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Hudson River Almanac January 29 - February 5, 2006

OVERVIEW

In a winter that has been devoid of ice, snow, and other winter trappings, we had our first seal sighting, complete with prey. Seals can be seen on ice floes in winter, and some hang around to feast on the bounty of the springtime river herring run that should commence late next month.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

2/5 - Coeymans Landing, HRM 133.5: With red-winged blackbirds and turkey vultures showing up early this season, at first I thought I was looking at yet another creature fooled by the mild weather: a carp rolling on the river surface. However it turned out to be quite another surprise: a seal with a firm grip on a carp, which was putting up a slow coldwater fight to escape the grip. The seal was in a sheltered stretch of the river, behind a breakwater at the Coeymans Landing boat launch. The strong current was taking them both out to where the channel opens to the river. The dog-pup profile of the head suggested that it was a harbor seal.
- Richard Guthrie

[After viewing a digital photo, we've concluded that it was likely a harbor seal. This is the first seal sighting from the Hudson this year. Last winter we received reports of at least 3 harbor seals and 2 harp seals in the river. The harbor seals were spotted at least 75 miles upriver, which is not uncommon since they occasionally travel all the way to Albany. Regionally in January 2006, we recovered about half the number of seals we documented for January 2005. However, we did recover two ringed seals. We have only had a total of seven ringed seal recoveries since 1980 and have not seen one since 1997. So far this month we have recovered a 2 week-old gray seal pup, a first for the program. We usually see them at the 4-5 week age class. To report a sighting of a healthy, sick, alive or dead marine mammal or sea turtle, contact us at our 24-hour Stranding Hotline: (631) 369-9829. For more information: http://www.riverheadfoundation.org/ Kim Durham, The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation]

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

1/29 - Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Queens: Rangers Kathy Krause, Chris Olijnyk and I walked along the edge of the Terrapin Nesting Area as the sun set. We had short-eared owls in mind and we weren't disappointed. In the fading light, first one bird, and then another lifted off, flying quickly, moth-like, rapidly into the sunset, the dark silhouettes of their wings beating an erratic flight pattern.
- Dave Taft

1/30 - Croton Point, HRM 34: Two red-winged blackbirds were in full song on the edge of the marsh. This is a full month earlier than I have heard redwings singing in Westchester County.
- Christopher Letts

1/30 - Hook Mountain, HRM 31: I took a hike up to the top of Hook Mountain and was sitting there for ten minutes when a red-tailed hawk appeared overhead. It flew around on the risers for a few minutes and then suddenly dove, reappearing a few seconds later with another hawk right on its heels. They proceeded to do what may have been a courtship ritual, dancing with each other, up and down, back and forth, screeching and doing barrel rolls. It was just beautiful.
- John Branath

1/30 - Yonkers, HRM 18: A local fisherman came into the Beczak Center on a mission to find out why he has not been catching the usual abundance of tomcods this winter. He has been fishing the Hudson for 50 years and has never been so shocked at the lack of tomcods.
- Vicky Garufi

[The Atlantic tomcod is a boreal species; the heart of their range is in colder waters in New England and points north. The Hudson is their southernmost spawning river. Anglers normally see them from late November through mid-winter, when they enter fresh water to spawn. Their absence this winter may be cyclic: tomcod are well known for major swings in abundance and scarcity. A long-term factor may be global warming. Overall, tomcod have been in decline for a decade or more; our other anadromous boreal species, the rainbow smelt, seems to have disappeared from the Hudson estuary. Tom Lake]

1/30 - Manhattan, HRM 5: The air temperature reached 64°F today, breaking the record high for the date. The mean air temperature in the Hudson Valley was 12°F above average for the month of January and the fourth warmest recorded for New York City.
- National Weather Service

1/30 - Sandy Hook: We have a pitiful vegetable garden next to our office on Sandy Hook. We plant tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and pole beans; then we forget to water them and the garden turns up its toes. But the brussel sprouts were having a banner year, and today with the temperature at 58°F, we harvested three meals and still had one stalk to go. Except for a short, hard freeze in December, it's been the winter that wasn't. The groundcover here is showing small blue flowers, dandelions are blooming, and we heard a male red-winged blackbird the other day. Today I walked the bay beaches. There were a handful of brant, no winter ducks, one big flock of 150 cedar waxwings, a red-tailed hawk, and a Carolina wren calling. Under our feeder on the mainland we had over a hundred brown-headed cowbirds last week, first and only of the season.
- Dery Bennett

1/31 - Warrensburg, HRM 240: There was another bald eagle in sight today, just north of Warrensburg. I saw crows flying overhead over the road, and then another silhouette, definitely not a crow. The wings made me think of a great blue heron but I didn't see the long legs dangling out behind and the body was too chunky. A fraction of a second glance of the silhouetted head yielded a large hooked beak. The head and tail were a lighter shade of silhouette than the body. All of this, of course, took place in the span of 2-3 seconds, with a stream of cars coming towards me and one or two behind. As a result, I couldn't really slow down and see it.
- Ellen Rathbone

1/31 - Croton Point, HRM 34: Where 2 red-winged blackbirds sang yesterday, 40 sang today. Daffodil shoots were up 3" in sheltered areas. The goose wars have begun, with what seems like 3 pairs of Canadas battling for each potential nesting site. The racket is deafening!
- Christopher Letts

2/1 - Eagle Nest, Dutchess County: Spring renovations on the nest, designated as NY62, have begun. The adult breeding pair were at it early this morning, discarding old branches and bringing new ones to reinforce the nest. Their nests are accretional - they are added to each year. There are occasions when a nest becomes so large and heavy that it splits the limb or topples the tree on which it is built.
- Tom Lake

[We frequently see eagles carrying sticks and small branches this time of the year. Where do they get them? Here is what we have witnessed: They land on a branch, jump up and down, sway back and forth, perhaps testing its tensile strength. They then fall forward, talons clutching, kamikaze fashion, and break the limb. They must gauge well since we have never seen them do a loop-de-loop. The birds then carry the broken branch back to their nest. Tom Lake]

Mid-Hudson Valley: The average air temperature for January (33.8°F) was the third warmest on record. The warmest January was 1990 (34.8°F) and 1950 (33.9°F) was second-warmest. The normal average January temperature is 24.5°F.
- Northeast Regional Climate Center

2/2 - Newcomb, HRM 302: We had a school group at the Adirondack Park Visitors Interpretive Center for tracking. The dusting of snow yielded some nice tracks, among which were river otter (perfect toe prints; could see the webbing). Later, a barred owl landed on a broken tree branch below the back deck of the VIC. It stared determinedly at the remains of our Christmas tree, dumped over the deck railing to provide shelter for a variety of small critters. We watched for a while and it finally took aim and pounced on a lump of snow. Some scuffling ensued. Then it flew off to a tree with a small dark rodent, bit off the head and then ate the rest.
- Ellen Rathbone

[Owls can hunt by ear, an adaptation to their nocturnal lifestyle that also enables them to capture prey hidden by snow. Steve Stanne]

2/2 Yonkers, HRM 18: In late afternoon, just a little north of our marsh at the Beczak Center, I spotted five canvasbacks. The sunlight, beginning to dim, reflected on the surface of the water. Their red heads caught my eye, followed by the bright white canvas of their backs.
- Vicky Garufi

2/3 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: The air temperature reached 59°F today. The catkins on the higher branches of our pussy willows - those in partial sun - are in bloom, a month early. No one was home at the local bald eagle nest though there were signs of old branches missing and new ones stacked around the edges. As I watched the nest through my spotting scope, a herd of 19 white-tailed deer passed, single file, from one woodlot to another, past the nest tree. As best as I can recall, this was the largest number of white-tails I had ever counted in one place.
- Tom Lake

2/3 - Dennings Point, HRM 60: We had a total of 15 bald eagle sightings of at least 2 adults and 3 immatures. One eagle was spotted on the point as soon as light allowed and sightings throughout the day came regularly despite the rain. In fact, some of the immatures seemed to enjoy the rain. At 8:15, when the rain was heaviest, a pair of immatures soared together, hooking talons and tumbling in and around the cove. This went on for 8 minutes in a downpour. The birds were joined by a pair of red-tailed hawks, who seemed interested, and a great show of aerial acrobatics was enjoyed. Common mergansers were around but the eagles were not interested. All hunting activity was confined to fish.
- Marty McGuire

2/3 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: The screech owl has moved on - everyone's loss. Each day vehicles have been parked directly below the willow tree that has sheltered the owl for several weeks. Occupants wandered around, cameras and binoculars at the ready, peering into the canopy even though it was easily visible from inside their cars. A similar thing happened 10 years ago when, for several weeks, an immature bald eagle appropriated a life guard tower on the beach. As long as people observed from the road, the bird did not seem disturbed, but of course that couldn't last. Soon the camera buffs were attempting to sneak closer, and closer, and that was the end of that show.
- Christopher Letts

2/3 - Manhattan, HRM 5: The air temperature reached 62°F today, missing the record for the date by 2°F.
- National Weather Service

2/4 - New Paltz, HRM 78: Today we heard a spring peeper peeping on Lenape Lane, so tonight we drove by our favorite vernal pool, in a hard rain, to see if salamanders were out; none were. We found a few peepers in the road and helped them across.
- Rebecca Johnson, Brian Houser

2/6 - Eagle Nest, Dutchess County: We have enjoyed watching the pair of bald eagles do their "eagle dance" in the sky. They have been around quite a bit, flying to and from their nest with housekeeping material. We wonder how many young there will be this year?
- Rosalie Pung, Bruce Pung

[Bald eagles are in the midst of their mating season. That usually occurs during some of the fiercest winter weather. This year they must be wondering what's up. The angle of the sun, the length of daylight, all say "winter," but the river has that soft look of mid-March. Tom Lake]

2/5 - Fishkill, HRM 61: In early afternoon the sky was overcast and we had gusty southwest winds 20-26 mph. The clouds were moving fast, and high in the sky was a large dark bird with long angular wings and long tail, drifting southeastward down the gradient. This bird appeared to my naked eye to be a male frigatebird with its forked tail closed. I lost sight of it after a few minutes before I could retrieve my binoculars. Although unusual, these birds have been seen as vagrants far inland and as far north as Maine.
- Ed Spaeth

[A magnificent frigatebird in the New York Bight or Hudson Valley is way off course. This large seabird is found in coastal areas of the tropical South Atlantic, only occasionally straying as far north as Chesapeake Bay. On April 7, 2000, Christopher Letts spotted a frigatebird flying down river from the landfill at Croton Point (Hudson River Almanac VI:6). Tom Lake]

2/5 - Brewster, HRM 52: I spotted two bald eagles on the East Branch Reservoir in Brewster, Town of Southeast, at 10:30 AM this morning. One sat on the ice near a melted spot, looking for a fish. Then it took off and I distinctly saw the bright white tail, white head, and the huge wingspan. It landed in a tree on the other side of the reservoir, where there was another adult eagle already on the branch. Quite a thrill!
- Betty Brosius

2/5 - George's Island, HRM 39: Thirty people were standing around and tension filled the air: there were no eagles in sight. This was our third public bald eagle program of the winter, and with no ice on the river, the birds were very scarce. In an effort at levity, we explained that we had arranged for a 3:08 flyover (it was 3:00 PM). At exactly 3:08, an immature and an adult bald eagle came in over the trees of Dogan Point to the northwest, passed slowly over our heads and disappeared to the southeast toward Oscawana Island. After that, people believed almost anything we had to say. The topper came a few minutes later when a mated pair followed the same route, right over the heads of our group, and performed an aerial courtship display with talon grabs, wing touches, shadow-flying, and dipsy-doos, as our group watched with bright eyes and joy in their hearts.
- Tom Lake, Christopher Letts, Andra Sramek

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