Canal District

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

After several weeks of hearing reports of Pine Grosbeaks in the region — mostly over in the Quabbin area — I finally found a pair Sunday morning in Heritage State Park, gorging on berries.

Here’s another angle:

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

Also on Sunday, I found two Common Redpolls mingling with a few American Goldfinches behind the former Albion Paper Mill, near the Connecticut River:

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

After I posted about the grosbeaks in a Facebook group for Western Massachusetts birders, one member decided to scope out Heritage State Park and ended up spotting a Black-and-White Warbler — a rarity in the area at this time of year,

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With a stiff wind wrestling an already weak sun into submission, I spent about two hours this afternoon to kick off 2013 with an inventory of the birds that are sticking out winter in the city. Here’s what I saw:

  • 60 European Starlings (estimate)
  • 30 Canada Geese (in flight)
  • 24 Mallards
  • 15 Dark-eyed Juncos
  • 12 Rock Pigeons
  • 5 House Sparrows
  • 5 Ring-billed Gulls
  • 3 American Robins
  • 2 Cooper’s Hawks (1 adult, 1 juvenile)
  • 1 Bald Eagle
  • 1 Red-tailed Hawk
  • 1 Northern Mockingbird

This was a fairly confined area: I started out in Heritage State Park, where I saw the Robins, Juncos, the immature Cooper’s Hawk, and several Mallards in the canal. One of the Red-tails was roosting up on City Hall. I then took a swing through Pulaski Park, where I found the adult Cooper’s Hawk and spotted the eagle out over the river.

Food seems to be getting scarce: Most of the berry trees in Heritage State Park have been picked over, with one or two still flush with a decent supply. A handful of the pine trees have cones. The Juncos were spending their time in the pines and in one of the trees that still had berries; several foraged on popcorn that someone had spilled outside the Children’s Museum.

(c) Greg Saulmon 2012

(c) Greg Saulmon 2012

Over the past few weeks I’ve been seeing at least two different Cooper’s Hawks in the city with some regularity.

I’ve spotted a juvenile, above, hunting in Pulaski Park and perched atop the Canal Gallery on Dwight Street.

There’s also an adult male that I haven’t managed to photograph yet. I’ve seen him flying over Hampden Street just downhill from the Stop & Shop, and hanging around out behind the Crocker paper mill by the river.

I’m curious to see whether they’re just passing through, or if they’ll be permanent residents around town.

The fledgling flies from the roof of Open Square Friday morning. (c) Greg Saulmon 2012

One of the fledgling Red-tailed Hawks from the Race Street nest has been spending its time on the roof at Open Square. I spotted it there Tuesday evening, early yesterday morning, and again this morning.

Each time the two adults — the original male and the new female — have been close by. The female seems to prefer to perch on the smoke stack at Open Square, while the male has a favorite window ledge near the top of a building on Front Street.

The adult male (right) and fledgling feed atop Open Square Friday. (c) Greg Saulmon 2012

I found the male first this morning and could tell where he was before I could even see him. There’s a metal rail along a brick wall at Open Square where he also likes to perch, and next to the rail there are a few trees. I saw a rustling among the leaves — branches thrashing around — and knew the hawk was there, grabbing a switch of green leaves.

Moments later the hawk emerged with a small branch and bundle of leaves in its beak. It flew to another perch on the mill, dropped the switch, and then circled around to join the fledgling on the roof.

The adult male fed while the fledgling stood by. Soon it stepped toward the edge of the roof and peered over. It backed up, took a little running start, jumped and took flight. It soared over the building, turned over the canal and landed next to the adult male, where the pair was soon joined by the female hawk.

I haven’t seen the second fledgling since Monday. The fledging period is one of the most dangerous times for a young hawk, especially in a city. They don’t yet have the street smarts to stay away from people and cars and often end up perching in places where they’re exposed to danger.

We should be able to watch the young hawks for the next month or two as they start spending more time in the air and learn how to hunt. By mid- to late-July, they’ll strike out on their own and establish a new territory.

Whether the adult male will stick around is up in the air, too, but it seems likely that he may re-nest at the Race Street site with the new female. The hawks at Washington Square in Manhattan provide a good case study: when the female half of the pair died in December 2011, the male found a new mate and hatched a brood at the same nest this spring.

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.

(c) Greg Saulmon 2012

The young hawks at the Race Street nest are venturing to the top rail of the fire escape that’s been their whole world these past 40-odd days, gaining their sense of balance and trust in their wings as they prepare to fly.

Several people have told me the chicks started hopping up to this final frontier before flight on Saturday, and possibly as early as Friday. I saw it myself for the first time this evening.

The adult male hawk, meanwhile, sat on a nearby telephone pole with a new female he may be courting. She’s light brown, about his size, and I saw them soaring together a little over a week ago. Tonight, they sat facing each other on the telephone pole for about 30-45 minutes. Then, they moved over to the roof of Open Square, where the male called to the chicks.

The chicks looked across the canal, hopped and flapped, but stayed on the fire escape. At the sound of another hawk, somewhere off in the distance, the female took flight and disappeared.

The male returned to the nest, perched on the rail for a few minutes and then, as if to say “This is how it’s done,” took a graceful leap, traced a half arc over the canal, and landed atop the Canal Gallery.

A caravan of cars, horns blaring, passed a few blocks away: high school students celebrating their graduation.

But the milestone for the young hawks would wait at least another day: the chicks stayed put, and the evening rain moved in as darkness fell.

More photos from this evening below.

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(c) Greg Saulmon 2012 | Click to enlarge.

One of the great joys I’ve found over the past few months has been watching the family of Red-tailed Hawks nesting on the fire escape of an industrial building on Race Street in Holyoke.

I’d seen the adult hawks downtown plenty of times — and I’ve posted a number of pictures of them here — but I owe a hat tip to Holyoke police officer Jared Hamel for helping me locate the nest.

(c) Greg Saulmon 2012 | Click to enlarge.

I met officer Hamel, a member of the police department’s narcotics unit, on the night of the devastating fire that destroyed the historic mill of American Writing Paper’s Mt. Tom Division. It was around midnight and I was shooting photos for my day job; we started chatting and somehow the conversation turned to birds in the city. I mentioned the hawks and wondered out loud where they lived.

“They’re on the fire escape,” Hamel told me, referring to one of the big empty buildings that line the canal.

Since then I’ve kept a close eye on the hawks’ habits, and on April 22 wildlife photographer and veterinarian Linda Henderson posted a simple comment here on the blog: “Redtails hatched.”

A week or so later photographer Don Cooper sent me an update, writing that the little hawks were growing fast, and that perhaps they’d hatched even earlier than we thought.

On Sunday — Mother’s Day — I got my first look at them. I spotted two chicks, but only managed to photograph one that sat high on the nest.

I was joined by two other birders who spotted me conspicuously staring up at the building; they’d made a special trip over to Race Street to look for the hawks, and I was happy to have the company as we watched the little one stand up now and then to tentatively stretch its short, fluffy wings.

The nestling period for Red-tails is 42-46 days, according to Cornell’s All About Birds. If they hatched around April 20, we may see them ready to take flight the first week of June.

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.