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Open Square

(c) Greg Saulmon 2012

After seeing just one of the fledglings from the Race Street nest all week, I’d gotten a little worried about the whereabouts and well-being of its sibling.

When the two young hawks fledged one week ago, one seemed to already be adept in the air, while the other fumbled clumsily on the sidewalk below the nest and ended up roosting on a fence in a nearby alley for several hours. It didn’t seem to have either the strength or the street smarts of its sibling.

Sunday afternoon, though, I located both fledglings.

(c) Greg Saulmon 2012

One was already practicing its hunting skills, playing hide-and-seek with a few squirrels on an iron bridge over one of the canals near Open Square.

The other sat in a maple tree, munching on a pigeon delivered by the female hawk that has become the fledgling’s surrogate mother.

As they have all week, both adults kept watch nearby all afternoon.

In another bit of good news, I also dropped by the MacKenzie Field nest to find another intact family: all three members of this year’s brood have fledged, likely a little before their counterparts on Race Street.

It’s baseball season again, so attendees of this year’s Blue Sox games can look forward to up to 5 hawks hanging around the stadium and perching on the lights.

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

Last fall I was surprised to learn that blue jays don’t just eat acorns; they swallow them whole.

Hawks, it turns out, eat much the same way, guzzling the skeletal remains of a fresh kill. The other day I watched the hawk above begin its meal on the roof of Open Square, and then finish it off on this utility pole on Race Street. After nibbling at the meat for a few minutes, it picked the whole carcass up, threw its head back, and swallowed everything. Bones and all.

This shouldn’t surprise me — it’s not like I thought they whipped out a set of silverware and cut their prey into dainty morsels. And, I took apart enough owl pellets in elementary school to know that birds can ingest and pass fur and bones.

Still, it was one of those things that you don’t necessarily think about until you see it first hand.

I’m still going through my photos and looking at different zoom levels to try to figure out if that’s a squirrel or pigeon the hawk’s eating. Right now, I’m thinking it’s the better part of a pigeon wing that’s going down the hatch.

(c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Saturday’s warm weather brought everyone out.

A couple pulled over on Dwight Street to shoot a self portrait on the Canal Walk. Kids rode the merry-go-round and climbed all over the water wheel in Heritage State Park. Another couple ate fast food at a picnic table. Two old men watched a pair of ducks in the canal.

“I’ve never seen ducks here before,” one man said.

The ducks aren’t always there, I told him, but they’re semi-regulars, as are the herons and, when they drain the canals in the spring and fall, the egrets.

The red-tailed hawks were out on Saturday, too. Three of them, exploring the smokestack at Open Square and roosting on City Hall. In the space of just a few blocks, in the span of just a few hours, I saw the ducks, and the hawks, a dove, a mockingbird, starlings, pigeons, sparrows and a number of dark-eyed juncos.

Most of them appear in the slideshow below.

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A Red-tailed Hawk says "scree!" outside of Open Square. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Shooting handheld at 200mm and a shutter speed of 1/50 isn’t my first choice for photographing birds, but you do what you have to do.

The sun was kissing the horizon somewhere when I spotted this pair of Red-tailed Hawks outside of Open Square, the massive mill complex that runs between Lyman and Dwight streets.

Click a photo below to enlarge.