In birding, sometimes it’s about the people you meet

A pair of American Kestrels on a wire overlooking one of Holyoke's canals. (c) Greg Saulmon 2012

The other night, as I was standing in the parking lot of Holyoke High School watching the hawk on its nest at MacKenzie Stadium, two kids stopped to ask what I was looking at.

The boy was wearing a junior ROTC uniform of dress blues; the girl, a t-shirt and cutoff jean shorts. I pointed out the nest and the hawk and the boy took pictures with a cell phone.

The girl eyed my camera.

“I want to be a photographer someday,” she said. “I want to go to Africa and take pictures of lions.”

Birding can be a solitary pursuit, but when you look for birds in urban areas you get a lot of moments like these. Over the past several months, I’ve realized that birding is often not all about the birds I see on my little excursions; it’s about the people I meet.

Sometimes it feels like that’s what I’m actually looking for.

And, in turn, sometimes those chance meetings can lead to even more interesting ornithological discoveries.

I was watching the swallows dart around the canal last Sunday morning when an SUV rolled to a stop on Dwight Street; the woman in the passenger seat rolled down her window and asked what I’d spotted. I pointed out the little acrobatic birds.

We started chatting about the hawks down on Race Street and the falcons that I’d thought were nesting at City Hall — they actually live up in the Quarry, she said, and hunt in the city by day.

But then she really caught me off guard: “Have you seen the kestrels?”

I’ve seen a kestrel exactly once in western Massachusetts, sitting on a utility pole near a farm field in Hadley. That’s where you’re supposed to see them, after all.

No, I hadn’t seen any kestrels in Holyoke, I said. The driver offered an invitation: “Hop in, we’ll show you!”

Moments later, we were pulling up behind a factory near Sargeant Street. Sure enough, two of the brightly colored little falcons were perched on a wire overlooking the canal. The birds nest in a nearby building.

The driver turned out to be local wildlife photographer Don Cooper, whose work I’d seen and admired. His passenger was Linda Henderson, owner of the Holyoke Animal Hospital and an accomplished photographer in her own right. A little while back they teamed up for an exhibit at the Wistariahurst Museum titled “A Walk on Holyoke’s Wild Side“, which featured photographs showing “… the rich diversity that exists in an urban environment; a unique opportunity not known to most people.”

They told me they head to downtown Holyoke on most Sunday mornings to watch and photograph birds.

We took a spin around the city: a look at a pair of Canada geese nesting on the canal; another spot where they often see a second pair of kestrels; a check for the eagles below the dam. In 2010 Don photographed Ralph Taylor and other MassWidlife officials banding the eaglets that had hatched in the nest by the river.

When they dropped me off back where we’d first met, I was left wondering how many mornings I’d driven down Race Street on my way to work with the kestrels hiding in plain sight.

The presence of one pair of kestrels — maybe two — in the industrial areas of Holyoke is pretty remarkable, given the birds’ decline in the state over the past several decades.

The kestrel is one of just a few birds highlighted in MassAudubon’s “Birds to Watch” program, which enlists the help of the public in tracking “declining, yet still viable” species. A page devoted to the kestrel reads:

Unfortunately, our smallest falcon is in big trouble. Kestrels have been recorded in the Bay State since the early days of European settlement. Only fifty years ago, they could be seen perched on a tree or utility pole near any field of sufficient size. Now, they are becoming more and more difficult to find.

More difficult, but not yet impossible, thanks to the keen eyes of folks like Don and Linda.

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