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Hudson River Almanac May 22 - May 28, 2005

OVERVIEW

The Almanac encourages contributors and readers alike to take a closer look at their world. Many incredible and fascinating phenomenon are not rare, but simply require some extra effort to find. The interactions between animals - sparrows and hummingbirds, owls and their adversaries, predators and prey - are always around us, if we train ourselves to notice. Some of the entries this week are from people who took the time and made the effort to watch a wide range of natural occurrences from huge fish aggressively spawning to hawks and eagles tending to their young. A strong sense of curiosity and maybe a pair of binoculars is all it takes.

HIGHLIGHT FROM THE PREVIOUS WEEK

5/21 - Sterling Forest, HRM 40: The woods were alive with warblers this morning. The prized sightings of the day were two singing golden-winged warblers holding territory. Unfortunately, not too far away was a pair of brown-headed cowbirds. Prairie warblers, blue-winged warblers and yellow warblers were in good numbers. The most unusual sighting was that of a ruby-throated hummingbird as it "faced off" against a field sparrow. The hummingbird chased the sparrow into a small tree and then hovered directly in front of the sparrow's face, only inches from the sparrow's bill. The hummingbird's gorget was flared out and it made a noticeable buzzing sound with its wings. It was trying to chase the sparrow away from the area. The sparrow seemed confused by the ordeal and finally flew away and the hummingbird went off into a bush. We had never seen this type of behavior by a hummingbird before.
- Joe O'Connell, Ellen O'Connell

[Brown-headed cowbirds are parasitic, laying their eggs in the nests of small songbirds. Cowbirds' eggs often hatch first and their larger size allows them to out-compete the songbirds' hatchlings for food and care, often resulting in the latter's demise.]

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

5/22 & 23 - Saugerties, HRM 102: Staying overnight at a lighthouse is an experience. Staying at one on the Hudson, where Esopus Creek meets the mighty river, means that you get to see and hear a lot of what's going on. In May you might witness some of the Hudson's finest pageants, the spring spawning runs of striped bass, American shad, and river herring. Our stay coincided with twilight falling tides. Low tide in the evening was about 8:30 PM, and low the following morning about 9:00 AM. At this stretch of the river, with its extensive shoreline shallows, the time near low tide provides opportunity for wading out into the bays or watching action that, at higher tides, would be too deep to observe. Looking out at the river from the second story of the lighthouse, I saw fish jumping in the evening light.

I grabbed my fishing rod and headed out to the dock. Although these could be carp spawning, the jumps seemed different. Carp make huge, thrashing movements, often leaping out of the water. The activities that evening were smaller, more subtle, often just a small splash at the surface, but sometimes a more serious jump. These had to be American shad spawning. French scientists who study the American shad's cousin, the allis shad, on its spawning grounds in the Garonne River, describe the act of spawning as a set of violent splashes as the males circle the female and release their milt on her eggs. They call this a "bull" ("boil"), which they can monitor with a microphone placed over the spawning beds. Counting the number of bulls gives scientists an estimate of the numbers of shad. I counted the "bulls" I heard-- they came about every 10-20 seconds, except when boats or a train passed. Shad are extremely sensitive to sound, and probably dispersed at these noises. I lost my shad dart to the rocks, but kept on watching and listening. Splish, splash, on into darkness. Eventually, the tide turned and the river deepened.

Early the next morning, I awoke to see the river almost dead calm under cloudy skies. There were the rings on the water again. Making my way back to the dock, egged on now by the dawn chorus of song sparrows, waterthrushes, wrens, red-winged blackbirds, catbirds, and warblers in the reeds and willows, I could see the tide was still falling. Out in the shallows, not 30' away, splashes were occurring at about the same frequency as the evening before. Fish were spawning in the mouth of the creek just south of the lighthouse, out in the river, and even off the rocky point at the lighthouse. A few fish porpoised out of the water and I could see they weren't as large as carp. Finally I got lucky and saw one leap near the dock. The silvery body and forked tail clinched it - these were American shad. Splish, splash. Imagine what this scene would have been like when the early European colonists arrived, when the river was full of fish, when shad were so plentiful that observers wrote that you could easily dip net them. These days, it's hard to find fresh shad in the local shops around the Hudson.

A little later, Dennis Swaney and I pulled my 10' seine along the sandy shore. The shad larvae were too small for the mesh, but we caught several banded killifish when we pulled through the young spatterdock. Releasing them a while later, they joined their brethren who were feeding in the shallows, where rippled half-inch sand dunes stretched for yards.

Later that morning, we hiked down to the boulder strewn base of the dam on the Esopus. Fishermen seemed to be angling for anything. A hundred yards downstream the creek opened up and deepened, and we saw three boats scap-netting for river herring. Up and down they winched their square nets, but only three fish were caught in the short time we watched. Again I thought, what was it like here before? Today there's too much pressure on too few fish.
- Karin E. Limburg

5/23 - West Point, HRM 52: The Pendragon hawks were active today. Both parents (Uther and Igraine) shared the top of the Catholic Chapel at 12:30 PM. The mother, Igraine, surely enjoyed the break away from the kids. They are halfway to fledging size and can be safely left unattended while both parents actively hunt to feed them.
- Jim Beemer

5/23 - Croton River, HRM 34: Stirrings in the shallows on this sunny afternoon bespoke large animals and lots of them. Swirls, bow wakes, and occasional loud splashes showed the carp of Croton Bay were beginning the spawning season. It will go on for months, and peak sometime in June when scores of big carp will churn up acres of water in a spawning frenzy.
- Christopher Letts

[Common carp in the Hudson River can weigh close to 40 pounds, yet they are a cyprinid - a minnow, our biggest. Numbering 33 species, minnows are the largest family of fishes in the watershed. Carp, native to Eurasia, were introduced to the Hudson River in 1831. In areas of Europe, they are considered a trophy catch. - Tom Lake]

5/24 - Stony Creek, HRM 100.5: We were tending river herring nets in Tivoli North Bay, at the mouth of Stony Creek, as part of an annual monitoring program. We noticed a blooming golden club next to the shore in tidal water and watched as the rising tide eventually covered it. Golden club is an uncommon tidal freshwater plant. We could not recall seeing one for at least ten years.
- Bob Schmidt, Jacqueline Anderson

5/24 - Saw Kill, HRM 98.5: After weeks of effort, we just caught our first, and only, river herring, a 9½" male alewife. A three hour set on incoming to high tide caught him along with a yellow perch, a white sucker, and seven white perch.
- Bob Schmidt, Jacqueline Anderson

5/24 - Croton Point, HRM 34: Twice in the past week I have watched an American bittern glide down into the marsh. I keep waiting, and hoping, for that wonderful booming call, but no luck yet. The luck on this blustery, chilly morning was two common nighthawks, swooping almost at ground level, near the 19th century brick Underhill farm buildings. I don't recall having seen them here before.
- Christopher Letts

5/25 - West Point, HRM 52: It was a perfect day for kite flying, hang gliding, just soaring with lots of strong breezes and updrafts. Uther Pendragon, West Point's adult male red-tailed hawk, took advantage of it. He caught a nice updraft over Eisenhower Hall that allowed him to hover motionless over the building for a good two minutes - no need to flap the wings, no need to veer over to catch another updraft. He looked quite content to relax before finally soaring off to catch some prey to feed the chicks at the nest.
- Jim Beemer

5/25 - Furnace Woods, HRM 38.5: Several people in northern Westchester County have asked me this spring about chipmunks and, in fact, I've seen just one this season. April and May are usually a time when the little striped guys are on every wall, shrilling away, or busy burrowing and inspecting our gardens for plundering later on. On the other hand, we have had six red fox sightings in the past two weeks within a mile of our house. One trotted across Furnace Dock Road this morning with a small mammal dangling from its jaws. Come to think of it, I've seen very few cottontails or squirrels this spring.
- Christopher Letts, Nancy Letts

5/26 - Eagle Nest, Dutchess County: This was banding day at bald eagle nest NY62. Just after first light Mama dropped off breakfast and then left. The eaglet fed and then sat on the edge of the nest in a cool drizzle under gloomy gray skies. A while later Steve Joule, endangered species biologist for DEC's Region 3, scaled the 91 foot white pine and banded (P63) the nestling, a seven week-old female. It was estimated that she was about 50 days old. The process took no more than 30 minutes, and no more than 30 minutes after we left, Mama was back in the nest with her young.
- Pete Nye, Andra Sramek, Mary Borrelli, Tom Lake

[This is year six for bald eagle nest NY62, and the fifth year that it has produced young. Using the last few years as a gauge, this female eaglet should fledge (first flight) near the end of June.]

5/27 - Croton River, HRM 34: We're puzzled, but delighted, by what seems to be a single adult bald eagle intent on spending the summer here. The bird has been around for about a month, has favorite perches, and has been seen at least five times in a week by the gang that comes here to socialize, launch boats, or just admire the water flowing by. Not everyone sees the bird every week, but the aggregate experience is that it tends to show up every day at mid to low tide, and to perch in a dead snag at the south end of the Inbuckie cove, just inside the railroad bridge.
- Christopher Letts

5/28 - Gardiner, HRM 73: An adult bald eagle flew over today, low as the telephone wires.
- Rebecca Johnson

5/28 - Croton Point, HRM 34: A little less puzzling than the adult bald eagle is the immature that frequents the point. Today a nattering gang of fish crows drew my attention to the top of a huge white oak, and there was the immature eagle. Its size and coloring have me thinking it is a first year bird. Where did you come from? Up on the landfill, a flock of perhaps 80 bobolinks festooned a stand of last year's phragmites (reed birds is the old time name for bobolinks). Not a male was present; this was an all girl event.
- Christopher Letts

5/28 - Wappinger Creek, HRM 75: I put my canoe into Wappinger Creek about a mile upstream from Red Oaks Mill. I wasn't in the water more than a minute when I heard a large splash. Turning the canoe around, I saw what appeared to be a muskrat swimming across the creek. Then it reared its tail up and hit the water with a large smack. Beaver! I was astounded to see it. I continued to watch and it splashed four more times as it swam downstream towards the dam at Red Oaks. Upstream there was a large commotion. A great horned owl sat in a large sycamore being harassed by blue jays, crows, robins, catbirds, and even a song sparrow. Migrating blackpoll warblers were passing through. Several pairs of Baltimore orioles were also around; some were nesting.
- Bill Lenhart

5/22-5/28 New York Bight: Plum Beach is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, situated off Rockaway Inlet, leading from lower New York into Jamaica Bay. This time of year several major events occur here. Brant that have wintered there are now joined by those that have wintered farther south. Often there are several hundred of these small geese there at one time, as they fatten up on the abundant sea lettuce found on the tidal flats, preparing for the return to their breeding grounds on Baffin Bay in the Arctic. The numbers this week varied, but on the best day there were close to one hundred. Two more events are so closely linked biologically that one almost thinks of them as the same event. Beginning in May, horseshoe crabs return to the beaches, particularly on tide flats, to mate and lay their eggs. Migrating shorebirds, some traveling between the Americas, stop to refuel on the crab eggs.

Memorial Day weekend was warm and sunny and Yigal Gelb and I had a real treat. Although the numbers of brant were still lower than usual due to the cool spring, we did see many pairs on the beach and as we left near high tide, many more were coming in. Three great egrets hunted in the marsh which, along with the sand spit, was filled with migrant shorebirds: willets, dunlins, semipalmated sandpipers and ruddy turnstones. Two resident oystercatchers foraged and we counted five more in flight.
- Regina McCarthy

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