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It may be at the doorstep of home ice for the Springfield Falcons hockey franchise, but Springfield’s Court Square also appears to be home to a pair of Red-tailed Hawks.

Last year I photographed a hawk at Court Square in late February. I’ve heard consistent reports of hawks hanging around the park and buildings there over the past year.

Today, Springfield photographer and photo blogger Lorrin Baker sent me an email saying one of the hawks was perched on the rooster-shaped weather vane high atop the Old First Church. It took me a while to finally get out of the office and head over there, but the hawk was still hanging around when I arrived.

A few shots:

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

 

 

 

 

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

I hadn’t planned on stopping to check on the kestrels during a drive around Holyoke this afternoon, but when I saw this guy on a wire near the nest I felt obliged to stop.

I’m glad I did, because apparently what he’s thinking here is, “Hey, girl.” A moment later, he took flight and joined the female on a nearby utility pole. And then:

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

The incubation period for kestrels, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is 26-32 days. The nestling period is another 28-31 days.

In years past, Don Cooper has told me, the kestrels at this nest have fledged around the first week of July. And, for a little history on this nest: Don showed me a photo the other day that he took of kestrels at this site along Holyoke’s canals in 2006.

 

 

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

The new nest site Holyoke’s downtown Red-tailed Hawks chose this year is a little more secluded — and further from a busy intersection — than the fire escape where they made their home last year. It’s a less harrowing place, I hope, for a young hawk to learn to fly.

It’s also on a building owned by a friend, and this morning we went to an upper floor before dawn with the hope of getting a count of the number of eggs the hawks are incubating.

The goal here was to observe as unobtrusively as possible, so we started two floors above and several windows away from the spot directly above the nest. The photo above was shot with a long lens from this fourth-floor location, well before sunrise — the hawks happened to build their nest right below an external light.

One thing I hadn’t realized from the ground: there’s a ledge that runs along each row of windows. Two floors up meant two ledges (one with a set of hooks protruding even further from the side of the building) to try to shoot around.

From the third floor — again, several windows away from the position directly above the nest, to avoid disturbing the bird — the line of sight wasn’t any better. Trying to get a view of the nest meant having both my head and shoulders out of the window, which was more invasive than I wanted to be.

The hawks thought so, too: within moments, I heard feathers above me and looked up to find the second hawk circling not-so-high overhead. Even after closing the window the hawk hovered outside, watching me. It only took one talon-first swoop toward the building to tell me we’d overstayed our welcome.

In a city, it’s easy to imagine that the birds you find are merely visitors in the human world. But the same rules of observing wildlife you’d follow in the deep woods also applies to an urban setting: you’re a visitor in their world, and you have to respect their space. Seeing that the hawks were uncomfortable with our presence, it was an easy decision to call short what I’d hoped would be a much longer observation.

An alert co-worker called me from the newspaper parking lot today to tell me that a hawk had just killed a pigeon, and was using the roof of our building as its lunch table.

It was time for my own lunch, anyway, but by the time I got outside the hawk had carried its meal to a nearby tree, eventually settling in a pine tree near Main Street. Here are a few shots:

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

 

 

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

Both hawks were on the nest when I first checked this morning before dawn, but one soon left to perch atop a nearby utility pole.

The remaining hawk — the female, I think — stayed behind, sitting very low on the nest. Then, she sat up high for just a minute or two before settling back down even lower than before.

This afternoon, she was still on the nest, her head barely visible in the tangle of branches.

Did she lay an egg this morning? Are there others? I’m hoping to figure that out over the next few days.

Red-tails will usually lay one to five eggs. Last year we saw two chicks hatch downtown, with three more over at the MacKenzie Field nest (which was also occupied when I checked yesterday morning).

If incubation began today, we’re likely to see chicks downtown between about April 11 and April 18.

Starr Saphir in Central Park, May, 2012. (c) Greg Saulmon

Starr Saphir in Central Park, May, 2012. (c) Greg Saulmon

On a gray Manhattan morning in late May 2012, at the tail end of the spring migration that sees up to 100 bird species pass through the city en route to their summer homes in the north, Starr Saphir wove through Central Park like a divining rod — if divining rods were meant to detect warblers instead of water.

Traffic hummed along Central Park West. A helicopter flew overhead as two dogs fought on a nearby lawn. Still, Saphir heard birds, and when a Warbling Vireo reeled off its frenetic violin solo of a song she snapped to attention.

“I only hear the birds,” she told me later. “A truck could hit me — I wouldn’t hear it.”

Saphir, who died Tuesday after an 11-year battle with breast cancer, led birding walks in Central Park for 28 years. The morning I joined her was her last group walk of the spring. As a few stragglers joined the group, Saphir, unsure that we’d see much of anything so late in the season, assessed the turnout: “Well, this proves that we are a species in which hope springs eternal.”

Known as the “matriarch” of the park’s birding scene — she logged 259 species there over the years — Saphir naturally figured as a character in the documentary “Birders: The Central Park Effect,” which aired last summer on HBO.

The show took its title from an ornithological principle: if you put a park in an urban area — even one as densely populated as Manhattan — it will serve as a magnet for numerous species of birds. As filmmaker Jeffrey Kimball explained on the show’s website, “What I really hope people take away is that a vacant lot, or a backyard, or a strip of road — anything can be thought of as habitat and should be preserved and treated as habitat and not abused, because it very well may be supporting a little pocket of nature.”

HBO will air the program again at 6 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 9, in honor of Saphir’s passing. (The program is also available via Amazon and iTunes.)

Anyone who joined one of Saphir’s walks quickly learned that she was a character as colorful as the birds she sought. She had a habit of walking with one arm tucked like a wing behind her back, and of scolding birders for pointing at their quarry.

On that May morning her outfit seemed chosen to coordinate with the Cerulean Warbler featured on her website’s masthead. She wore a blue bandana over curly gray hair; glasses over heavy blue eye shadow; a blue windbreaker tied around her waist; blue running shoes. Her t-shirt was tan, with a picture of a bird.

She looks like this in most pictures you’ll find.

For a decade after she was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, she continued to lead her birding walks four days a week: Monday through Wednesday, and Saturday. She charged $8 per person.

The walks covered a great deal of ground; Saphir moved quickly, with only brief pauses for observation. After a vigorous search for an Acadian Flycatcher Saphir heard calling in the trees, she was off to the next location within moments of spotting the tiny olive bird.

A short distance away, she heard another call. “Warbling Vireo,” she shouted over a lawnmower as she tried to alert the group. Then, frustration in her voice rising: “Warbling Vireo. Warbling… God!”

A raccoon slumbered in a nearby tree. Saphir moved on.

In the Ramble the group stopped at a pair of benches. Saphir sat and I asked her how birding in the park had changed over the decades.

She began scientifically. “There are far fewer neotropical migrants,” she said, chalking the decline up to several factors: deforestation and the suburbanization of America following World War II; pesticides; feral cats. In the 1970s, she says, an abundance of migrants would mean seeing 300 American Redstarts or Magnolia Warblers during the spring migration.

Now, to see 30 of either species in a season is considered a bounty.

She squinted at the trees and said, “I’m sorry there aren’t more birds.”

Then, after a quiet moment interrupted only by a woodpecker somewhere out in the Ramble, she offered another observation about how her experience birding in the park had changed: “I sit more than I used to.”

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Below, a gallery of images from the walk.

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The population of Cooper’s Hawks in the city has remained robust throughout the winter, and I’ve seen at least one nearly each time I’ve gone out for the past few months.

On Sunday morning I spotted three in the center of the city within just about an hour, beginning with this one in Heritage State Park:

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

A few blocks away, I found one hanging around a block of abandoned buildings near the library:

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

The hawk above was a pretty interesting sighting. Two of my previous interactions with this particular location include a) photographing a fire that left a number of people homeless and b) photographing outreach workers from a needle exchange program visiting known shooting galleries in the city.

I’ve mostly trained myself to not be surprised at the locations in the city where interesting birds turn up, and finding this hawk just adds to the evidence behind my belief that you can really practice the hobby of birding anywhere.

Thinking I’d seen all there was to see, I nearly missed this juvenile near the corner of Chestnut and Appleton streets:

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

A bold squirrel ended up running the hawk out of the tree:

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

Click to enlarge. (c) Greg Saulmon 2013

Click to enlarge. (c) Greg Saulmon 2013


MassAudubon’s “Focus on Feeders” weekend is underway. Since I don’t have any feeders (or a backyard) I figured I’d take a bird more of a “Christmas Bird Count” approach to gathering data today.

I spent about 4 hours out in the field, focusing on the Heritage State Park / Race Street area and the land between the paper mills and the Connecticut River shoreline.

A few highlights included a pair of Carolina Wrens and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

Click to enlarge. (c) Greg Saulmon 2013

Click to enlarge. (c) Greg Saulmon 2013

Here’s my full count:

Click to enlarge. (c) Greg Saulmon 2013

Click to enlarge. (c) Greg Saulmon 2013

More pictures to come.