towards the creek. Fire, the agent of transformation, has resulted in a wave of new life.

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