Urban birding encounters: It must be the streets

(c) Greg Saulmon 2012

You get a range of reactions when you walk around downtown Holyoke with a large camera, telling people you’re  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.”

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