Holyoke’s latest spring arrival appears to be an Eastern Phoebe that I’ve seen flitting around Heritage State Park the past two mornings:

20130407-121432.jpg

20130407-121452.jpg

I’ve also been hearing a woodpecker in the neighborhood, and this morning I finally tracked it down — it was a Downy, bashing away at a tree in Lyman Terrace:

20130407-121501.jpg

Below, audio of the woodpecker:

holyoke-habitat

Most successful birding excursions begin with a plan to seek out the right habitat for the bird you’re hoping to see.

While you find plenty of surprises in the world of urban birding, and certain species turn up in all sorts of places where you wouldn’t expect them, thinking about habitat is just as important as it is when you’re birding in more traditional settings.

The area shown in the photo above, which is flanked by Canal and Water streets in Holyoke, offers a case in point. Though I’ve driven by it plenty of times, I’d never thought to go birding there — until I drove by last week and noticed it was a marshy spot, wedged between two large industrial tracts, that had a healthy population of cattails at one end and plenty of short trees and underbrush throughout. I’d seen reports of Red-winged Blackbirds returning to plenty of other places in western Massachusetts, and seeing the cattails made me think: “Huh, I bet you can find them here, too.”

rw-b_2927During a recent visit, it didn’t take too long to get confirmation: I found the blackbird at right immediately upon arriving at the little swath of this drained canal bed where the cattails stand.

It’s a promising spot. Within a short period of time here, I found a number of Song Sparrows, a pair of Northern Cardinals, a Northern Mockingbird, and a few mid-molt American Goldfinches. I expect to find even more species here as the vegetation fills in and more insects hatch.

As the spring migration looms, I’ve been thinking a lot about the parts of the city I may have been overlooking so far. And I’ve been thinking about how building my awareness of different habitats — even on extremely small scales, in the form of pocket parks and tiny urban gardens — can yield an ever more interesting array of sightings in Holyoke.

Below, photos of a few of the birds I found in this section of the city: goldfinch_2881

DSC_2946

song-sparrow-3531

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

 

 

 

 

20130325-213533.jpg

I haven’t seen the falcons downtown in a few months, but tonight just after sunset the pair paid a short visit to a ledge on the tower at City Hall.

As the twilight deepened at least one of the birds flew away. I’m not sure whether the other stayed on the ledge — I’d taken a rare walk without a camera, so I had to run back to my apartment to retrieve it after I first saw them land on the building.

Here’s a short recording of the pair calling to each other:

And, here are a few more shots of the encounter:

20130325-214343.jpg

20130325-214404.jpg

20130325-214419.jpg

(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.

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

After seeing only a female American Kestrel downtown since January, I finally saw a male this week — and the pair seems to have staked out the same nesting location as last year, in the soffit of an industrial building along Race Street.

Here, the male visits the nest:

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

(c) Greg Saulmon 2013

And below, a recording of the pair calling to each other:

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.

20130302-180627.jpg

Black-capped Chickadees present an interesting question. I’ve only observed them in Heritage State Park twice over the past year or so — but does that actually mean they’re infrequent visitors?

More likely, their periods of high activity haven’t coincided with my visits, or they’ve been out and about in one corner of the park while I’ve been distracted in another.

The one above was among a group of three last Sunday.

Also present were a few regulars: House Sparrows and a pair of Northern Mockingbirds:

20130302-181149.jpg

20130302-181325.jpg