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Hudson River Almanac January 24 - January 31, 2005

OVERVIEW

With the watershed locked up in ice, there are perhaps150 bald eagles along the estuary south of Poughkeepsie. From Peekskill to Croton last weekend, we were seeing 100+ birds. The high count was 120; average was 80-85. We also had our first reports of seals this season.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

1/21 Queens County, New York Bight: A juvenile harp seal was found on the beach at Fort Tilden this morning. I called the Riverhead Foundation and they responded several hours later. The volunteer and I carried the seal from the beach to the Foundation's pick-up. It was one of several harp seals recovered by the Foundation within the past week or so.
- Sue Gillmore, National Park Service

We have had quite a few harp seals at Fort Tilden over the years, always in winter. They must go through a difficult ordeal before washing up; they always seem to be in very poor shape. Harbor seals and gray seals are increasingly abundant nowadays as well. Dave Taft, National Park Service

As its scientific name - Phoca groenlandica - suggests, this is a seal of arctic seas and ice floes. Harp seals are uncommon in the New York Bight; our occurrences are primarily orphaned pups.

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

1/24 - Westchester County, HRM 34-39: A couple of acres of open water in the lower Croton River held about 150 waterfowl of a dozen species. Most were dozing, heads under wings. It was a very peaceful, calming scene, with the close proximity of 3 dozen canvasbacks a treat indeed. I headed upriver to Maiden Lane, where Furnace Brook enters the Hudson. I always enjoy driving Maiden Lane, perhaps the last dirt road in this part of the county. Halfway up, a great blue heron was legging its way up the snowy road ahead of me. Hunting mice? Our race was short; the bird took off and flew in a healthy fashion.
- Christopher Letts

1/25 - Newcomb, HRM 302: Charlotte Demers, a biologist at Huntington Forest, stopped by this morning to survey our finches. She had spotted a goldfinch at their feeders with an eye that looked to be infected with the avian conjunctivitis that house finches had so prolifically a couple of years ago. She wanted to see if any of our birds had it; one did, perhaps the same bird that visited her feeders. We will bleach our feeders and keep an eye out for the disease. According to Charlotte, it hasn't been reported in the central Adirondacks before. Maybe our time is due. Meanwhile, it is a beautiful winter day here: bright, bright sunshine, blue, blue sky, and cold, cold wind. It is 9°F outside - a heat wave.
- Ellen Rathbone

1/25 - Ice Meadows, HRM 245: Traveling south to Albany this morning, I drove past The Glen and the Ice Meadows. The temperature was about -8°F. Frazil ice development was in full swing, and the meager flowing water visible in the Hudson appeared to be smoking.
- Mike Corey

Frazil ice up to 20' thick builds up every winter between The Glen and Thurman Station (HRM 245-237). It looks like very white snow, but it is formed in supercooled (below 32°F) turbulent water. Microscopic round plates form in the water and grow quickly. At this stage they are "" and will freeze to anything they touch. The river is full of this kind of ice whenever the air temperature gets below about 15°F. Eventually the ice forms a loose cover. Frazil forced underneath collects in "hanging dams" and blocks the river, which causes the water level to rise and the frazil to float up onto the banks. When a channel is forced through, the water level goes down, leaving frazil on the banks and forming straight-sided canyons of beautiful white ice. The main channel gets re-clogged every cold night but unless there is a major warm-weather storm, the frazil banks tend to stay in place. Evelyn Greene

1/25 - Brandow Point, HRM 117: It was frigid. Despite the bright sun, the trees were popping and their branches creaking in the wind, reminding me of brittle bones ready to break. The frozen river sang and moaned. I gazed across its still surface and contemplated skimming across the solid ice to the other shore. If the channel were not open, I could skate across to Mount Merino easily, it seemed. Large chunks of ice were strewn across the shore like boulders. A solitary crow winged past silently and a red-bellied woodpecker called in the distance. Otherwise, it was the abiotic sounds that reigned: the moaning and cracking ice, the rush of wind, and far overhead, the ubiquitous whine of an airplane engine.
- Liz LoGuidice

1/25 - Westchester County, HRM 34-39: I began my "eagle sweep" just after sunrise. It covers about 10 miles from the Croton River to Oscawana Island to George's Island, then Steamboat Dock in Verplanck and China Pier in Peekskill. Today's count was 37 birds using only binoculars. Then I reverse course and do it again using a spotting scope at each viewing point. This time the total was 67. Last week, as the cold snap began, I was able to find only nine. A nice treat at George's Island was a couple of red-throated loons, in binocular range, bobbing and diving offshore.
- Christopher Letts

1/26 - Round Top, HRM 113: "Big storm 2005" gave us 14" of snow. Now it's cold: -10° and -15°F on recent mornings. We've had to blanket the horse. This month we've had the best bunch of chickadees and titmice; sometimes the pine tree by the feeder looks like it "bird" Christmas decorations. We're not seeing many coyotes around now and white-tailed deer seem to be doing all right.
- Jon Powell

1/26 - Westchester County, HRM 34-39: Housebound all day, at 3:00 PM I bolted for the river to get my daily medicine. At the Croton River railroad bridge the volume of ice was down by 80% from yesterday. The immature snow goose present since early December was on the launch ramp, within a dozen feet of my front bumper. No eagles, so I turned north. From George's Island, the tall oaks on the south-facing side of Dogan Point looked like fruit trees ready for harvest. I counted 27 eagles without getting out of my truck. At the edge of the parking lot a first-year immature was finishing off what appeared to be a large white perch. It ate in the fastidious, leisurely way we've seen before - this bird was dining on slow-food. As it finished, several crows swept in to scavenge tiny bits that had fallen. The eagle made an elaborate job of cleaning its beak by rubbing it, over and over, along the edge of a branch.
- Christopher Letts

1/27 - Albany, HRM 145: From this 8th floor eyrie overlooking a pigeon-rich section of downtown Albany we've had the great pleasure of watching several adult peregrine falcons (two females, one male) come and go from the corner of an adjacent building. Naked eye looks of the birds arriving with, plucking, and eating prey, preening, and loafing in the sun were beat only by close-up views with binoculars of their striking facial pattern: yellow cere, black helmet, long "sideburns" and their bright-eyed, predaceous gaze.
- Dennis Mildner

1/27 - Pollepel Island, HRM 58: From our commuter train, we spotted two immature bald eagles soaring above the frozen Hudson between Bannerman's castle and Storm King. It reminded us of a Walt Whitman poem titled Dalliance of the Eagles.
- Mike Boyajian, Jeri Wagner

Skyward in air a sudden muffled sound, the dalliance of the eagles,
The rushing amorous contact high in space together,
The clinching interlocking claws, a living, fierce, gyrating wheel,
Four beating wings, two beaks, a swirling mass tight grappling,
In tumbling turning clustering loops, straight downward falling,
Till o'er the river pois'd, the twain yet one, a moment's lull,
A motionless still balance in the air, then parting, talons loosing,
Upward again on slow-firm pinions slanting, their separate diverse light,
She hers, he his, pursuing.
- Walt Whitman, 1881

1/27 - Verplanck, HRM 40.5: While I fished the clay hole in Verplanck, an adult bald eagle swooped lower than usual, eyeing a few sunfish I had on the ice. When I left at the end of the day, I also left dinner for the bird. At Lake Mehaugh's outflow, a great blue heron was fishing for supper in the moving water.
- Robert Vargo Sr.

1/27 - George's Island, HRM 39: It was frigid and dark at 6:30 AM. There was enough moonlight so that I could make out a dozen bald eagles on Dogan Point, pretty much where I had left them last night. Nothing moved until 6:50, and then, in ones and twos, they slipped their perches and left the night roost. Most went south. By 7:30, only a few birds were left. One bird came off the roost and nabbed a good-sized fish only 100 yards offshore. It set off across Haverstraw Bay with two other eagles in close pursuit.
- Christopher Letts

1/27 - George's Island, HRM 39: Today we noticed six large birds rafting down the river on a large chunk of ice. We assumed they were bald eagles, but when we put the scope on them, it turned out that they were cormorants. I hadn't seen that behavior from cormorants before. Always something new.
- Dave Baker

1/28 - Gardiner, HRM 73: We have had a barred owl in residence since November 16. We see it several times a week and frequently hear it at night. Right now it is perched in our spruce trees in the sun. We fear that its mate was the barred owl that we found as road-kill a mile away a few months ago. We wonder what our owl's chances are of finding another, since they are assumed to mate for life.
- Anne Smith, Ray Smith

1/28 - Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 68.5: The air temperature fell to -14°F, 2° shy of the record low for this date.
- National Weather Service

1/28 - Oscawana Island, HRM 38.5: This morning I counted eight adult bald eagles in one tree out on the point at Oscawana. At first glance, it looked like snow in the crotches of the tree branches, but then I realized that the white patches were heads of adult eagles. I quickly drove home to get my wife, Dorothy, and our spotting scope. By the time we returned, the sun was at just the right angle to intensify the brightness of the birds, now 10 adults and one immature.
- Robert Ferguson

1/28 - Croton Bay, HRM 34: We were joined by 56 members of the Palisades Nature Association, all of us trying to keep warm. The wind buffeted and burned our faces. The mouth of the Croton River held several flocks of Canada geese, totaling well over 200 birds. Mixed among them were canvasback, ruddy ducks, mallards, black ducks, common mergansers, gadwalls, pintails, and more gulls than we could count. This was our annual count-the-eagles outing; by morning's end we had spotted 17 adult and 15 immature bald eagles along nine miles of Westchester County shoreline.
- Nancy Slowik, Sandy Bonardi, Christopher Letts, Bob & Janet Rancan, Alec Malyon, Tom Lake

1/29 - Hudson Valley: At first light it was -4°F. Today would be the 14th consecutive day when air temperatures did not reach the freezing mark.
- National Weather Service

1/29 - Bonticou Crag, HRM 83: My afternoon snowshoe through Mohonk Preserve from Spring Farm to Bonticou Crag yielded many pleasures, though the wind blew briskly and temperatures remained in the low 20s. Several robins flew over the old fields just above the trailhead. My day's exertion was amply rewarded when, near the base of Bonticou, I heard the loud rapping of a pileated woodpecker. The bird was pecking on a large limb, climbing over and above, aggressively tearing into the wood and dislodging large pieces of bark. I heard a loud "clack clack clack" from above. In an instant, another pileated landed on the same branch. With one bird upside down below the branch, and the other on top, both began to work in earnest. I watched this mirror image pair through binoculars for 10 minutes before moving up the trail.
- Jeff Anzevino

1/29 - George's Island, HRM 39: Before our public bald eagle program, Christopher Letts took a quick survey along 10 miles of Westchester shoreline, finding 80 birds. Later, as two dozen birders gathered at George's Island Park, we counted three adult eagles and five immatures perched on Dogan Point. However, the real show was a quarter mile off the boat launch. An ice shelf several hundred meters wide was receding downriver on the ebb tide. Spread across its trailing edge were 36 eagles. Grouped toward the middle were 28 immatures; the eight adults were on either end. Many of the immatures were eating, playing with, or defending fish they had caught and dragged up on the ice. Every so often a bird would glide along the water, snatch a fish, and land on the ice shelf. Two immatures were having a very difficult time with a large fish, maybe 7-8 pounds; neither was able to carry it away from the other. After a few minutes an adult eagle swooped in, snatched the fish, and dragged it away over the ice. That fish, and some of the others, appeared to be gizzard shad. As is usually the case, eagles were not the only show. Rich Katz pointed out a northern goshawk as it flew overhead out to the river, and a while later an adult male Cooper's hawk took a similar route to the end of the point.
- Jim Kessler, Andra Sramek, Dorothy Ferguson, Bob Ferguson, Tom Lake, Helen Getter

1/29 - Bear Mountain-Croton, HRM 46-34: Two weeks ago we were lucky to count five eagles in a day trip along the Hudson. Yesterday, I joined the Mearns Birding Club for their annual eagle count along the same route. By day's end we had counted 119 between Bear Mountain and Croton. We had 26 eagles at Verplanck and 22 more on the ice at Oscawana Island. At Croton, we added common mergansers, several redhead ducks (hens and drakes), gadwalls, coots, and ruddy ducks.
- David Baker

1/30 - Peekskill, HRM 43: As I swung my binoculars over the ice from China Pier across to Dunderberg Mountain, an adult harbor seal popped into view. The seal was hauled out on the ice, lying in the sun, in the typical "reclining banana" posture. Three visitors to the pier got to see their first harbor seal.
- Tom Lake

1/30 - Jones Point, HRM 42: We had 28 bald eagles in one spot, all on ice floes in the river near the Indian Point power plant. Three miles down river, we spotted 7 more at Stony Point. What an Eagle Day!
- Kenneth McDermott, Curt McDermott

1/30 - Croton Point, HRM 35: In addition to the two short-eared owls that have been hunting over the landfill, today I spotted two long-eared owls near the parking lot.
- Jane McShane

1/30 Garrison, HRM 53: In mid-afternoon I was watching an adult bald eagle soaring over the Boscobel Restoration above Foundry Cove. All of a sudden it dropped like a stone and grabbed a cottontail. The last I saw, it was flying off with the squirming rabbit in its talons.
- Dave VanVoorhis

1/30 - Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Queens: The open trail was too much to resist this morning. With rangers Chris and Steve Olijnyk and volunteer Katy Paccione, I headed out. Several fox sparrows fed side-by-side with song sparrows, cardinals and white-throated sparrows. Two unfortunate Canada geese, their dun colored feathers covered in the light snow that fell last night, had probably died in this past week's bitter cold. Perhaps this last snow finished them off, which seemed sad since temperatures climbed above freezing today, and some open grass showed itself. It was a good morning for raptors. We counted two Cooper's hawks, a sharp-shinned hawk, two harriers and a short eared owl, all chasing each other or hunting in the low light conditions of the West Pond Trail. Chris noticed a very interesting effect in the snow which inspired discussion for the remainder of the walk. Wherever grasses such as American beach grass or little bluestem were predominant, snow piled up several inches amongst the culms. Where young bayberry, bramble, or sweet clover predominated, only minimal snow accumulated. It was a bracingly simple, clear observation, but truly original. Wherever we looked, even the smallest clumps of grass gathered snow. I can't wait to look elsewhere in the park to see if this is generally true. It may make a difference in the way we mow key areas of the refuge.
- Dave Taft, National Park Service

1/31 - Newcomb, HRM 302: Toby Rathbone and I were out stargazing. Using binoculars, I found the comet, a blurry blob to the right of Cassiopeia. Sirius and Betelgeuse were very bright. The former is a huge twinkler, mostly a bright blue-white color, but also flashes yellows and oranges. The latter is rather orange in color, which makes it stand out nicely in the shoulder of Orion. We tried to find Saturn, but with my binoculars, everything bounces around too much and thus everything looks like it has rings.
- Ellen Rathbone

1/31 - New Baltimore, HRM 131.5: This afternoon there were at least six bluebirds and a small flock of robins eating berries in a cedar tree in our yard on Hudson Ridge in the hamlet of New Baltimore. The robins were at the top, the bluebirds just below, and they all flew away in the same direction. Not only does it seem early in the season, but in the 13 years that we have lived here, I have never seen a bluebird. I hope a pair sticks around to nest in one of my boxes.
- Jean Bush

1/31 - Town of Esopus, HRM 87: I know that there were an unusual number of robins around before the deep freeze, but we were quite surprised minutes ago, at dusk, to see two dozen robins on our deck and in our yard. Very hardy birds!
- Bill Drakert, Fran Drakert

Robins: Even the Bronx/Westchester Christmas Bird Count, December 26, 2004, reported a new high count of American robins: 830. The last record - 766 - was set in 2001.
- Carol Capobianco

1/31 - Pleasant Valley, HRM 82: Walking along, watching my step in the deep snow, I saw a large shadow pass over. I looked up in time to see a great blue heron flying the length of our creek.
- Naomi Brooks

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