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Hudson River Almanac December 3 - December 10, 2006

OVERVIEW

Some ice was forming in the Mid-Hudson Valley, but in the week to go to the Winter Solstice, weather forecasters weren't seeing much possibility for snow outside the North Country. We are now in the midst of the annual Christmas Bird Count, a time of the year when we formally take notice of the wintering, migratory, and resident bird populations.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

12/9 - Delmar, HRM 143: I had 20 cub scouts and leaders out for a walk to help the boys get a wildlife badge. I took them down to an old abandoned beaver lodge to see a fresh cutting and one of them spotted a painted turtle swimming under the thin "black ice" on the pond. They all trooped down to look when someone shouted, "There's a beaver." Sure enough a beaver had swum out from the old lodge under the ice. It popped up through the ice about 10 feet from the kids so they got a good look at it. It was a first for me to actually see a beaver under the ice and they certainly got their badge.
- Dee Strnisa

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

12/3 - New Paltz, HRM 78: Winter seems to be settling in, but one final reminder of warmer fall days hovered over our deck and then alighted on the rail today: a small dragonfly with a red abdomen and unmarked, slightly ambered wings. This variety is very common in fall around our house, which overlooks a marsh in an old oxbow of the Wallkill River. It is also, as dragonflies go in my experience, quite "tame," in the sense that it will alight close to or sometimes even on me as I'm sitting outside.
- Steve Stanne

[This description, coupled to the time of year, makes it very likely that this was a dragonfly of the genus Sympetrum, commonly known as meadowhawks. Karen Strong.]

12/3 - Milton, HRM 71.5: Fred Bilyou of Milton died today. He was 83 and had been fishing for shad since he was thirteen years old, except for those seasons when he was in World War II. On the Hudson, Fred was a superior shad fisherman whose nearly seventy years of fishing had taught him a great deal about how the river works and how to catch fish. Experience was his watchword.

As shad fishermen, too, we remember Fred as a teacher, although he rarely if ever gave us any advice. We watched him to learn some of the tricks of the trade, but he was right that experience is really the best way to understand what is happening out on the water.

Although we've been fishing for shad every season for more than thirty years in the same six-mile reach of the river, between the Mid Hudson Bridge and the stone crusher across from Marlboro, we are still trying to get it right. But no matter if we threw the nets in at Blue Point on a given ebb tide, or decided to fish the Poughkeepsie bay south of the bridge, Fred always seemed to be there, too, waiting for just the right time to begin the drift.

On one night drift, with his thousand feet of net sailing down river on a brisk tide, Fred passed along a nugget of experience to his son, Robert, and told him to watch the moon because when it dropped below the horizon the net would stop even though, normally, there would be another half hour or so of the tide. Sure enough, Robert told me with pride, when the moon set the net just stopped, as if a railroad crossing signal arm came down in front of it.

Unfortunately, there are so many striped bass in the river that we don't fish at night any more, but if we do again, we will remember the moon tides and other lessons learned by watching Fred Bilyou.

We'll remember, too, his teeth clenched on the plastic tip of a short cigar as he heaved on the oars of his homemade, wooden shad boat and positioned the stern just right for his son to haul in the fish. Fred kept alive from an earlier era a fierce sense of competitiveness to be the first on the river. He never wavered from that philosophy. As we learned to fish with him we knew he had earned that right to be first.
- Bud Tschudin, John Mylod, M/T Net Company, Poughkeepsie

12/4 - The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is held throughout the country around this time of year. In 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman organized a group of friends to observe, count and share information about bird species without shooting them. The National Audubon Society, which Chapman helped organize, now sponsors this annual tradition in which thousands of people go out to count as many bird species as their group can in a sporting, competitive way. The result has been the gathering of significant data that has monitored changes in bird populations and distribution over the years.
- Rich Guthrie

2006 Dates - Hudson River locations, 107th annual Christmas Bird Count:

  • 12/23 Bronx-Southern Westchester County
  • 12/30 Troy area
  • 12/30 Putnam County

12/5 - Newcomb, HRM 302: It got down to +12°F tonight, after +10°F last night. Not too cold, for us. But it was beautiful for a walk in the dark. The full moon was up and rising and there was enough snow on the ground to make things fairly bright. When we got down to the pump house to view the Hudson, it was a really beautiful sight. All man-made lights were out of sight, and the moon cast a silvery wash over the snow and on the water. In the downstream shadows of the boulders, the water had already begun to freeze, but most of the river was open and moving along at a pretty good clip. Despite the nip in the air, it was worth standing there admiring the wilderness feel for a moment or two. Lots of little fox tracks out and about the last few days, thanks to the snow (we are up to maybe a whole inch now), and many snowshoe hare tracks as well. According to some hunters in town, the hares are completely white now. I bet they (the hares) are "happy" that we've finally gotten some snow. They must've been as conspicuous as neon signs against the green and brown of late fall.
- Ellen Rathbone

12/5 - George's Island Park, HRM 39: At this time of the year, even laggards and layabouts can enjoy sunrise and sunset. The short days deliver both events well within most diurnal folks' daily schedule, and at no time of the year are they likely to last longer or be more lovely. Tonight I chose this sweet little riverfront park. I shared the parking lot with one other vehicle, single occupant. Are we so busy, so divorced from the natural world, that we cannot find few minutes on either end of our days to celebrate these front-yard joys? Why not sunset tailgate parties? Sunrise morning coffees? As the sun dropped behind the Palisades, a flock of 7 swans flew across the path of light, necks undulating, wings beating, in balletic grace. A gilding of the lily but a nice touch.
- Christopher Letts

12/6 - Newcomb, HRM 302: On our walk tonight, Toby Rathbone and I found very large (4"-5" long, 3"-4" wide) canine tracks along the side of the road. They were enormous. I thought maybe they were from a big dog and the track had melted out making them look larger than normal, but it hadn't been warm enough for tracks to melt out.
- Ellen Rathbone

12/7 - Newcomb, HRM 302: This morning I asked a neighbor if she knew of any large dogs, and she said "No, it's a coyote." She saw the large tracks in sand the other day, too, and she also saw a gigantic coyote. Peter O'Shea told me about a huge canine he saw crossing Route 28N just east of the Adirondack Visitors Interpretive Center a few weeks ago, larger than any coyote he'd ever seen. He also related to me that Ray Masters, former wildlife specialist at the Adirondack Ecological Center next door to us, was pretty sure that some of the howling he's heard in Newcomb is very much like the wolves he'd heard howling up in Canada. Not coyotes. Mike Tracy, of the VIC, said that he, too, has seen extremely large wild canids up here, and has talked with other woods-folks who are pretty sure wolves, or something very wolf-like, are in the area.
- Ellen Rathbone

[Something wolf-like, but probably not wolves. Coyotes in northern New York are larger those found in more southerly regions. For more information, check out DEC's fact sheet on wolves in New York State, available at http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/6973.html]

12/8 - Wappinger Creek, HRM 67.5: It was like the hammer of winter had fallen overnight and left us with a frozen landscape. In early morning, a 25 mph wind and +10°F air temperature made the windchill about -30°F. The bottom of the ebb tide had new meaning. Two days and a night of strong northwest winds had produced a modest blowout tide, enough so that over half the width of the creek in tidewater was icy mudflats. A half dozen groupings of Canada geese (fragmented flocks) were strewn along a mile reach of the creek, wherever they could find water. I estimated 600 birds. Winter had caught them in night flight and now they were looking for shelter and rest. Out on the river it was rocking and rolling, white caps on rollers.
- Tom Lake

12/8 - Fishkill Creek, HRM 60: It was windy (26-30 mph) and cold (10°-20°F) for Day Two of our winter bald eagle monitoring. Today's low tide observations proved to be slow, and bitter cold with only 2 bald eagle sightings. At 6:40 AM, an adult was perched on the tip of Denning's Point. It remained for an hour then flew over the cove to perch mid-point on the peninsula. After another hour, the bird disappeared over to the west side of the point. An immature bald eagle flew south, over the cove from the base of Denning's Point, never stopping. Mixed in throughout the morning were common mergansers, a hen wood duck, and a red-tailed hawk.
- Marty McGuire

12/8 - Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island - Phil Melfi and I walked through the dark passage into the open air of Battery Tompkins, overlooking the beautiful lower New York Bay. Whitecaps played havoc with the bay, with Manhattan and Brooklyn providing the perfect foil. In the center of the court were three large yews. My first thought was what a perfect owl roost they'd make. Located away from the wind and public scrutiny, and heated by the sun, an owl could easily make a hideout here. Sure enough, Phil and I took another two steps and a large dark bird flew from the center tree. Though I desperately wanted to make it a great horned owl (much more common in this kind of setting), the not-so-great-glimpse I had left the impression of a barred owl. Below the yews, five pellets and a decent amount of white-wash gave me hope that if I'm not so careless next time, I might make that identification more accurate.
- Dave Taft

12/9 - Croton River estuary, HRM 34: The cold and brutal wind had concentrated all of Croton Bay's winter waterfowl in the 500 yard reach between the Route 9 and railroad bridges. The largess had not gone unnoticed by the local bald eagles. This morning, the adults were perched close together above the Route 9 bridge, with a first-year bird perched directly underneath. At that distance I could see no evidence of a blue leg band on the young bird but it surely looks like a family.
- Christopher Letts

12/10 - Newcomb, HRM 302: It was a glorious sunny morning, about 2" of snow (skiers and snowmobilers had already been out), with a blue sky and a bit of a breeze. Winter is here. I spotted a flock of evening grosbeaks snacking in the road and many other birds were out getting some grit and salt, too. We had a nice assortment at the feeders: purple finches, goldfinches, red-breasted nuthatch, chickadees, blue jay, juncos. It's a happy thing.
- Ellen Rathbone

12/10 - Wappinger Creek, HRM 67.5: A month ago, this mile-long reach of tidewater tributary hosted scores of mallards. While a few still lingered, there were now scores of mergansers, primarily common mergansers, but a half dozen gorgeous hooded mergansers as well.
- Tom Lake

12/10 - Dansakmmer Point, HRM 66.5: An adult bald eagle was perched in a sycamore on the side of Soap Hill, just north of Danskammer Point, a hundred feet off the river. It had a fairly large fish clamped to the limb under its big yellow feet and was "processing" it for lunch. From the size of the fish and the location, very near Danskammer's warm-water outflow, I guessed it was a gizzard shad.
- Tom Lake

12/10 - Croton River estuary, HRM 34: Despite this being a period of neap tides, the savage three-day nor'wester was still being felt, with abnormally low blow-out tides - good for the gulls, bad for the clams. This morning I watched dozens of gull "clamming." The herring gulls,seemed to be getting clams at several times the speed of the smaller ring-billed gulls. A factor of longer legs and necks? The gulls risking a soaking were eating a lot more clams than those walking the shoreline. I was reminded of the number of times I've flooded my waders, trying to reach out just that few more feet to a less-raked clam bottom. "Clam bombs" were hitting the parking lot every few seconds and the asphalt was more white than black.
- Christopher Letts

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