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Hudson River Almanac May 28 - June 4, 2006

OVERVIEW

In late spring from the Adirondacks to the sea, reports of migration give way to a preponderance of observations of young creatures entering the world.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

5/28 - Jamaica Bay, New York Bight: I was birding with my son at the Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Queens. Although he is a novice birder and owns an inexpensive pair of binoculars, he managed to find a very unique bird on West Pond. He called my attention to 3 ducks that looked "very different" and asked me if I knew what they were. At first I thought they were odd-colored mallards. Then I recognized that he had spotted 3 fulvous whistling ducks. It was a life bird for both of us.
- Joe O'Connell, Joe O'Connell Jr.

6/1 - Jamaica Bay, New York Bight: There are at least 3 fulvous whistling ducks at the Refuge. I saw a group of 3 yesterday, and they've been recorded in the sightings log near the temporary visitors' center. One entry in the log recorded that a pair was mating. Is it possible that a pair will nest at Jamaica Bay?
- Phyllis Steller

[The fulvous whistling ducks have been at the refuge for about a week but it is unlikely that they would nest here. Although they have an extensive range, these ducks are far more common in South America than in the mainland U.S. They have only been recorded nesting in the U.S. once or twice, and these were well south of us. There is no telling how these birds got here. I like to think they are birds simply flying as they will; other refuge regulars suggest that they may be escaped pets. We had a black-bellied whistling duck at the refuge a few years ago that set off quite a debate about its origins. Those were never resolved, and the duck didn't have much to say about them. Their life history suggests they can be nest parasites. Theoretically, they could find some other duck nest, common enough at the refuge, and deposit an egg or two, consequently making them a refuge breeding bird. We'll have to keep our eye out for any "ugly ducklings" among the black ducks, mallards, and Canada geese. Dave Taft, refuge manager.]

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

5/28 - Croton River, HRM 34: The Boyz at the Bridge were gathered and speaking of the peculiar fish they've seen this spring. Big John asked me about a fish he'd caught "with the head of a catfish and the body of a rainbow trout." I finally deduced that it was a channel catfish. George Hatzmann allowed as how he'd caught one himself, in a bait net. They seem to be colonizing the lower reaches of the estuary, moving into brackish water. Another reported the catch of a butterfish, a species much less common in the estuary than it was three decades ago. But the prize, so far unidentified, is a series of almost a dozen that one of the fellows caught in deep water on small bits of worm. They looked like tomcod, but weren't; they had dots along the lateral line and were all about 8" long. My guess is fourbeard rockling, a species of cod, but that is as far as I'll go until a specimen comes out of Stanley's freezer for in-hand scrutiny. (To be continued.)
- Christopher Letts

5/29 - Sandy Hook, NJ: Well, the brant did it again. These small geese began straggling out of here a week ago (there were still a few hundred around the bay marshes on May 24). By today, Sandy Hook was brantless. As they do every year around Memorial Day, they had all departed on their journey to Arctic breeding grounds. So now we set our calendar watches for Columbus Day when they will return to their wintering grounds here, to charm us at night with their soothing "ronk" calls as we wade the backwaters casting plugs for striped bass.
- Dery Bennett

5/30 - Newcomb, HRM 302: It was a typical "July day," hazy, hot and humid, when the storm rolled in. We watched it come at us from across the lake. The trees started to whip, thunder rumbled, lightning blazed, hailstones fell (about the size of a finger tip), and it poured rain. The air temperature dropped about 20°F. in a matter of minutes. When it ended, we had over 2" of precipitation. Part of the road into the Goodnow Flow was washed out as was part of our walkway to the Adirondack Park Visitor Center. Lightning struck a tree 150' from Mike Tracy's house. Tonight, as it was getting dark, we had not one, not 2, but 5 (possibly 6) hummingbirds competing for one of our feeders. I've never seen that many in one place before. Briefly, 3 fed at the same time, something I had not seen here before. Usually one stakes out all the feeders and drives the others away. It is shaping up as a bumper crop hummer year.
- Ellen Rathbone

5/30 - Tivoli South Bay, HRM 98.5: We were sampling killifish in Tivoli South Bay. At low tide we saw a bumblebee moth (snowberry clearwing - Hemaris diffinis) puddling on the exposed mud. This is a large day-flying moth with extremely rapid wing beats and a bright yellow and black abdomen.
- Bob Schmidt, Alec Schmidt

5/30 - Hyde Park, HRM 82: I saw my first firefly of the season tonight while checking my field in Hyde Park for nesting turtles. The painted turtles have started nesting, but the Blanding's and box turtles haven't yet. The Blanding's turtles in LaGrange are feasting on salamander juveniles now, in a small vernal pool.
- Jude Holdsworth

5/31 - Newcomb, HRM 302: Bunchberry is blooming and I suspect the yellow Clintonia is, too - it had buds a couple of days ago. Mosquitos are out in full force now, competing with the blackflies for fresh flesh.
- Ellen Rathbone

5/31 - Stuyvesant to Catskill, HRM 127-113: Working from two small boats, a crew from DEC's Hudson River Fisheries Unit haul seined the shallows at a half dozen sites in spawning habitat for American shad and striped bass. It's a great way to experience the productivity and vitality of the estuary, wrestling with scores of striped bass, some in the 30 lb. range, as each is measured, tagged, and released. Many other fish are netted as well, and today the catch was especially varied. In addition to stripers and a disappointing 3 American shad, we collected many gizzard shad and common carp (including a mirror carp variant with only a few scattered scales), a single grass carp weighing 31 lb., 3 rudd (see 5/20 Almanac entry), plenty of white suckers, white and channel catfishes, a few smallmouth and largemouth bass, a walleye, and several large freshwater drum. Overhead we recorded at least 3 bald eagles and one of the pair of peregrine falcons nesting on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. The day's oddest observation was the behavior of a flock of about 40 northbound brant when they reached the power lines crossing high over the Hudson at Athens. Instead of passing under, the birds veered away and circled back to the south before flying up to the lines a second time, only to spook again. This pattern of approach and last minute avoidance went on for at least five minutes before the flock headed westward, gained altitude, and flew over a lower section of the power lines near the Athens shore. Members of the haul-seining crew told me that they frequently see brant exhibit this behavior at power lines and bridges crossing the river.
- Steve Stanne

[The Hudson River Fisheries Unit's Spawning Stock Survey collects American shad and striped bass on their spawning grounds from Newburgh to Catskill between early May and early June. A haul seine 500' long is set by boat in a half circle from one point on shore to another, and then pulled ashore by hand. Length, weight, and scale samples are taken before the fish are tagged and released. Data on age structure (the number of fish of each age) allows the Unit's biologists to assess the health of each year's spawning population.

5/31 - Hunter's Brook, HRM 67.5: Glass eel season is over for this year. The newly-arrived American eels are no longer "glass," but tiny whippets of black. Not unlike Thoreau's regime at Walden Pond, there is nothing like a daily routine to the same place to help you appreciate the arrival of spring. When we began on March 15, the trail to the brook was a Spartan late-winter landscape. Now, 79 days later, we need hand shears to cut away the multiflora rose and carefully chosen steps to get over the knee-high poison ivy as we wend our way through the walls of green. From the March ice along the shore to today's great egrets, orioles, and the orange and yellow tulip tree flower petals drifting downstream, the change has been dramatic. As I hauled the net from the brook, I spotted a bald eagle feather on the gravelly shore where the brook enters the tidal Wappinger. These shallows are a very good foraging area.
- Tom Lake

5/31 - Eagle Nest 124, Westchester County: This new bald eagle nest, designated NY124, is now the southernmost on the tidewater Hudson. Pete Nye climbed the tree, a huge white pine, to the nest at least 115' off the ground. He found raccoon scat on a horizontal limb near the top, evidence of an earlier egg or chick predator. To prevent this from happening again, we applied a "predator guard" around the 12.5 ' circumference of the tree. This is a broad band of sheet metal fastened just above the ground, too slick for racoons, opossums and other predators to climb. There were two chicks: a female estimated to be about 7.5 weeks old, and a male about 6.5 weeks. Also in the nest were the remains of 2 huge white catfish, among the favorite foods of eaglets. Pete lowered the male chick down to us in a special bag. The female was too large to be lowered, so she was banded in the nest.

We took the male eaglet out of the bag and put a soft hood on his head to calm him. If raptors cannot see, they often remain still. This was not a true falconer's "hood" but rather a child's soft sock with the toe cut out. I held the eaglet, one hand around his huge yellow, sharp-taloned feet and the other applying gentle pressure to his chest to keep him in place. I could feel his rapid heartbeat against my palm. As I looked at his blinking eyes under the hood, I thought that if this eaglet meets with good fortune he will fledge in a month, spend the next four years learning to be an eagle, exploring and making contacts with other birds, and then eventually find a mate for life and for the next 30 years rear his own young.

We took a blood sample and measurements: the length of the hallux (rear) talon to verify gender, the length of the 8th primary feather to estimate age, and a few others - an impromptu physical. It was hot and humid on the forest floor; the eaglet panted, his tongue pulsed, he reached up and took my fingers in his beak and gave a small squeeze. It was time to return him to the nest in the tree top. Once back in place with the other nestling, in less than an hour life in the forest canopy would resume its normal pace.
- Steve Joule, Chris Desorbo, Pete Nye, Tom Lake

6/1 - Mohonk, HRM 78: Yesterday, I saw my first monarch butterfly sipping nectar on chive flowers at the Mohonk Preserve Visitor Center Butterfly Garden. Today, I found my first egg of the season on some milkweed, an early messenger of summer. Previously, the earliest date I ever found eggs was June 15. For years I would spend long hours searching for monarch eggs to have by the end of June. The growing caterpillars were an essential mystery for all to observe. I could find many by July 4th. In the past 10 years, however, that has changed. Monarchs are becoming fewer and some years it's July 22 before I find any caterpillars. So I rejoice in this year's early gift of butterfly and egg. Let's hope this species somehow overcomes the weather and human indifference that causes the changes in patterns and longevity of these wild things that inspire us.
- Betty Boomer

6/1 - Poughkeepsie, HRM 74.5: Last June I caught my first carp and was "hooked" (pun intended) on them. It was about 25 lb. and gave a good fight. I fish with doughballs made of flour and corn meal. I add canned corn at times as well as sugar, jello, oats and a few other ingredients. This afternoon I caught and released a huge carp and then returned in the evening to catch what appeared to be the same fish! It had to be over 35 lb. It was just under 3' long (my rod is 6' and the fish came up just short of the middle). Once again I removed the hook with pliers and pushed the fish back into the river. I think the Hudson is the greatest asset we have in this beautiful valley.
- Glen Heinsohn

6/1 - Town of Greenburgh, HRM 35: The patchy distribution of habitat in suburban Westchester led to an odd juxtaposition of bird species at the Highview Elementary School. On a playground heavily shaded by large oak trees a parent killdeer called loudly to warn its 2 chicks of our presence. Killdeer are birds of open spaces; they often nest on the flat gravel covered roofs of school buildings and forage on nearby ballfields. But as we watched, the killdeer chicks made quick forays into a thick woodland nearby, from which a wood thrush sang its lovely song.
- Steve Stanne, Jason Novak

6/2 - Wappinger Creek, HRM 67.5: Two pairs of Baltimore orioles, orange-black males and yellow-black females, added to the incredible late-spring color along the tidewater creek. Multiflora rose and dame's rocket added fragrance to the palette.
- Tom Lake

6/3 - Jamaica Bay, New York Bight: Horseshoe crabs and shorebirds had returned for their annual visit to Plum Beach. Females crawl unto shore with males clipped to their carapace. One female had at least 3 males attached. To watch the wonder of children at this New York City Audubon event is as exciting as seeing these prehistoric creatures. Shorebirds were feeding, fattening up for the last leg of their journey to breeding grounds far to the north. Oystercatchers seem to be increasing in numbers each year. Brant that were here two weeks ago have left for Baffin Bay where they breed. We will not see them again till the first week in October.
- Regina McCarthy

6/4 - Newcomb, HRM 302: Despite the endless rain, much is blooming: hawkweed and ox-eye daises are just starting, the Clintonia is out, as are blue-eyed grass, plantains, bird's-foot trefoil and cinquefoil.
- Ellen Rathbone

6/4 - Wappinger Falls, HRM 67.5: A female house finch was foraging while trying to keep a larger and very vocal cowbird fledgling fed. A pair of adult cowbirds lit near the fledgling and exchanged a few chirps. The fledgling then flew off with them, leaving the foster parent behind.
- Stephen M. Seymour

[Like the fulvous whistling duck, brown-headed cowbirds can be nest parasites. They sneak their eggs into other bird species' nests when the incubating parents are absent. The foster parents then incubate, hatch, feed, and fledge the cowbird young, often at the cost of their own. Tom Lake.]

6/4 - Eagle Nest NY62, Dutchess County: Day 63: By dawn the rain had stopped; in 24 hours 1.04" had fallen. The two adults were sharing a limb in the sanctuary pine 200 feet west of the nest. The eaglets jostled around playing with whatever was left from breakfast. With the two young now approaching adult size, the nest is becoming very crowded.
- Tom Lake

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