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Hudson River Almanac February 21 - February 28, 2005

OVERVIEW

It seems to be an annual trend: seal sightings increase in late winter and early spring. Two factors that may contribute to this increase are a boom in the harbor seal population in southern New England (with an overflow of young seals finding their way into the Hudson estuary) and the impending seasonal arrival of millions of herring from the sea. While harbor seals have been sighted for the last month or more, the number of harp seal sightings has recently taken a major jump.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

2/24 - Sprout Brook, HRM 43.5: We were walking on frozen Sprout Brook just after first light, two miles from tidewater, visiting a vulture night roost. We have counted as many as 140 vultures here in winter. About 10-15% of them are black vultures, the rest turkey vultures. They line fence railings, crowd into tree tops, and squeeze themselves into every available perch. By 10:00 AM on a cold but sunny morning, many of them were gliding off their roost over the frozen creek hoping for some lift: flap, flap, sink... flap furiously, rise a bit, and continue on. We were treated to an aerial courtship display by a pair of black vultures, complete with wing touches, talon grabs, body bumps, wing overs, all very gently performed. But they were still vultures, not bald eagles, so we were not ready to see this as sky dancing or call it a "ballet."
- Tom Lake, Christopher Letts

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

2/22 - Newcomb, HRM 302: There were still some lazy snowflakes drifting down. We are at 18"-19" total as the fluff from yesterday is compacting.
- Ellen Rathbone

2/22 - Cold Spring, HRM 53: I stepped outside tonight to listen to a pair of great horned owls calling to one another. I love that sound. They hooted back and forth for a while, the calls nicely spaced apart. Then I think they must have found one another; the two calls began to overlap and mix together. It was riveting.
- Eric Lind

2/22 - Verplanck, HRM 40.5: An immature harp seal was hauled out on a small beach in Verplanck. No one was quite sure if the seal was healthy or ill, so the The Riverhead Foundation was alerted. A biologist was dispatched to pick up the seal and transport it to their facility on Long Island for observation and evaluation.
- Dianne Picciano

2/22 - Yonkers, HRM 18: We were "dipnet hunting" at the Beczak Center's tidemarsh. We managed to capture seven banded killifish, the largest of which was 2" long.
- Sam Tenadu, Daniel Kricheff

2/23 - Ulster Park, HRM 88: This morning my daughter, Joanne Jankovitz, who lives next door, called and said, "Dad, look out on the river, there is a deer on the ice." The white-tailed deer was working its way to the shore by jumping ice cakes. It cleared the ice floes, reached shore, and bounded away without any sign of injury.
- Tom Turck

2/23 - Newburgh, HRM 63: A Cooper's hawk paid its third visit in a week to my backyard bird feeder. The feeder is visited by chickadees, house sparrows, downy woodpeckers, mourning doves, and starlings. All of them were feeding today when, in the blink of an eye, they scattered in all directions. Some flew into the bushes next to the house; some dove through the lattice that surrounds the bottom of the porch. Within seconds the hawk landed in the middle of the vacant bird feeder. It spent 15 minutes trying to flush the birds out of their hiding places, and eventually gave up and flew away. It has yet to catch one.
- Christopher Kuhlow

2/23 - Fishkill, HRM 62: A light dusting of snow fell overnight, once again covering my walk. Tracked on the snowy carpet were the distinctive footprints of a nighttime visitor. Although unseen, one knew it was an opossum by the finger-like prints with opposing thumb.
- Ed Spaeth

2/23 - Pollepel Island, HRM 58: From the Metro North commuter train this morning we spotted five bald eagles flying low over the river in front of Bannerman's Castle on Pollepel Island. They may have been disturbed by the train, scattering off an ice floe. We have seen so many eagles this winter that we do not want this cold season to end and the eagles to depart.
- Mike Boyajian, Jeri Wagner

2/23 - Oscawana, HRM 38.5: In early morning I spotted an adult bald eagle riding a chunk of ice down river. The witch-hazel is blooming on west-facing slopes, facing the river.
- Pat Korn

2/23 - Riverhead, Long Island: Following the initial assessment [of the Verplanck seal] this morning, I believe we have a case of a newly molted harp seal which picked the wrong place to haul out. It is healthy. We will be releasing it this weekend following final review of its blood work.
- Kim Durham

[This was a case of normal seal behavior being mis-diagnosed. Seals are at home in the water; out of the water they often look like they are in distress. This might well be the same immature harp seal reported to the Hudson River Almanac from the 79th Street Boat Basin on February 5. Kimberly Durham reminds us to call The Riverhead Foundation's 24-Hour Stranding Hotline - (631)369-9829 - if we see a marine mammal that is genuinely in need of assistance. Tom Lake]

2/24 - Hannacrois, HRM 132.5: Once more I was awakened in the middle of the night by my dog's insistent barking. I scolded her and she grew quieter, grunting muffled barks beneath her breath. A lone coyote's howl was the source of her agitation. The sound was not the yipping yowl of a coyote chorus, but a sustained call that subtly changed key. The beguiling call of the coyote lulled me back to sleep. On my early morning walk, I headed out in the general location of the coyote's howls. In a field sheltered by secondary growth of cedars and pines, I found a wealth of tracks. Many were made by deer; I could see where they'd pawed at the snow in search of food. Then I spotted a pair of coyote tracks paralleling each other through the field. The tracks merged into a single path headed into the woods. I think this isolated area, with a nearby ravine complete with many rock outcroppings, is an ideal spot for a coyote den. The pair of tracks made me wonder if the lone coyote's nighttime howl is really a love song.
- Liz LoGuidice

2/24 - Stockport, HRM 122: I was on Amtrak heading to Manhattan and it was a good morning for eagle viewing from the train. Out on Stockport Middle Ground Island I spotted an adult bald eagle warming itself in the rising sun.
- Kevin McLoughlin

2/24 - West Point, HRM 52: As I was leaving West Point at noon I saw two red-tailed hawks chasing a squirrel in mid-air. One hawk clipped the tail of the squirrel but the squirrel was able to land in a tree and grab onto a branch, just out of reach. Then came the second hawk swooping down after the squirrel. The squirrel jumped, the hawk missed. The hawk banked a sharp left and came back talons first. I did not see if the hawk finally got the squirrel or not. But the flight maneuvers they displayed were very sharp!
- Kaylee M. Seagraves

2/24 - Jones Point, HRM 42: Further south on the Amtrak train, I counted a group of 10-12 juvenile bald eagles that appeared to be playing among the ice floes in the river off the flanks of Dunderberg.
- Kevin McLoughlin

2/25 - Round Top, HM 113: After 3" of new snow, we had a beautiful, though cold - 5°F - sunrise this morning.
- Jon Powell

2/25 - Peekskill Bay, HRM 43.5: After a fresh snowfall, and with some floe ice present, the view north to the Hudson Highlands was pure Currier and Ives. I counted 19 eagles in the sky or riding the floes. At one point, four immature birds were in hot pursuit of a fifth, carrying a medium-sized fish. They disappeared to the south, around Indian Point. I turned my glass toward the 40' navigation aid tower in Peekskill Bay. The tower is surrounded by a sizable pile of riprap and both tower and rocks are usually well-populated with cormorants at this time of year. It is a great place to observe both great and double-crested cormorants in breeding plumage. To my surprise, the structure was in the possession of an adult bald eagle, perched at the very top of the tower. No cormorants were present. This was the first time I had seen an eagle make use of a manmade structure in the estuary.
- Christopher Letts

2/25 - George's Island to Croton Point, HRM 39-35: It was a beautiful but cold day as I paddled down to Croton Point; the water was like glass. A large striped bass drifted past my kayak, apparently still alive, but upside down, weakly moving its tail. Out in the river an eagle dove but came up with empty talons. On the way back, two immature eagles and one splendid white adult were perched in a tree on the south end of George's Island. Several buffleheads flew past the tree, hugging the surface. Was this in response to the eagles?
- Stephen Butterfass

2/26 - Furnace Woods Lake, HRM 38.5: City dweller Nate Gerloff was my guest on this ice fishing trip. On the way onto the lake he asked about sled-like marks in the snow. Tracks of feet were paired and in series of 4-6 sets, punctuated by a trough-like mark 10" wide and 4'-10' long. Where did they come from? The icy water of the inlet stream. Where did they go? To the deep end of the lake, around the dam, and into the outlet stream. A river otter had passed this way the night before.
- Christopher Letts

2/26 - Croton Point, HRM 35: I was running late, and with the air temperature in the teens, my expectations for anything but a brisk hike were low. Ninety minutes later I had seen northern harriers, short-eared owls, bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, a rough-legged hawk, a northern goshawk, and 30 other species of birds. Not bad. The best was looking up from sets of coyote tracks to see one loping along the ridgeline above me - big, graceful, wary, altogether a fine sight.
- Christopher Letts

2/26 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: In late afternoon, Randy Schutz and I spotted at least four juvenile and two adult bald eagles in the tidemarsh, the trees, and soaring around. We had long looks at northern harriers hunting in the grasses of the landfill; they seemed to float just above the level of the vegetation, periodically dropping to the ground with talons extended, then rising again. A long-eared owl perched in plain view in a conifer. Short-eared owls flew gracefully around the hill and perched on the many landfill poles. At least two red-tailed hawks were in view as well. As we were admiring a large flock of red-winged blackbirds, two peregrine falcons came soaring overhead at great speed and dove at birds several times. It was a splendid afternoon, my first at Croton Point. It will not be my last.
- Scott Jackson Wiley

2/27 - Norrie Point, HRM 85: Finally, after many frigid Sunday mornings at Norrie Point, the eagle gang was here. They were not just sitting in trees on Esopus Island, but were closer to us, on the ebb tide ice. They were flying, cavorting, and feeding. We counted five: two adults and three speckled immatures. At times two, three, or four of them would just sit and drift on the south-bound ice, waiting for a meal. The tide was going out so briskly that the channel buoy was often pulled under the ice floes; seconds later it would noisily crash back out. A wonderful sunny but cold -15°F - morning.
- Dave Lindemann

2/27 - Gardiner, HRM 73: As we were was getting ready to cross-country ski, we looked out the window and saw an adult bald eagle circling the tree tops in a meandering fashion. The behavior made us wonder: if it was going to set down in a tree. Then another adult flew off a perch to join the first. They circled together for three to four minutes before heading due west.
- Cindy Simpson, Chris Moratz, Cynthia Simpson

[Given the location and behavior, this was probably a mated pair from the eastern Catskill Mountain area. Tom Lake]

2/27 - Manitou Marsh, HRM 46.5: It was late afternoon. Snow still covered the ground. We wended our way down through the hemlock glen, passing the frozen falls of a mountain stream, and then walked over the railroad tracks to a grand view of the Hudson. The river was generally open and ice floes along the banks were swiftly moving seaward. To the north were Sugarloaf Mountain and the West Point Military Academy. Continuing our walk we heard some weak chirping whistles. In front of us, surveying the river from its perch in a dead tree, was an adult bald eagle. Intent on the river, it seemed unperturbed by our presence. It was not alone; nearer to us was an immature bald eagle perched atop a conifer. After fifteen minutes of viewing these magnificent birds, the adult preened a little, stretched, and lifted off, spreading its broad wings and displaying its regal white crown and glorious white tail feathers as it headed farther south. The younger bird with its prominent yellow beak remained in its conifer even as a chill river breeze ruffled its dark brown feathers. That same breeze began to chill our bones, so with spirits now uplifted by our mini-eagle fest we headed back to our vehicle.
- Merrill Spaeth, Ed Spaeth

2/27 - Manhattan, HRM 0: It was a typical weekend in Battery Park City at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Many mammals were visiting the neighborhood and enjoying the Hudson River. Two of them, harp seals, splashed around in North Cove Marina all weekend, delighting the two-legged creatures watching from land. Ted Wallace, who saw them both days, commented that "They would come up close, look at the people, and then roll over and dive into the water." Kim Durham of The Riverhead Foundation estimated that the two seals were probably 12-16 months old, and added that "In their own element, they tend to be very curious and will approach vessels and surfers. Seal sightings are way up on the ocean shores and beaches of Long Island but are much less common in the Hudson River." Harp seals typically grow to be about six feet long and weigh 300 lbs. These two were only a few feet long.
- Josh Rogers

2/28 - Mid-Hudson Valley: A serious nor'easter was heading our way. Predictions of a foot of snow were making schoolchildren happy and bald eagle nest watchers anxious. Within a week, most Hudson Valley eagle pairs will begin incubating eggs. A foot of heavy snow would not make that any easier.
- Tom Lake

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