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Hudson River Almanac January 8 - 15, 2006

OVERVIEW

The mid-winter bald eagle census and the New York State Ornithological Association winter waterfowl counts produced some memorable entries. Temperature swings - from record warmth to record cold and back to spring-like conditions - provided an interesting backdrop to the wildlife.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

1/11 - Alpine, NJ, HRM 19: Heavy equipment moved down the Alpine Approach Road in the NJ Section of the Palisades Interstate Park to begin clearing the rock slide that occurred in the early morning hours of 12/17. This was the biggest slide to occur in the memory of those presently working at the park. It took out about 80' of the road, undermining its foundation. It will be up to a month before the road will be passable. The slide reached the bottom of the talus slope where it destroyed a cinder block transformer shed at the edge of the parking lot for the Alpine Boat Basin. It was possible to track one large stone that left several holes in the parking lot as it bounced, then struck and damaged the chain-link fence around the basin, took a big piece out of a beam supporting a dock, and finally came to rest in the water, where it was visible at low tide. Volunteers from Greenbrook Sanctuary, participating in the Christmas Bird Count the morning of the slide, reported that it was still possible to smell the slide hours later - rock dust and shattered trees. For the cliffs, this was just a minor and relatively commonplace sloughing off of a few thousand tons of loose rock. But to stand beneath the slide and look up at its course of destruction, contemplating all that potential energy still hanging overhead, is to get a humbling reminder of the power of stone and gravity.
- Eric Nelsen

[About 200 million years ago, as the African and North American continents were separating, this region was wracked with earthquakes and volcanos. Hot magma forced its way between layers of sandstone, cooled, and hardened. Erosion has since worn away the overlying sandstone to reveal and shape this layer of tough igneous rock, called diabase, into the Palisades cliffs. Water seeps into cracks behind the distinctive rock columns and expands when it freezes, pushing the columns away from the cliff. Eventually they tumble to the slope below. Steve Stanne]

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

1/8 - Great Kills Park, Staten Island: Although the sun broke late after an early gray morning, and the winds blew cold, that didn't stop 18 birders from joining me in Great Kills Park for a walk sponsored by the Protectors of Pine Oak Woods. Although numbers were low, by the walk's end we had encountered 39 species. During introductions we spotted a distant flock of two dozen horned larks. There was not a peep or a plover in the mud of the tide marsh, but out on the bay a hundred greater scaup slept in the receding tide. In the foreground, buffleheads dove then bobbed to the surface like a bunch of corks. Along the opposite shore a northern harrier flashed its white rump and dropped down into the phragmites. The wind blew icy cold along the harbor. Oddly, not one red-throated loon appeared. But there were horned grebes, black ducks, brant, and those quirky-looking red-breasted mergansers sporting their punky crests. To our surprise, a lone coot bobbed in the stiller waters around the marina. They prefer freshwater marshes but in winter will visit salt marshes and protected bays. On the beach we spotted long-tailed ducks shuffling to and fro in low, snappy flights. Back at the harbor, with a last wistful glance, we spotted a common loon and a male gadwall, two species that sealed a perfect ending to a very fine day.
- Arleen O'Brien, Jackie Duhon

1/9 - Danskammer Point, HRM 66.5: We began our rounds for the 28th annual NYSDEC mid-winter bald eagle census at Danskammer Point. At 46°F, this was the warmest census day in nine years. An adult and an immature were perched on either side of the new Dynegy-built day perch. The red cedar cross bar was still competing with the cottonwoods. A quarter mile upriver, on the north side of the point, another adult perched in a cottonwood right over the water. This one looked like a female, a bit more robust. Soon, the first adult arrived, dropping close, nearly touching the female, a familiar rather than aggressive maneuver - you could sense that it was a pair, and the male was in the air. This brief interaction said volumes. Farther north along the side of Soap Hill we spotted 2 more adults and one immature. A mile away, perched in silhouette on Cedarcliff, was another immature. Seven bald eagles, a magnificent start to our day.
- Kristin LaMastro, Sue Tokle, Tom Lake

1/9 - West Point, HRM 51: From South Dock at West Point, we could see 4 adult bald eagles to the northeast, either in or on the edge of Constitution Marsh. Two of the adults came off the limb where they had been perched side-by-side and, for five minutes, performed an aerial courtship dance over World's End (deepest spot in the Hudson): wing-touches, shadow-flying, talon-grabbing, catch-me-if-you-can (one bird flies away, the other in close pursuit, culminating with a rollover and talon grab). Bald eagles mate for life, so this was either an older pair renewing their bond, or possibly newly mature, unattached adults, looking for a partner.
- Kristin LaMastro, Sue Tokle, Tom Lake

1/9 - Albany, HRM 145: Our helicopter flyover of the Hudson Valley for the 28th Annual NYSDEC mid-winter bald eagle census, counted one immature bald eagle in the Cohoes Falls area of the Mohawk River, and then 32 more (19 adults, 13 immatures) along the 120 miles of tidewater from the Federal dam at Troy to Croton Point.
- Pete Nye, Scott VanArsdale, Rob Taylor, Bill Wadsworth

1/10 - Hoosic River, HRM 172: Although snow still blanketed the fields north of Williamstown, MA, the Hoosic River was ice-free and clear-flowing. Four crows called and then flew off through the trees re-creating for me the winter scene of one of Pieter Breugel's paintings of the 16th century Flemish countryside with crows flying through stark trees silhouetted against a snow-covered hillside.
- Ed Spaeth, Merrill Spaeth

1/10 - Kingston, HRM 93.5: The entrance ramp onto the south-bound New York State Thruway curved around a grass and snow covered knoll. A tiny half frozen stream lay at the bottom of the knoll. At the top, hunched against the morning cold, was a great blue heron. I had sometimes seen one by the small stream in warmer weather, but what was it doing here at this time of year?
- Reba Wynn Laks

1/11 - Saugerties, HRM 102: Last January we were on our way to 14" of ice on Esopus Creek that translated into six weeks of prime ice fishing. This year the creek was ice-free. Instead of anglers sitting on their buckets hunched over their holes, mallards, mergansers and gulls foraged in the open water. As an immature bald eagle flew over, I could not help but think that its prospects for dinner were much better this year.
- Tom Lake

1/11 - New Paltz, HRM 78: I found a spotted salamander crossing a local road today.
- Scott Cuppett

1/12 - Hudson, HRM 118: Having the river all to yourself is a wondrous thing. It provided a pool of inner quiet as I paddled my little red kayak from Hudson to Athens and around the lighthouse. It was 53°F in mid-January. I marveled at the warmth of the sun on this bright day. Wonder what Old Man winter has in store for us in February?
- Fran Martino

1/12 - Catskill, HRM 113: The river was like a mill pond this morning, complete with canvasbacks, mallards, and mergansers.
- Jon Powell

1/12 - New Paltz, HRM 78: I spotted 4 snow geese in a farm field along the Wallkill River this morning.
- Rebecca Johnson

1/12 - Fishkill, HRM 61: I noticed that no birds were stirring near my feeders this morning. Glancing skyward, I noted a Cooper's hawk surveying the scene from a perch high in a black walnut tree. I kept a vigil on the hawk. Shortly, it became discouraged with the lack of prey and took flight, circling upward and away on a thermal. Once the hawk took its leave, the chickadees, titmice, juncos, nuthatch, and other birds came without hesitation to feed.
- Ed Spaeth

1/12 - Ladentown /Pomona, Rockland County, HRM 35: A black bear came down from Harriman State Park close to the terminus of the Tuxedo Mount Ivy Trail - I saw its tracks in the snow on the Suffern Bear Mountain Trail - made it across the Mahwah River, raided our bird feeders and then headed southwest along the river.
- Krister Willgren

1/12 - Manhattan, HRM 2.6: A pair of crows were spotted near the Penn South gardens on West 25th Street, a rarity in Chelsea. This neighborhood has a good amount of green space. The penthouse gardens throughout the neighborhood also attract quite a variety of birds. When a wild turkey first arrived in Manhattan several years ago, it was seen on the Seminary grounds nearby.
- Regina McCarthy

1/12 - Manhattan, HRM 5: The air temperature reached 57°F today. While it did not threaten the record high of 64° set in 1890, it was still 19° above average.
- National Weather Service

1/13 - Putnam Valley, HRM 55.5: I was on an evening walk under a nearly full moon. From the west, a group of coyotes began howling and yapping robustly; within 30 seconds there was a response by a smaller chorus from the east. Both areas are parkland. I notice this "dialoging" often in the summer when the windows open and I assume it relates to territoriality or maybe a successful dinnertime predation. Perhaps the dialog now is because of the mild weather and the beginning of coyote mating season.
- Nancy P. Durr

1/13 - Furnace Woods, HRM 38.5: Warm breezes were melting the ice on local ponds, and frost was out of the ground. Under winter mulch, spring bulbs were pushing green shoots up as much as 2" two months ahead of schedule. I found my pruning saw and shears and went out, in T-shirt and shorts, to do some April garden work in January.
- Christopher Letts

1/14 - Saugerties, HRM 102: We encountered two winter wrens on the Saugerties Lighthouse Trail as we returned from surveying the river for the NYSOA winter waterfowl count. We had a good view of one very agitated individual, pumping up and down while vocalizing a rapid series of high notes from an exposed perch. Simultaneously, a second individual briefly broke into full song a few yards away in a dense fog. A Carolina wren appeared a few feet away from the winter wrens, offering a nice comparison of the two species. Moments later, we spotted a brown creeper foraging on the bark of a decaying tree a short distance off the trail. We also saw a swamp sparrow in the phragmites at the end of the spit, heard 2 song sparrows, and spotted several white-throated and American tree sparrows.
- Steve M. Chorvas, Alan Beebe, Jayne Dean, Charlie Woodruff

1/14 - Ulster Landing, HRM 97.2: The river was unusually high due to rain, warm temperatures that were melting snow, and the full moon. Our concrete dock was underwater by about 4-6". I do not recall this happening since hurricanes in the 1980s. A great black-backed gull was riding the waves on the river all day with herring gulls. It is certainly big with beautiful black wings and snowy white underneath.
- Peg Duke

1/14 - Highland, HRM 75.5: I watched two bald eagles, both adults, flying north along the Hudson. These may have been the same two I saw perched in a tree yesterday. Then there was a single adult being dive bombed by crows the day before that. It has been a bird bonanza: bluebirds, red-tailed hawks, and assorted wild turkey adventures all this month.
- Vivian Wadlin

1/14 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67.5: By afternoon the air temperature reached 58°F, not a record, but still spring-like warmth. Last week's snow was quickly melting. A foggy haze rose from the few remaining snowfields. The record for the date, 65°F, was set last year; then the air had an uneasy feel to it; rather than a spring-like warmth, it seemed like a practical joke ready to play out. And it did. Several hours later the temperature had plummeted to 29°F. Like 2005, today's weather changed rapidly as well. Within 18 hours the air temperature had dropped 40°F and we had a windchill of zero.
- Tom Lake

1/15 - North Creek, HRM 257: Just north of North Creek, on the outskirts of town, a half-dozen black birds rose in unison from the roadside. I slowed down a bit to see if they were ravens and up flew a large brown-and-white bird: an immature bald eagle. It wasn't until I passed by again later in the afternoon that I saw the road-killed deer they had been feeding on.
- Ellen Rathbone

1/15 - Village of Saugerties, HRM 102: While passing through the meadow area of the Esopus Bend Nature Preserve after surveying the creek for the NYSOA winter waterfowl count, I caught a glimpse of a particularly handsome field sparrow among the numerous white-throated and American tree sparrows. The bird initially perched in a multiflora rose, quickly descended to the ground beneath a tangle of adjacent Rosa, then returned to perch out in the open only a few feet away, providing an outstanding view. This species was not detected during a recent survey of the preserve a week earlier.
- Steve M. Chorvas

1/15 - Croton Point, HRM 34: There's been a resident screech owl sleeping all day in plain view in the hollow of a willow tree overlooking the landfill. The markings and coloration of this little creature were something to behold on this cold day (4°F). In another area of the park, at the base of a pine overlooking the landfill, we found quite a cache of pellets of gray fur and tiny bone matter. We looked up; slightly obscured in the tangle of branches, but clearly visible, was a great horned owl moving about as dusk approached. Earlier in the day, off the south beach, a healthy group of coots were feeding off the stones of the old crib pier.
- Scott Horecky, Kathy Sutherland

1/15 - Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Queens: Bitter cold returned to the refuge after a week's hiatus. Naturally, it was the first day of the annual waterfowl count. After three hours of searching through the whitecaps and cold, 24 birds were seen. That is, until a quick turn around the north edge of the west pond revealed 210 coots huddled together in an impossibly small opening in the ice. Birds were churning up the water, beak to beak, wing to wing, quite literally climbing one on top of another. At the edge of the ruckus, a single pied-billed grebe calmly capitalized on 420 coot feet, foraging in what must have been a very disturbed bottom.
- Dave Taft

1/15 - New Paltz, HRM 78: This past summer the Hudson River Fisheries Unit tagged blue crabs with across-the-back plastic tags at two locations in Newburgh Bay to assess their seasonal movement in the estuary. Between June and October, 1,520 blue crabs were tagged. Of those, 84 were recaptured in Newburgh crab pots during the sampling season. An additional 38 were returned by commercial and recreational fishers in the estuary between Nyack and Poughkeepsie in that period. Just when I thought we could close the book on blue crab tag returns, the hotline started ringing again. Over the past two weeks 4 crabs have been captured in Lower New York Harbor and Raritan Bay by commercial crabbers. One small male crab was recaptured 156 days and more than 75 miles from the original release site.
- Gregg Kenney, NYSDEC

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