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Songbirds

(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 pair of House Finches on Maple Street. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

The streets were all shade but the late afternoon light filled the treetops and sparked the crosses atop the steeples at St. Jerome and Mater Dolorosa. All the sounds of approaching evening in Holyoke were there, too: the buses, the Pentecostal church band rehearsing in the building next door, and bird songs.

I shot the photo above at 5:25 p.m. outside Czelusniak Funeral Home near the corner of Hampden and Maple streets. I had to look this bird up; at first I thought it was a Purple Finch, but after reading Cornell’s comparison of Purple, Cassin’s and House Finches I’m leaning toward the latter. Purple Finches have a “deeply notched” tail while House Finches sport a tail that’s only “slightly” notched. That notch looks slight to me.

I walked through Pulaski Park next, from the American Legion Post down to the spray park. Two kids with a football were running passing patterns next to the basketball court.

It’s hard to say what they were thinking as I walked in circles under a honey locust tree, putting a cramp in my neck as I tried to get a clear shot of a Downy Woodpecker way up in the branches. The bird was tapping away at the tree’s banana-shaped seed pods, offering its distinctive “pik” call every so often. It was approaching 6 p.m. Click the photo to enlarge, for what it’s worth.

Soon a Mockingbird burst into song in a nearby tree, and I followed it over to Lyman Street. It sat on a strand of barbed wire outside Taft Power Equipment as a group of gulls flew high overhead.

I shot the photo at right from the opposite side of the street. After getting a “safety” shot I crossed, lined up a good closeup shot and watched as the bird disappeared just as I pressed the shutter.

My route home took me by Open Square, where I saw two Red-tailed Hawks. I’ll have a gallery from that sighting in my next post.

A Mockingbird behind the Gill paper mill. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

I watched a Mockingbird for a long time Sunday afternoon.

I’d taken a walk at one of my favorite Holyoke birdwatching locations: the path that runs between the old paper mills and the river out behind Water Street.

I see a lot of hawks out here, and a lot of Mourning Doves hanging out on the power lines. It’s in the flight path of the American Crows on winter afternoons. One day I followed a Baltimore Oriole into an eerie courtyard between the Albion and Crocker mills. And during Sunday’s walk I even startled one of the Bald Eagles that makes its home along the river — my second eagle sighting in the city that day.

Arriving at a large pile of brush behind the Gill, I spotted a trio of Mockingbirds taking turns swooping in from a nearby tree to land on the tangle of branches. Each time the birds would sit for a few seconds, fidget a bit and fly back to the tree.

A Song Sparrow. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Finally one landed and just sat. And for over 15 minutes, it sat on the same twig. It was around 5:30 p.m. Every once in a while it would make a chewing motion with its beak and spit out what looked like the red shells of a seed. Sometimes it would throw a nervous glance my way — but it didn’t seem to worry about the fact that I kept inching closer, and it held its ground when I moved around to the other side of the brush pile to shoot from a different angle.

Eventually it darted over to a rusted chain link fence topped with barbed wire, and then joined the others in a tree by the mill.

And the Mockingbirds weren’t the only ones enjoying this little corner of the world: I managed to snap this photo of a Song Sparrow in the same spot Sunday, only noticing the delicate spider web when I opened the file on my laptop.

 

 

A Great Blue Heron flies over one of Holyoke's canals at Sargeant Street Sunday morning. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Sunday morning brought some of the best weather we’ve seen here in a while, and it was impossible to find an excuse to not head out for a long walk. The birds came out to enjoy the sun, too. Here are some highlights:

A Blue Jay eats an acorn. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

On the lawn of the city library on Maple Street Blue Jays were gorging themselves on acorns.

Acorns are a staple of the Blue Jay diet; the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s description of the species reads: “Their fondness for acorns is credited with helping spread oak trees after the last glacial period.”

But “fondness” might be an understatement: Blue Jays apparently love acorns, guzzling one after another whole in such a frenzy that the scene on the lawn looked like Coney Island’s Fourth of July Hot Dog-Eating Contest.

The photo at right was taken at 7:52 a.m.

The heron lands at the edge of the canal. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011


Twice each year Holyoke Gas & Electric drains the city’s extensive canal system so that building owners can perform maintenance on the turbines and other infrastructure that still provide electricity for a number of downtown buildings. The drainings happen in the spring and again in September, and that’s when the herons usually show up, poking around in the muck.

But this morning as I walked on Sargeant Street I saw two gulls glide into view and, trailing them, a much bigger bird.

The Great Blue Heron traced a few lazy circles over the canal (see above) before landing on the timbers at the entrance to the tail race of the old Parsons Paper Mill. A massive fire destroyed the mill in 2008, but its remains still attract crows and pigeons and, today, the big prehistoric-looking bird.

The heron sat and scanned the water for 4 minutes — 8:29 to 8:33 a.m. — before taking off in its slow-motion-like flight.


A Bald Eagle flies over Sargeant Street. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

On the heels of the heron came another nice surprise on Sargeant Street: a Bald Eagle soaring beneath the waning moon.

I never saw eagles growing up around here, and never really figured I would. They were birds that lived in other places. And in 1979, according to a University of Massachusetts site devoted to the ecology of the Connecticut River, a winter survey found only 9 eagles in the entire state. But now they’re increasingly part of the landscape, even outside of their stronghold at the Quabbin Reservoir.

The 2011 winter survey count? 102, a new record.