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Monthly Archives: January 2012

(c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Saturday’s warm weather brought everyone out.

A couple pulled over on Dwight Street to shoot a self portrait on the Canal Walk. Kids rode the merry-go-round and climbed all over the water wheel in Heritage State Park. Another couple ate fast food at a picnic table. Two old men watched a pair of ducks in the canal.

“I’ve never seen ducks here before,” one man said.

The ducks aren’t always there, I told him, but they’re semi-regulars, as are the herons and, when they drain the canals in the spring and fall, the egrets.

The red-tailed hawks were out on Saturday, too. Three of them, exploring the smokestack at Open Square and roosting on City Hall. In the space of just a few blocks, in the span of just a few hours, I saw the ducks, and the hawks, a dove, a mockingbird, starlings, pigeons, sparrows and a number of dark-eyed juncos.

Most of them appear in the slideshow below.

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(c) Greg Saulmon 2011

We often call it “bird watching,” but your ears are as important as your eyes when you’re out in the field.

I thought about this while photographing the downy woodpecker at right a few weeks ago — a bird I never would’ve seen if I hadn’t been listening.

For a long time, I’d resisted relying on my ears because I thought it meant trying to memorize hundreds or thousands of bird songs. That’s intimidating.

Some people excel at it, but I’m not one of them.

More recently, though, I started trying to remain aware of a simple idea: if I can hear a bird singing, there’s probably a bird nearby. That tells me to be on the lookout.

Of course, bird sounds won’t always be bird songs. When I’m out, I try to tune in to scrapings, scratchings, tappings, rustlings — all sorts of slightly irregular noises. The downy woodpecker wasn’t making any blatantly woodpecker-ish sounds; it was just flitting about in some dry branches when I first heard it. But it was that faint, vague sound that let me know where to look.

So, remember: the field of view of the human eye is limited. Your ears can see what your eyes can’t.

American woodcock, Northampton. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Favorite new bird:
American woodcock

I was driving along a dirt road near the Oxbow back in June when I saw what I thought was — well, I actually didn’t have any idea what I thought it was. It was standing at the side of the road, in deep shade, and I only caught it out of the corner of my eye. I kept driving, thinking it was a chicken. But something seemed wrong about that chicken.

I found a place to turn around and went back to investigate.

Soon, I was scratching my head while I looked at a bird that looked like it had been assembled from parts of other birds. It was shy — I was only able to pop a few frames, at a distance, before it disappeared into the underbrush.

I tend not to venture out specifically in the hope of spotting a new-to-me species, but a sighting that has me running home to check the Cornell Lab’s “All About Birds” for help with an ID is always fun.

Favorite old favorite: Hawks

I never get tired of seeing hawks. On my recent trip to California it seemed like there was a red-tail perched on every third telephone pole along one stretch of Route 1, and I still managed to get a little giddy for every single one.

Favorite new favorite: Starlings

The birds I took for granted when I was a kid now totally intrigue me. They used to seem too drab, too medium-sized, too common. But when I started looking at them — really looking at them — I finally realized just how complex and vivid their color palette is. And then there are the murmurations, the magic of watching the patterns they weave in flight.

When I moved into my apartment there was an old television antenna right outside one of my living room windows, on the roof of the building next door. The antenna was gathering place for starlings, but it fell victim to high winds last January. I still miss walking by the window and taking a peek at the shapes they were making against the sky.

Falcons visit City Hall in Holyoke. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Favorite birding surprise:
Falcons on my block

I’d just started getting used to the idea that eagles had become a regular sight in downtown Holyoke when I realized that a pair of peregrine falcons are regular visitors to City Hall. Falcons were kind of the gateway bird for me, and I filled a lot of sketchbooks as a kid with falcon after falcon after falcon. But I only drew them from my bird guides — I never really thought I’d see them in the wild. And, even as I got older and realized they were living in Sunderland and Amherst and even Springfield, I never really thought I’d see them — and see them so regularly — in downtown Holyoke.

But now here I am, and here they are.

The Crocker Mill. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Favorite birding location:
The paper mills

In general, my pick here is “downtown Holyoke” — the canals, Heritage State Park, the upper deck of the parking garage — but one area stands out.

The old paper mills that run along Water Street are really on the outskirts of the downtown area, the last thing between the Flats neighborhood and the river. The atmosphere, when you walk the path that runs behind them, is an odd mix of urban, industrial and wild. It’s half creepy and all beautiful.

And there’s a fascinating mix of birds here. I’ve seen eagles, hawks, falcons, orioles, woodpeckers, juncos and several species of sparrows. At dusk, the mills are right in the flight path of the crows as they head toward their roosts in Springfield. Because of the proximity to the river, ducks, geese and gulls are regulars, too.

If you’re a fan of both birds and 19th-century industrial architecture, this spot is tough to beat.

(c) Greg Saulmon 2012

You get a range of reactions when you walk around downtown Holyoke with a large camera, telling people you’reĀ  looking for birds.

At the corner of Race and Appleton streets, a man stopped and asked if I was a tourist. I was lining up a shot of a starling backlit by a half moon.

He suggested I wander over to the Wherehouse, a banquet facility with an eccentric owner who’s collected all sorts of ephemera: an old Holyoke fire truck; a wingless airplane perched high on some sort of pedestal; a flipperless dolphin that looks like it came from a sea-themed merry-go-round.

“There’s all sorts of neat stuff over there you could photograph,” he said.

I thanked him for the tip, but told him I lived nearby and was just out seeing if I could spot any birds.

“Oh. Well, good luck with that,” he said.

Some people, of course, just go on with their own business.

While I was on the Canal Walk, squinting at the sky and looking for the falcons, a guy who owns one of the former mills sat behind me on a bench, engrossed in a phone call. He was talking to his father, apologizing for a pair of Red Sox pajamas that “hadn’t worked out.”

“We’ll find something else for you, dad,” he said into the phone. “I promise.”

He went on: “Let me tell you something dad, just between you and me: I’ve kept every coat you’ve ever given me. Every single coat. I feel invincible when I wear those coats.”

I’d met him once before, in the same spot, and when I’d told him I was photographing birds he brought me into the building to proudly show me a framed photo of two red-tailed hawks perched on one of the old factory’s turret-like towers.

“I put up screens on most of the towers to keep the pigeons out, but I kept this tower open so the hawks could still get in,” he told me.

On Maple Street this evening, I ran into a neighbor who was walking his dog.

“Some lens,” he said.

I told him it was my birding lens.

“You got a minute?” he asked, and he told me a story about how he’d once brought home a young pigeon that had been injured in a winter storm. He nursed it at home for several days until he thought it was ready to fly. He took it out to a parking lot on High Street clasped in his hands, and when he opened his palms the pigeon fluttered and hovered for a moment before landing clumsily on the pavement. Then there was an explosion of feathers: one of the neighborhood hawks grabbed the pigeon and carried it off to a nearby roof.

“I once heard that hawks stun their prey, but I don’t think that little guy had any idea what hit him,” he said.

By this time it had gotten too dark to photograph birds, and I stopped at the bus station to take a picture of the waiting area lit by a hallway light and a vending machine.

In the window’s reflection I saw someone behind me: “Hey, why do you take pictures like that?”

It was the short, muscular guy from Lyman Terrace with the Caesar haircut.

The clouds over the park were moving quickly now, like they were trying to get home before full-blown night swept over the city.

“Just a hobby,” I told him.

“A hobby?”

“Yeah,” I told him, explaining that sometimes I shoot photos for work, and sometimes just for fun, and that I spend all the time I can practicing.

“Oh. I was hiding behind that sign because I saw you with a camera, and I thought maybe you were trying to take pictures to give to the cops.”

I told him that, most of the time, I’m just taking pictures of birds.

“Must be the streets, man,” he said. “These streets are getting to me.”