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Connecticut River

I wrote yesterday that with so many Yellow-rumped Warblers at Arcadia, one could probably find them in Holyoke, too.

I was right: I found three behind the Crocker Mill this afternoon, near the Connecticut River. They were very high in the trees:

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A Downy Woodpecker was foraging nearby:

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And I saw at least two different Eastern Phoebes, including this one:

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This gallery contains 11 photos.

While I do most of my birding in the heart of Holyoke, I find it helpful to take regular trips to more traditional birding hotspots around the Pioneer Valley. Checking in at places like Arcadia, where the bird populations tend to be a bit more robust and varied, helps me keep tabs on when migratory …

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(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

A small group of Golden-crowned Kinglets brought a little color to an otherwise gloomy day. I photographed the one above behind the factory that was once home to the Gill division of American Writing Paper, between Water Street and the Connecticut River.

The tiny birds — weighing about as much as two pennies — are one of the miracles of animal survival. Somehow, they can withstand the freezing winter nights of the north, huddling together in conifers.

What else do they do to survive? From an episode of BirdNote:

Bernd Heinrich, a biologist at the University of Maine, tried to answer that question. He found that the kinglets move through the forest in small flocks and feed constantly, at almost one peck per second, throughout the short day. By this activity, they take in enough tiny caterpillars to keep their bodies going. [“Kinglets in Winter,” Dennis Paulson]

Heinrich’s 2003 book, Winter World, explores how a number of species weather the winter. Kinglets, it turns out, stick out the season of scarce food by relying on a species of moth larvae that spends the winter on tree branches instead of underground.

For more on Golden-crowned Kinglets, see Vermont blogger Chris Patrick’s excellent post on the species.

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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.

Click to enlarge. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Before the kill, the eagle sat in the tree for a long time.

It had flown in low from the south over the bridge to South Hadley Falls and settled on a dead branch in a leafless tree on a rocky island in the middle of the river. Beyond the island the dam was dry, save for a torrent spilling over a small section near the Holyoke Gas & Electric plant. The old Texon factory slept at the opposite shore.

A gang of gulls flew in front of the eagle, white spots against the factory’s red brick. It was 5 p.m. and the eagle sat on the branch for almost a full half hour. I stood on the bridge and watched the bird watch the river.

Click to enlarge. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

I only looked away for a few seconds but that’s when the eagle made its move. I’d pulled the lens back for a wide shot of the river and the dam and the factory and the mountain and most of all the clouds, which had turned the color of a shark’s skin. A halo of white sky opened up over Mount Tom. It was getting cold.

When my eyes returned to the branch, the eagle was gone.

I picked it up a few seconds later: it was flying well below the height of a dam, looking down at a duck that was nearly raking its wingtips across the water.

The eagle dove.

Click to enlarge. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

With its first hit it knocked the duck sideways in the air. Then it made a pedaling motion with its feet, reaching for and finally clasping the duck in its talons. The eagle carried the duck over a tangle of boulders and tree trunks and splashed into the river for a moment as it hauled its prey onto a long, smooth rock.

Headlights flickered on passing cars, drivers unaware of the drama unfolding below. The windows of the Texon factory watched unblinking. Two men lit a campfire on the sandy shore just north of the bridge. One man sat on a log the river had polished bone-white. He looked out at the cold brown-green water.

Out below the dam, the eagle bowed its head and ate.