Monthly Archives: October 2011

One of the moths, Nov. 30, 2008.

Note: I wrote this on December 1, 2008, after that year’s first winter weather event. In the wake of this October’s snow, it seems worth
revisiting now.


Usually it’s baseball that tells me winter is winning. This year seemed like it’d be the same.

On that first morning after, the frost on my windshield was thick and the suddenly empty trees made the sky seem huge. The world felt like a fist closing in on itself, fingertips digging into a palm for warmth.

Then, on the second day, in a downtown but out-of-the-way corner of Springfield, I came across two ragged men on a bench singing the chorus to Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” Their melody turned ghost-white in the morning air.

By Wednesday the cold stuck to you like cockleburs. Walking through a downtown park, I saw a man and a woman sitting on a bench. The man, wearing a big parka, was slumping over. I walked toward them. The woman was tugging the man’s sleeve as he slid off the bench, onto his knees, drooling. The woman said to me, “I think he needs help.”

Looking around, amazed at the silence of the city, there seemed to be no doubt: winter was winning.

It wasn’t until the last day of November, though — the day I finally got around to raking the leaves in the front yard — that I found what seemed to be the surest sign.

“Good day for it,” my neighbor said, on his way to church. “It’s going to snow later.”

Once I had the leaves in neat piles I took a break. I went into town to get a coffee. By the time I got home, sleet stung my face. I dragged the tarp out from the back yard, unfurled it on the lawn, and pulled the first pile of leaves into my truck. I spread the tarp out again. That’s when I saw the moth.

It must have been curled up in one of the folds of the tarp; it would’ve disappeared into the brown material if it weren’t for its wings — veined mahogany, then a band of black with cobalt dots, then a ribbon of yellow at the fringe. The moth twitched its legs, shaking off a long, cold sleep. Sleet crackled on the tarp. The moth pulsed its wings.

I forgot about my chore and knelt down and watched the moth for a long time. Did moths migrate? Or did they just die when the cold came? I couldn’t remember. Either way, I thought, this late in the year a moth must feel like the last moth on Earth. But I had hope for the moth. Every few minutes it would pump its wings a little more vigorously. If it took flight now — well, that would seem like something.

But it didn’t take flight. And then the sleet came harder, mixing with snowflakes the size of dandelion parachutes. I had to get the rest of the leaves into the truck. I slid the dead stem of a balloon flower under the moth’s fat, furry body and moved it over to the wiry grass.

I pulled the tarp over to the final pile of leaves, turned around, noticed a little flurry of movement. There, in the grass, was a second moth.

Like the first, this one beat its wings — slowly, but purposefully. Flecks of sleet gathered around the moth’s shoulders and in the small of its back. I went inside, got the camera, snapped a few pictures. The first moth hadn’t moved from its spot. The second moth never did. All around the neighborhood smoke floated from chimneys.

Late in the afternoon I went out to check on the moths. It was raining. Straight, cold rain. One moth — the first one I’d found — was laying on its side right where I’d last seen it. It was laying like it had just stood there, wings folded neatly, until one drop of rain proved too much and it just flopped over. The moth was still. Rain mixed with the dust of its wings, covering them in a milky film. Later in the night, maybe, the rain would turn to snow and bury the moth along with all the other leaves I missed.

But the morning — the first day of December — was warmer. The rain had drained almost all of the color from the yard. Both moths were still in the grass, lying still on their sides. I picked up the gray stem of a zinnia and tapped the first moth’s belly. One leg twitched, then grasped the stalk. I twirled the stem in my fingertips and set the moth upright in the grass. The moth opened its bright wings.

Rain drops had beaded up on the second moth, but it, too, twitched and fiddled with the stem of a dead flower and eventually opened and closed its wings a few times.

A pair of crows chased a raven through the trees. The moths sat like two sloops in the yard.

If winter was winning, it seemed, its victory would come slow — and maybe its reign would be short.

(c) Greg Saulmon 2011

A few people have told me they’ve seen falcons in Holyoke, and I finally saw one myself Friday morning.

The falcon landed on the weathervane way at the top of City Hall’s tower when it was still dark out. I was already running late for work, and I thought what I’d seen was probably a hawk, but I ran back up to my apartment for a longer lens anyway. The bird was still there when I came back, so I went up to the top deck of the parking garage on Dwight Street.

As the sun finally began to break the horizon and splash its honey light on the bird and the ornamental metal, I realized I wasn’t looking at a hawk.

The Peregrine Falcon was my favorite bird when I was a kid, thanks to Tom Ricardi’s visits to Jackson Street School in Northampton. Ricardi operates the Massachusetts Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Center in Conway, and when he’d visit my elementary school classroom he’d bring a falcon named Pilgrim. I couldn’t take my eyes off that bird.

The Vermont Bald Eagle Restoration Initiative has a short profile of Ricardi — read it here.

And here are two more shots from Friday morning:

(c) Greg Saulmon 2011

(c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Crows gather in Springfield's Brightwood neighborhood, February 2011. (c) Greg Saulmon

Crows like Terre Haute, Indiana, but the feeling isn’t mutual.

In winter the crow-to-human ratio approaches 1:1, with about 50,0001 of the loud, smart birds descending upon on the city. Last year, The New York Times reported Wednesday, the city formed a “crow committee” — which in term created a “Crow Patrol” whose members were trained to shoot fireworks and flares near common roosting areas.

“The intent was not to kill the birds but to launch a varied disruption so sustained that the they would move to dedicated zones: an empty field, say, at city’s edge,” Dan Barry writes, noting: “All last winter, the boom of evening fireworks echoed through Terre Haute, with modest results. It turns out that crows don’t believe in zoning.”

The Terre Haute Crow Response Committee officially released its winter 2010-2011 crow control plan [PDF] in August, 2010. The plan — converted to the PDF format from a PowerPoint presentation — runs 19 pages and calls for a first-year budget of $15,000. Two staff members, a planning director and a field director, received salaries of $6,000 each. The remainder went to supplies, equipment, mileage and postage.

The crux of the plan, as mentioned in the Times article, involved designating zero-, moderate-, and full-tolerance zones, with volunteer patrol members working with the planning and field directors to “encourage” the birds to congregate in full-tolerance areas. “Believe it or not, Vigo County contains plenty of places that crows can roost in large numbers without bothering anyone,” the plan reads. “The trick is getting them to go there when they don’t choose those spots on their own.” The plan also argues the necessity of the full-tolerance zones: “Otherwise, you’re not giving the crows you move out of zero tolerance zones anywhere to go.”

A call for volunteers issued shortly after the rollout of the plan identified two primary positions: “Observer/Data Collector” and “Pyrotechnics Launcher”. The latter position was charged with using fireworks to keep crows out of the zero-tolerance zone.

Terre Haute based its plan heavily on strategies developed by Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County Crow Coalition. The Lancaster coalition advocates for a “humane, non-lethal, and environmentally sound approach” to the crow issue, and uses CafePress to sell hoodies, tote bags and coffee mugs bearing the organization’s logo. Slogan: “Crows are Cool.”

While the coalition champions its success in moving most of the roosts out of the city, the group’s website reminds residents that “[c]rows aren’t pests” and offers a somewhat resigned take on the effort: “Crow management will continue, each year, probably forever.”

This year, Terre Haute held a Crow Committee volunteer training session on October 11. Volunteers met for an hour in the City Hall court room to review the plan and receive hands-on training for the upcoming crow season.

But like Lancaster County, Terre Haute, too, encourages its citizens to exercise tolerance for their sometimes noisy neighbors. In its crow-management plan, the first bulleted item on the slide titled “The Public’s Role” reads: “Accept that there will always be crows here.”

– – – – – – –

1The New York Times cites a winter crow population of 100,000, but Terre Haute’s crow control plan offers the 50,000-crow figure. The city’s population, according to the 2010 Census, is 60,785.

Click to enlarge. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Before the kill, the eagle sat in the tree for a long time.

It had flown in low from the south over the bridge to South Hadley Falls and settled on a dead branch in a leafless tree on a rocky island in the middle of the river. Beyond the island the dam was dry, save for a torrent spilling over a small section near the Holyoke Gas & Electric plant. The old Texon factory slept at the opposite shore.

A gang of gulls flew in front of the eagle, white spots against the factory’s red brick. It was 5 p.m. and the eagle sat on the branch for almost a full half hour. I stood on the bridge and watched the bird watch the river.

Click to enlarge. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

I only looked away for a few seconds but that’s when the eagle made its move. I’d pulled the lens back for a wide shot of the river and the dam and the factory and the mountain and most of all the clouds, which had turned the color of a shark’s skin. A halo of white sky opened up over Mount Tom. It was getting cold.

When my eyes returned to the branch, the eagle was gone.

I picked it up a few seconds later: it was flying well below the height of a dam, looking down at a duck that was nearly raking its wingtips across the water.

The eagle dove.

Click to enlarge. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

With its first hit it knocked the duck sideways in the air. Then it made a pedaling motion with its feet, reaching for and finally clasping the duck in its talons. The eagle carried the duck over a tangle of boulders and tree trunks and splashed into the river for a moment as it hauled its prey onto a long, smooth rock.

Headlights flickered on passing cars, drivers unaware of the drama unfolding below. The windows of the Texon factory watched unblinking. Two men lit a campfire on the sandy shore just north of the bridge. One man sat on a log the river had polished bone-white. He looked out at the cold brown-green water.

Out below the dam, the eagle bowed its head and ate.

A Massachusetts Environmental Police officer holds an owl rescued on the Massachusetts Turnpike in Aurburn Saturday morning. Photo by Trooper Michael Golenski | Courtesy of the Massachusetts State Police | Click to enlarge.

When Trooper Michael Golenski arrived at the scene, he saw the Barred Owl in the Turnpike’s breakdown lane, trying and failing to fly.

Goenski is credited with saving the owl’s life as it begins its journey of healing from surgery for a broken wing at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton.

A motorist heading east on Interstate 90 in Auburn Saturday morning reported the struggling bird just before 10:30 a.m. and Golenski arrived shortly thereafter, Massachusetts State Police spokesman David Procopio said in a press release Monday. Golenski then requested the assistance of the state’s Environmental Police as he left to respond to a call for a stranded motorist a short distance away.

Twenty-five minutes later, Golenski returned to check on the owl. He waited with the bird until Environmental Police Sgt. Scott Amati and Officer Jason Dejackome arrived and took it to the Wildlife Clinic at the Tufts veterinary school, Procopio said.

“We hope that all will go well and [the owl] will be released when healed,” Robin Shearer, wildlife program assistant at the clinic, wrote in response to an email I sent Monday.

Tom Keppeler, associate director of communications for the school, told the Boston Globe: “He had a fracture in his humerus. [As of today] the owl is bright, alert, and doing fine.”

Shearer said veterinarians at the clinic performed surgery to insert pins in the owl’s broken left wing over the weekend and that, for the time being, the bird is recuperating in a small cage. Staff will check the owl’s progress regularly to determine when the bone has healed enough for a second procedure to remove the pins.

Then, the road to recovery continues as the bird prepares to regain its flight.

“After a little more time of cage rest the bird will be moved to a larger cage. The cage size will be increased until the bird and bone are strong enough to go into our flight cage. At that time it will stay until it regains it strength and endurance,” Shearer said.

Staff at the clinic believe the owl is a male, based on its weight, adding that while its age is unknown it is fully grown.

When asked whether the bird had earned any kind of nickname following its ordeal, Shearer reiterated her hope that the owl would one day return to its natural habitat. “We do not name the patients as they are wild and we do everything we can to make sure they can be returned to the wild — a name implies ‘pet’ or domestication, and we do not want to jinx them,” she said.

The clinic treated 61 Barred Owls in 2010,  and 48 so far this year. A total of 1,910 patients have received treatment at the clinic to date in 2011.

A Cooper's Hawk on the Mount Holyoke College campus Sunday morning. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

I can’t think of a place in the Pioneer Valley that evokes more memories than the Mount Holyoke College campus.

The half-day afternoons that my friends and I spent in middle and early high school at the Blanchard Campus Center while so many of our classmates were jammed into booths at the Newton Street Friendly’s. The ice hockey games and illicit fishing trips and the dares to dive from the docks at the upper pond.

The long, angsty and aimless late-night walks around the campus that I spent trying to figure things out, and the nights lying out in the mattress-soft grass of the athletic fields, staring at the stars and thinking maybe I already had.

Those fields — the ones outside Kendall Hall — are the place where I first gathered the nerve to ask a girl out on a date. She was lobbing a lacrosse ball against a brick wall. I was a freshman. She was a junior from Amherst. She had a car. We went on a single date, and the relationship fizzled when it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea what to do next.

The campus library — the Whiting Alcove, to be exact — is where I spent countless hours with guys like Mark Fitzpatrick and Judge Bean and Mike Dowd, talking about music and literature and our utter lack of success with the opposite sex.

The Cooper's Hawk in a pine tree. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

It’s also where I tutored a classmate whose only wish was to score a high enough grade in algebra to be eligible to play baseball. We worked at it from the late fall through late winter and his grades went from Fs and Ds to Bs. He was eligible to try out.

And then he got cut from the team anyway.

But here’s the thing: Even though he didn’t get to play baseball that year, he went on to college and eventually landed a job with a professional, AA baseball team and worked his way up to an executive position in the front office. The last time I visited him I got a full tour of his ballpark, and watched him lead a group of kids through some ground-ball fielding drills near the first base line before the game started.

Few people have impressed or inspired me so much.

A bus outside Blanchard is where 16-year-old me met Jane Sanctuary, an elderly woman from Amherst who was writing a poem about leaves falling on the lower pond. I named a band after her and spent years trying to wring life lessons from our encounter. For a long time I thought the significance was this: that coincidence delivers most of the beauty in our lives, and that the random nature of the world is actually what makes things meaningful.

It took me a long time to realize that the fact that we spoke wasn’t really the product of coincidence or random chance. I rode the bus all the time specifically because I liked being around other people, and when I saw and older woman writing in a notebook I was curious and bold enough to ask what she was writing about. I could’ve just as easily sat and stared out the window.

A hawk sits in a tree; other birds hold their ground. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

That was October, 1994. A month later, another memory from the campus: my first kiss, on the bridge over the waterfall at the lower pond. A girl I’d had a crush on for nearly a year. We’d just seen Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — part of a pattern, it occurs to me now, of me choosing kind of awful date movies. (We later went on a date, at my suggestion, to see Kids. I’d just discovered Pleasant Street Theatre. I thought it’d be cool to see something “indie”. A silent drive home ensued.)

The college’s Gettell Amphitheater: site of my high school graduation, where I delivered a hopelessly florid speech to my class — a long, kind of prose, kind of poem thing that read like someone fell down a flight of stairs while carrying two pails filled with metaphors. I’d discovered my parents’ copy of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet about a month earlier. These things happen.

Mark Fitzpatrick — Mark from the Whiting Alcove, originally from Cork, Ireland, and now of Paris — had a favorite tree on campus, a giant copper beech. He’d stop to visit it on his morning walks to the school bus. Years later, under those sprawling branches, I asked a woman to marry me.

That was a long time before I learned that growing up is as much about learning to manage disappointment as it is about celebrating success; as much about losing things as it is about gaining them.

* * * * *

I took a walk around the campus this morning and all of these things came flooding back. And now I have a new memory to add to the index: standing on the bridge over the waterfall, I saw a Cooper’s Hawk take a low sweep across the pond and land in a tree all dressed in red and gold.

I followed the hawk as it hopped over to a pine tree and chased a squirrel in circles around the trunk. I wouldn’t have known it, but few slapstick scenes can match the sight of a hawk chasing a squirrel around the trunk of a tree.

This is how the Cooper’s Hawk hunts, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology explains: “Among the bird world’s most skillful fliers, Cooper’s Hawks are common woodland hawks that tear through cluttered tree canopies in high speed pursuit of other birds.”

The hawk soon gave up on the squirrel, though, and it flew out of sight.

I started looking for the next thing to remember.




Starlings perch along the ornate roof of Holyoke's City Hall. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Starlings fly around City Hall's tower. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Starlings against City Hall's stonework. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Starlings fly from the roof of the Dwight Street parking garage. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

House Sparrows take flight at Heritage State Park. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Pigeons at the Dwight Street Parking garage. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Pigeon overboard! (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Bonus squirrel shot. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

An American Crow walks along a bench in Veterans' Park, October 19. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

It’s easy to ignore the crows.

They seem to be everywhere, all the time. Their call can be grating and their wardrobe is utterly minimalist.

But in terms of watching — real, close observation — it’s hard to find a bird that exudes more personality.

Soon we’ll see their fall and winter roosting behavior. At dusk, thousands will blacken the sky over I-91 near the AAA offices in West Springfield. In the early mornings they’ll gather in the trees of Springfield’s Brightwood neighborhood.

During the darkest days of the year it’d be easy to wish for a brighter bird, but it’s worth learning to appreciate a bird that’s truly brilliant.

A Red-tailed Hawk says "scree!" outside of Open Square. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Shooting handheld at 200mm and a shutter speed of 1/50 isn’t my first choice for photographing birds, but you do what you have to do.

The sun was kissing the horizon somewhere when I spotted this pair of Red-tailed Hawks outside of Open Square, the massive mill complex that runs between Lyman and Dwight streets.

Click a photo below to enlarge.

A pair of House Finches on Maple Street. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

The streets were all shade but the late afternoon light filled the treetops and sparked the crosses atop the steeples at St. Jerome and Mater Dolorosa. All the sounds of approaching evening in Holyoke were there, too: the buses, the Pentecostal church band rehearsing in the building next door, and bird songs.

I shot the photo above at 5:25 p.m. outside Czelusniak Funeral Home near the corner of Hampden and Maple streets. I had to look this bird up; at first I thought it was a Purple Finch, but after reading Cornell’s comparison of Purple, Cassin’s and House Finches I’m leaning toward the latter. Purple Finches have a “deeply notched” tail while House Finches sport a tail that’s only “slightly” notched. That notch looks slight to me.

I walked through Pulaski Park next, from the American Legion Post down to the spray park. Two kids with a football were running passing patterns next to the basketball court.

It’s hard to say what they were thinking as I walked in circles under a honey locust tree, putting a cramp in my neck as I tried to get a clear shot of a Downy Woodpecker way up in the branches. The bird was tapping away at the tree’s banana-shaped seed pods, offering its distinctive “pik” call every so often. It was approaching 6 p.m. Click the photo to enlarge, for what it’s worth.

Soon a Mockingbird burst into song in a nearby tree, and I followed it over to Lyman Street. It sat on a strand of barbed wire outside Taft Power Equipment as a group of gulls flew high overhead.

I shot the photo at right from the opposite side of the street. After getting a “safety” shot I crossed, lined up a good closeup shot and watched as the bird disappeared just as I pressed the shutter.

My route home took me by Open Square, where I saw two Red-tailed Hawks. I’ll have a gallery from that sighting in my next post.