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Monthly Archives: April 2012

I had just enough time for a short walk Saturday afternoon, and I’m glad I got out.

Cedar Waxwings were a favorite of mine growing up, but I hadn’t seen one in years. I was out behind the paper mills by the river when I spotted several in a tree just beyond the flood control wall:

(c) Greg Saulmon 2012

A quick scramble up a ladder, to the top of the wall, and I had a nice vantage point:

(c) Greg Saulmon 2012

I took a walk out onto the bridge to see if either of the eagles were out. I didn’t see them, but a Double-crested Cormorant did make a low pass over the bridge while I was there:

(c) Greg Saulmon 2012

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There’s been a lot of excitement today as the first pips appeared on three Red-tailed Hawk eggs in a nest on the campus of Cornell University, home to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The nest, 80 feet up on a light pole at the university’s athletic fields, is the subject of live-streaming camera that offers viewers an intimate look at the lives of the pair nicknamed “Big Red” and “Ezra”.

Cornell posted a still frame of the pips on Flickr earlier this afternoon; have a look here. Follow @cornellhawks on Twitter for updates, and read more about the hawk cam project here.

CLICK HERE for the live stream.

Here in Holyoke, I got word today from Linda Henderson that the hawks on Race Street have hatched. I’ll have my eye on them this week.

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.

The scene at right is common during Holyoke Blue Sox games. A red-tailed hawk rounds the bases at Holyoke High School’s MacKenzie Stadium before taking a perch at one of the best seats in the house — way atop one of the light towers.

The Blue Sox are part of the New England Collegiate Baseball League — a step away from Major League Baseball’s minor leagues but a step above regular college ball. The league’s best players vie for the eyes of major league scouts, and the eight-week season that begins in June and can wrap up by early August sometimes feels like it’s over before it begins. The games have a timeless quality, and when the stadium announcer croons a slightly off-key rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch it’s easy to imagine that you’re at a ballpark in any one of the last three or four decades.

Baseball might offer some of best analogies for birding that you can find in sports. The pace is slow, deliberate, and you need a lot of patience to really enjoy it. And you have to focus — let your mind or your eyes wander for just a few seconds and your risk missing a decisive moment.

Of course, it’s easy to let your eyes wander if you keep catching the silhouette of a hawk against the lights.

(c) Greg Saulmon 2012

Because I was seeing the bird so regularly during games over the past few seasons, I figured there was a nest somewhere near the stadium — maybe in the patch of woods between the high school and the Peck Elementary known as the Dingle. The other night I set out to find it, and I didn’t have to look far. (Click the photo for a better view.)

At the rear of one stand of lights are two metal-grate platforms, and there’s a nest on each — one right above the other. I only saw activity on the lower nest, but I haven’t spent long enough observing yet to tell whether the upper nest is occupied.

(c) Greg Saulmon 2012

What I did have a chance to observe is something I’ve noticed while watching another pair of hawks downtown this spring: the birds seem to trade places on the nest every hour or so, and the bird that’s out hunting often maintains a line of sight back to the nest.

Just before I went over to MacKenzie Stadium, I’d noticed a hawk sitting on a cross at the top of the steeple at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in the city’s Churchill neighborhood.

While watching the hawk on the nest at the ball field, I noticed that steeple off in the distance — and realized I could just barely make out the shape of the hawk still sitting on the cross.

It’s a clear view from the steeple to the stadium.

I waited another 10 or 15 minutes and, sure enough, the hawk leaped from the steeple and glided toward the stadium. It made a pass by the nest in the lights before cruising out of my sight somewhere over Beech Street.

We’re still a little over a month out from the first Blue Sox game, but now it looks like my regular visits to MacKenzie will start a little earlier this year.

Below, a map showing Our Lady of Guadalupe and MacKenzie Stadium.

Click to enlarge. (c) Greg Saulmon 2012

I was driving on Dwight Street yesterday afternoon when I saw one of the downtown hawks land at the top of the flagpole on Holyoke’s main post office branch.

Even though I only had a 50mm lens with me, I dutifully pulled over to snap a few shots. Getting out of the car, I noticed that a kid and his father walking on the sidewalk across the street had the same idea: they were both staring up at the hawk, taking photos with a cell phone.

The hawk only stayed a few moments; when it flew away, I looked across the street to find the kid absolutely beaming.