An empty nest: Race Street hawk fledglings begin exploring the neighborhood

One of the fledglings prepares for a flight across Race Street Monday afternoon. (c) Greg Saulmon 2012

Downtown Holyoke can be strangely tranquil for an urban center, and many of my visits to the Race Street Red-tailed Hawk nest have been quiet affairs.

With two fledglings learning to fly at altitudes that sometimes left their talons nearly scraping the pavement, though, the whole world seemed suddenly chaotic. The cars seemed louder, faster, more numerous; people on foot were no longer forced to watch from a distance, and crept in for close-ups with cell phone cameras.

When I stopped by after an afternoon errand, the chick that had spent most of its morning perched on a fence in an alley was back on the short set of stairs where I’d first spotted it this morning. With a hop from the top step it flew across Race Street and landed on the fence that runs along the sidewalk.

Two teenage boys walking along and staring at their phones didn’t see the hawk until they were inches from it. Both boys yelped, startled. The hawk, also startled, took off on its longest flight of the day: all the way across the canal, to a loading dock at Open Square.

The afternoon wore on, and the neighborhood grew quiet again. Way down Race Street, two boys practiced boxing in the middle of the road. One wore boxing gloves, the other blocking mitts.

The adult male and the new female perched on a window sill at Open Square, staring each other down. The adults made a number of kills today, and seemed to be leaving prey around — on rooftops and poles — for the fledglings to find.

I hadn’t seen the other, stronger fledgling since the morning, when it flew from a utility pole to the flat roof of a nearby building. After a few circles around the block, I heard several Blue Jays shouting near the train tracks at the Mosher Street overpass.

The jays were flitting around a stand of trees, and when the wind finally parted the branches I saw the young hawk. It was struggling to keep its balance as the wind grew stronger, opening its wings and tightrope walking along the tree’s limber trunk.

One of the fledglings perches atop the train station on Bowers Street. Click to enlarge.

Moments before a hard rain started to fall the fledgling took to the air and landed at the very top of the city’s old train station.

At dusk, I went back to check on them. I checked the loading dock, the alley, the train station, every light and telephone pole, corners of buildings, and the nest. It was the time of day when it’s hard to tell the difference between shapes and shadows, when everything looks like whatever it is you’re looking for. A branch with leaves turned at an odd angle, a pile of bricks; all looked like the fledglings, but the fledglings were nowhere to be found.

The adult male perched on the Wauregan building on Dwight Street, and then started making his evening rounds: a short flight over to a building on Front Street, and then a pass through the nooks and crannies at Open Square.

Soon he disappeared into the evening’s shadows, too.

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