The Common Redpolls shown in this print were photographed behind the former Crocker and Albion paper mills:
Below, a field recording posted to the bird audio archive site Xeno-Canto:
After the first paper mill began operating in Holyoke in 1873, the city quickly established itself as a center of the industry. By 1907 Holyoke’s paper industry consisted of 24 mills employing 4,551 workers.
The nickname ‘The Paper City’ still sticks.
When the jobs left the mills remained, including a row of former factories running along the city’s border at the Connecticut River. In their day, they were home to several of the 16 divisions of the American Writing Paper Co., including the Crocker, Albion, Mt. Tom, Nonotuck and Gill divisions.
Two of the mills have been destroyed in separate, spectacular fires. After falling into severe decay, the rest are being dismantled, their brick and beams sold off as salvage material.
A path runs between these buildings and a tall concrete wall that serves as part of the city’s flood control system, and if you follow this path you’ll find some of the most interesting birding territory in the city.
The proximity to the river, a natural migratory flyway, means it’s possible to see just about anything here.
Orioles visit the courtyards of the old mills; Bald Eagles hunting along the river soar overhead.
And, for a few weeks in January, a handful of Common Redpolls foraged near a Dumpster filled with debris from the demolition process. A regular winter visitor to backyard feeders in western Massachusetts, this spot behind the mills was the only place in the city where I observed them over the winter. They’d found what they needed: a stand of dead weeds, still laden with seeds, growing among the ties of forgotten railroad tracks.
The variety of birds that can be found behind the mills — and the chance of encountering an interesting surprise species — is only half the reason I enjoy birding here, though. The other draw: the buildings themselves.
Peer into an open basement window and you’re met with the building’s breath, an exhale of must and stale fuel fumes. Visit often enough and you notice the little changes, the wall collapses and the sudden appearance of a new bundle of handsome wood floorboards extracted from inside.
It all starts to feel like watching a time-lapse film. The massive, stoic structures that have defined the city’s architectural and economic landscape suddenly seem intensely temporary, and it’s hard to imagine what, if anything, comes next.
The only thing that seems certain? The birds were here long before the mills, and they’re likely to be here long after the last load of bricks is carted away.