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Hudson River Almanac March 7 - March 14, 2005

OVERVIEW

Spring is less than a week away, but winter continues to hang on. The departure of wintering bald eagles and the arrival of red-winged blackbirds has been slowed. In estuaries further south along the Atlantic coast, shad runs are being delayed by chilly water temperatures. But flocks of Canada geese are heading upriver, and soon we will see high-flyer flocks of snow geese as well.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

3/13 - Verplanck, HRM 40.5: We caught our 13 pound dog staring up at the tulip tree that towers over our house, eyeing an adult bald eagle perched there. Remembering the Almanac story of the eagle carrying away a turkey (see 2/12), we wondered if this eagle had been contemplating making our little Cairn terrier a breakfast treat. A Cairn breeder, who lives on the banks of the Connecticut River, warned us about eagles carrying off small dogs and cats.
- Pat Korn

[Eagle Mythology - In September 1897, the New York Times ran a column decrying the fact that bald eagles were "stealing" small dogs in the Hudson Highlands. "...eagles will soon become a regular pest in the Highlands if something is not done to exterminate them." Maybe it was just a slow news day. Ironically, 1897 was the last year we had breeding bald eagles along the tidewater Hudson for 100 years. The truth is, an eagle can manage a rabbit or small turkey, and lug a Canada goose for a short distance. But a 13 pound dog is probably too heavy for them to carry away.]

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

3/7 - Eagle Nest, Dutchess County: An adult eagle was on the nest in a repose that suggested incubation. From 100 yards to the south I heard the unmistakable chortle of another eagle. The bird in the nest turned its head: it was Papa, with the small brown blaze on his forehead. Somewhere behind me Mama was asking a question that only Papa could answer.
- Tom Lake

3/7 - Garrison, HRM 51.5: On our way to Manhattan just after 7:00 AM, we saw seven immature bald eagles huddled together on the ice and one adult perched in a barren tree rising up out of Constitution Marsh.
- Mike Boyajian, Jeri Wagner

3/8 - Eagle Nest, Dutchess County: After 4½" of wet snow had fallen, the nest was sagging a bit and covered in white. It was impossible to know what was happening in the nest, until a round white shape shifted just a bit to expose a curved yellow beak. Mama was incubating.
- Tom Lake

3/8 - Croton River, HRM 34: At 7:00 AM, it was almost balmy at the Croton River railroad bridge. A trio of wood ducks flew over and red-winged blackbirds sang. Soaring high over the tide flats, half a dozen tree swallows found it warm enough that there was some kind of insect life to be found. We were hatless, mostly coatless, and enjoying vastly this taste of spring.
- Christopher Letts, Gino Garner, Midgie Toube, George Hatzmann.

3/8 - Northern Westchester County: Four hours later, now in full ice fishing regalia, I was sitting on a local pond in a white-out blizzard, catching dinner through a foot of ice. The temperature had slipped 25°F and the wind was howling around my well-layered ears. As I trudged off the ice with my next meal flopping in my pail, I reflected that this, to a fare-thee-well, is the month of March defined.
- Christopher Letts

3/9 - Newcomb, HRM 302: The world is back to sub-zero here! It was -4°F overnight. And the winds are a-blowin' with wind chills ranging from -10° to -20°F. The songbirds emptied the feeders yesterday in preparation for a cold night.
- Ellen Rathbone

3/9 - Farmer's Landing, HRM 67: It was a bitter cold dawn, 10°F, with a wind chill well below zero. Where the floe ice in the river had been freely flowing yesterday, it was now locked tight.
- Tom Lake

3/9 - Anthony's Nose, HRM 46: Steve Stanne chose this chilly day for the southbound leg of an annual estuary tour with Student Conservation Association interns working for the Hudson River Estuary Program. Early on, we stopped at the Route 6/202 overlook just south of the Bear Mountain Bridge to look for bald eagles. One flew closely past us just as we emerged from the van. There were a few others, far below near Iona Island, and back in the tidal wetland, soaring among the gulls.
At China Pier [HRM 43] the fierce north wind teared our eyes as we watched six soaring eagles performing high above Peekskill Bay. Their aerial acrobatics included shadow flying and wing-touches. One pair consisted of a juvenile and an adult - dancing lessons, perhaps?
A female northern harrier rode the wind like a master at Croton Point [HRM 34], hunting just above the tall grass of the landfill. A red-tailed hawk performed similar maneuvers and sometimes hung in one place, intently studying the ground below. Searching for the winter's resident long-eared owls produced fresh owl pellets, but nothing else. Braving the wind, we walked over the hill to view the tidal wetlands and riverside trees where wintering eagles often perch, but none were there today. However, the tunnels of rodents beneath the dried grass showed why hawks favored this area so much. Rodent urine reflects ultraviolet, which these birds can see, so the whole field probably glowed with a web of rodent highways to them.
By early afternoon, the north wind, which had been blowing hard since last night, was hurrying the ebb current downriver and creating a blowout tide. The river bottom was visible almost to the end of the Yonkers Pier [HRM 18], and boats at the 79th Street Boat Basin in Manhattan [HRM 6] were sitting on exposed mud.
We looked out at New York Lower Bay and the Atlantic Ocean at South Beach, just below the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on Staten Island. There were brant among the gulls there, but sadly no sandpipers. Slipper and razor-edge shells were plentiful among the brightly-colored bottle caps and other plastic bits. Old tires were covered with blue mussels and barnacles; their hollows serving as small tide pools.
At dusk, headed north on the west side of the Hudson at Tompkin's Cove [HRM 42], we spotted about a dozen eagles roosting and feeding nearby in the trees between the highway and the river. There was a mix of adults and juveniles and the total number was hard to determine. Some trees had three to four; others had birds flying in and out. This gave us a total eagle count of at least 15-20, not bad for mid-March.
- Melissa Henneman

3/10 - Poughkeepsie, HRM 75: I was driving from Poughkeepsie west, over the Mid-Hudson Bridge, worrying about possible car trouble, work concerns, and being late for work. Halfway across I looked up and there was an adult bald eagle flying directly over the bridge, flapping its wings and heading north. Immediately I was right-sized, remembering that we within nature not outside it, the way my worries were. In fact, as I drove under the bird, I was literally between the eagle and the water of the Hudson River.
- Christopher Duncan

3/10 - West Point, HRM 52: It was 9:45 AM and I had just left an Earth Day committee meeting at the U.S. Military Academy. Circling slowly above the Catholic Chapel with a bright blue sky for background was an adult bald eagle. The eagle circled to gain altitude for about five minutes. Once it had climbed to an estimated 300' above the ground, the eagle swung northward and headed upriver. This is close to the same time of year when a satellite-tagged eagle that West Point and NYSDEC monitored from 1998-2000 would return to its nesting area in New Brunswick. I could not tell if this one had a wing tag or leg band.
- Jim Beemer

3/10 - Fort Montgomery, HRM 46.5: While crunching along a snow encrusted woods lane shortly after dark, I became aware of a strange trilling sound overhead. Homing in on the sound, I looked up to see the silhouettes of two screech owls mating on a limb of a small maple not 20' away. Roughly five seconds later, the male flew off, followed shortly by the female after she had quickly fluffed her feathers. In "The Owls of North America," Eckert describes screech owl courtship to be nothing short of "hilarious" at times, such as when the male faces the female and blinks each eye in exaggerated fashion. He also describes the mating act to be a largely silent affair, though the trilling I heard was quite loud.
- Ed McGowan

3/11 - Poughkeepsie, HRM 75: A Cooper's hawk is not the raptor one expects to see on the river's ice. However, at Waryas Park shortly after noon today I caught sight of a Cooper's flying low and laboriously over the ice-filled river, the prey in its talons occasionally touching the water. The hawk landed on the first firm surface it reached: a shelf of slushy ice about 20 feet offshore. Exhausted, the raptor sat for a while before starting its lunch, which appeared to be a mourning dove, though the dull light and the increasingly sodden condition of its food made it hard to be sure.
- Steve Stanne

3/12 - Eagle Nest, Dutchess County: With 4" of new snow; the eagle nest was again covered. Although sunlight reflecting off new snow is brilliant, it still is not as starkly white as Mama's head, which suddenly poked up and looked our way. Out over the river we heard honk, honk, honk, and then saw our first high-flyers headed north. Through the binoculars we could see that this was not a V, but a single skein of Canada geese.
- Tom Lake, Phyllis Lake

3/12 - Verplanck, HRM 40.5: Our deck bird feeders were attacked by waves of grackles, spring migrants, this weekend.
- Pat Korn

3/13 - Queens, New York Bight: We held a brief staff meeting at a picnic bench in the (finally) warm enough sun at the Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Staring idly over the tree line toward the west, gulls flew past, one by one by one. We spoke about budget issues, staffing concerns, bathrooms, and trail maintenance. Then suddenly, the next "gull" that flew past was a large turkey vulture. Flying in their usual buoyant way, it occurred to me that this bird looked as if invisible fingers were pulling at its primaries to hold it up there. Anywhere else in the state this would be barely worth recording. At the refuge, it is quite an unusual sighting.
- Dave Taft

3/14 - Hudson, HRM 114: We saw our first turkey buzzard [vulture] today at Columbia-Greene Community College but we have not seen any red-winged blackbirds yet. The river is pretty much free of ice but our shad run might be later in coming this year, with all of the snow pack yet to melt.
- Jon Powell

3/14 - Highland, HRM 78: The wild turkeys, usually around 25, had all come down from their night perches except for one. When I looked a few minutes later, a second one was back in the tree. This was highly unusual. Then another, and another, until the whole flock had "re-roosted." A moment later a red fox walked out on the bluff between our house and the turkeys. He looked at them a while, sat down, scratched an ear, looked at them some more, then walked away, out of sight. Ten minutes later the turkeys left the trees.
- Vivian Wadlin

3/14 - Hunter's Brook, HRM 67.5: The was day one of year three for the glass eel study in Hunter's Brook, a little tributary of a tributary in the Wappinger system, just over a mile from the Hudson. Two pair of ring-necked ducks and a pair of hooded mergansers were at the mouth of the brook, and just upstream, exactly where I would set my gear, was a pair of wood ducks. It was early, the tide was still falling, so I sat in the snow and waited. In no more than 15 minutes they had moved upstream. The water was very shallow and the pebbles and cobbles were Kelly green from new algal growth. Traveling over them was like walking on greased cannonballs. After pounding six steel re-bar rods into the rocky streambed and setting my net, I was ready for a nap. The water was a chilly 34°F.
- Tom Lake

[American eel research: Populations of freshwater eels seem to be diminishing worldwide, and no one knows why. While American eels live in fresh water, they are born at sea and many of them spend much of their lives in tidewater. Each spring, millions of year-old eels ascend tidewater from the sea. This occurs along the entire coast of North America south into the Gulf of Mexico. Their near lack of pigment at this life stage has earned them the name "glass eel." This is a particularly vulnerable time in their lives and little is known about it. The research on Hunter's Brook is part of a watershed-wide program connected to a national effort to better understand the life history of American eels. It is difficult to manage a species when you know so little about it. Tom Lake]

3/14 - Yonkers, HRM 18: A Eurasian teal has been seen several times in the Yonkers area over the past month. It has most recently been spotted on the Bronx River with a flock of green-winged teal. At the present time both the Eurasian teal and the green-winged teal are considered as different races of the same species. However, there is talk that the American Ornithological Union may split them into two distinct species.
- Joe O'Connell, Ellen O'Connell

[The two teal have minor plumage differences, and were once considered separate species. Birders pay close attention as scientists refine their understanding of the differences (or lack thereof) between closely related species. Their life lists grow or shrink as ornithologists make decisions to "lump" species - combine two into one, as happened when the Baltimore oriole and Bullock's oriole became the northern oriole several decades ago, or "split" species - as happened when the northern oriole was more recently separated back into Baltimore and Bullock's again. Steve Stanne]

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