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Hudson River Almanac February 27 - March 7, 2007

OVERVIEW

Just last week we reported that in our 13 years of the Hudson River Almanac, we had recorded 11 species of gulls in the watershed. We can now add number 12, a rare slaty-backed gull. And, after a tease of spring, we fell back into Arctic cold and ice.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

3/4 - New Paltz, HRM 78: A slaty-backed gull was reported from along the Wallkill River today. This was a first sighting for the watershed. The slaty-backed gull is a common coastal breeding species in northeastern Asia, wintering southward to Japan, Korea and China. They often wander to the western shoreline of Alaska but they are very rare elsewhere in North America.

- Rich Guthrie, Tom Lake

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

2/27 - Furnace Woods, Westchester County, HRM 38.5: It was two weeks after the Valentine's Day ice storm, and I was still chopping away at the 5" of ice on drives and walkways. When I paused to take a breather, the sounds of incipient spring were all about: titmice, cardinals, doves, and all the woodpeckers tuning up for a grand opening March 20th. I spotted 3 large dark birds, moving fast, flap-flap through the woods and out of sight. I guessed black vultures and a moment later, there they were, soaring over Pine Lake, white wing patches flashing in the sun. Red-winged blackbirds were calling and grackles were croaking from the tree tops. Fish crows, not present for many months, were conversing, probably planning a raid on our compost pile. In the sheltered chimney corner a little thicket of crocus had poked through the snow. A few were in full bloom and the rest were showing color.

- Christopher Letts

2/28 - Newcomb, HRM 302: What a beautiful clear sky tonight. The stars were brilliant and the soon-to-be-full moon was blazing away. No wind. Very still. It was lovely, even if it was -10°F. Still hearing the saw-whet owl hooting out behind my house. I wonder if it is the same owl and he's just making the rounds.

- Ellen Rathbone

2/28 - Dutchess County, Town of Wappinger: For over an hour this afternoon I was convinced that Mama had settled on eggs, even if it was a week or more early. Just as I was leaving, with that thought in mind, she got up from her seat, walked around the nest, and then took off for the river. Not quite yet, it seems.

- Tom Lake

[Mama and Papa: In our observations of this bald eagle nest, designated NY62, we try to differentiate the mated pair. Most of the time we can do this, but it is not 100%. In a breeding pair, the female will usually be a bit larger, noticeably so when they are together. Individual behavior, especially after watching them - this is their 7th season - becomes diagnostic as well. We couple all of that with a recognition of subtle differences and attitudes, as they go about letting us know that they are individuals. Tom Lake.]

2/28 - George's Island, HRM 39: We arrived at George's Island at dusk, the sky a muted orange behind the blue hills of Rockland. At first we noticed 6 eagles in the trees on Dogan's Point. Because of the waning light, we were unable to tell if they were adults or immatures. Over the next half hour, 12 more flew in from the south and landed in the trees. This made us think about eagles roosting at George's Island on somewhat mild winter nights. I'm sure there were more eagles in the trees behind the point that we couldn't see.

- Dorothy Ferguson, Bob Ferguson

[On winter nights when air temperatures are somewhat mild, bald eagles will roost along the river rather than seek inland shelter in stands of conifers. Pete Nye.]

2/28 - Westchester County, HRM 33-43: We spent a pleasant hour poking up the coast of the Hudson from Ossining to China Pier, stopping to scout day roosts and patches of river ice for eagles. The count was 36, equally adult and immature, in small groups, evenly scattered along the route. There was lots of interaction, especially out on the ice. In two weeks, if recent years are an indicator, almost all of them will be off to nesting sites and other haunts north and west of the Tappan Zee and Haverstraw Bay.

- Christopher Letts

3/1 - Norrie Point, HRM 85: For weeks we'd been iced in; only the main channel was open. The Coast Guard must have decided it was time to try and free the Hudson River pilot boat stationed here. After watching the boat make several loops around Esopus Island, coming closer to Norrie Point with every pass, a break was called for the conference we were hosting. Peers from Research Reserves across the country had so far only seen the Hudson looking more like a flat, snow-covered field rather than a flowing, tidal river. We flocked out to the deck facing the river to watch the progress of the ice breaker. The power of the boat was impressive as it muscled its way through the ice, breaking it up into giant jig-saw puzzle pieces. The broken ice began to move with the current, showing ever-widening jagged strips of open water. Gulls, eagles, and mergansers arrived within half an hour, taking advantage of the Coast Guard's efforts.

- Laurie Fila

3/1 - Croton River, HRM 34: Two immature bald eagles spent several minutes trying to catch up with 3 buffleheads that had been feeding near the railroad bridge. Over and over the little ducks managed to pop up, get the breath they needed, and crash dive before the eagles could reach them. As usual, we're never sure if it is just a game for the eagles, a matter of honing skills, or if these birds really wanted a meal. Both eagles appeared to be in first year plumage.

- Christopher Letts

3/2 - Newcomb, HRM 302: We got 10" of new snow from the latest storm. Our snow stick now officially reads 28".

- Ellen Rathbone

3/2 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: What was a snow event in the upper Hudson was all rain here, nearly an inch and a half.

- Tom Lake

3/2 - Constitution Marsh, HRM 51.5: This morning, aboard Metro North, we spotted the bald eagle that we see regularly in a tree at the south end of Constitution Marsh. The bird looked a little soggy in the heavy rain. This eagle is becoming one of the landmarks of our commute.

- Mike Boyajian, Jeri Wagner

3/2 - Sandy Hook, NJ: This was a rare 5-raptor day for this time of the year: one of each falcon (peregrine, kestrel, and merlin) as well as northern harrier and turkey vulture (taking a little liberty with the last one). In its own way, the vulture's flying skills took first place, if the winner was measured by the lack of wing beats. This one covered a few hundred yards across the wind without a flap.

- Dery Bennett

3/3 - Staatsburg, HRM 85: There is a vantage near here from which you can view a local bald eagle nest, designated NY92 by DEC. With a spotting scope this morning, I watched both adults in and near the nest. Both eventually flew off to forage or feed leaving the nest unattended, suggesting that no eggs are present yet.

- Dave Lindemann

3/3 - Hyde Park, HRM 82: Spring descended on our yard this morning in a loud flurry of black with flashes of red wings, sending the marauding squirrels scattering.

- Jude Holdsworth

3/3 - Dutchess County, Town of Wappinger: While Mama had been fidgeting around over the last few days, in the nest and out, this afternoon and evening she seemed content to sit like she meant it. On eggs at last? By 6:15 PM, last light was ebbing away and her bright white head faded into gray. Beyond the nest tree, low on the horizon to the northeast, a full lunar eclipse was just beginning to become visible. Like a big orange ball, the moon, softly shrouded in earth's shadow, showed extraordinary definition. It had the illusion of being closer and the look of a sci-fi movie prop.

- Tom Lake

[Last year, 2006, the female of NY62 began incubating eggs (2) on March 8. Tom Lake.]

3/3 - Croton-on-Hudson, HRM 35: At the appointed time I was outside, shivering, watching between the tree branches at the end of our drive. The horizon haze lifted and there it was, a rosy pancake floating above the mist.

- Robin Fox

3/3 - Croton Reservoir, HRM 34: This morning near the parking lot at the Croton Dam, I saw a flock of 15-20 cedar waxwings, one of my very favorites.

- Jane Shumsky

3/4 - Saugerties Lighthouse, HRM 102: Open water returned to the mouth of Esopus Creek after heavy rainfall two days ago. This morning, two dozen common goldeneye, a dozen Canada geese, a half-dozen common mergansers and a few canvasbacks paddled the open water and dived along the edge of the ice.

- Patrick Landewe, Keeper Saugerties Lighthouse

3/4 - Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 74: For the past three weeks we've been host to about 100 grackles and starlings; the numerous bird feeders having drawn them in. Today, though, their numbers doubled as a flock of red-winged blackbirds joined them. All appeared to be in good voice, and their songs were about the only thing one could hear. At one point when I opened the back door to throw some peanuts to the squirrels, the easily-spooked flock took off en masse, prompting a "wow" from me as the huge flash of color from all those red wings filled my field of vision.

- Donna Lenhart, Bill Lenhart

3/4 - Marlboro, HRM 69: Three drake common mergansers were lazing down the river in the ebb current when an immature bald eagle appeared, strafing them and sending them off in three different directions. The eagle made a tight loop and dropped to the surface where it snatched a small fish. After a short flight upriver the eagle found a small ice floe that looked no larger than the bird. After a gentle landing, the fish, held firmly in its big yellow foot, was devoured.

- Tom Lake

3/4 - Dutchess County, Town of Wappinger: A strong north wind had the nest tree swaying. This is the adult female's sixth year, and she has sat through much worst. This scenario of incubating eggs is likely occurring at no fewer than 15 other nests along Hudson tidewater.

- Tom Lake

3/4 - East Fishkill, HRM 63: We witnessed the annual invasion of the blackbirds as they gathered in large groups about our yard, mostly grackles, some red-winged blackbirds, and a few brown-headed cowbirds. Even the squirrels went scurrying out of their way as the birds devoured the scattered seed. We estimated well over 130 birds. But what's that? A white one in their midst? It was a grackle, only this one was all white with a "buffy" coloring on its head. The white grackle mingled as an equal in their midst.

- Carolyn Plage, Ed Connelly

[An albino or partial albino grackle sounds very likely. With so many millions of them out there, a white one or partial white one turns up now and then. They really look odd, and would stand out in a crowd of blackbirds. Rich Guthrie.]

3/4 - Putnam Valley, HRM 55.5: What a birdy weekend: red-bellied woodpeckers (2); mourning doves (12); bluebirds (4, checking out nest boxes); and a mixed flock of red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, brown-headed cowbirds and a few starlings. There was also a flock of robins heading toward the dried and fermented berries of the wild roses, a mockingbird (investigating the compost pile), wild turkeys (18), a red-tailed hawk, a turkey vulture, the usual abundant juncos, blue jays, various sparrows, titmice, chickadees, the less abundant house finches and cardinals, and the standard group of crows, cawing and pecking around. Our gray squirrel population is clearly recovering and 2 red squirrels were in a cluster of old spruce. And these were just casual observations; I wonder what I might have seen had I been actively searching?

- Nancy P. Durr

3/4 - Peekskill, HRM 43: While riding the Metro-North train to Manhattan, I noticed a large, mostly brown and white mottled bird with a bit of white in the tail. The morning sun was shining on its back and across the top of its wings giving them a reddish-brown glow, much like the color in the tail of a red-tailed hawk. Was this an immature bald eagle? I had never seen one with such a reddish cast to its feathers.

- Reba Wynn Laks

[This was a typical immature bald eagle color pattern, various shades of brown with patches of white. In some individuals, the angled sunlight of morning and evening can create a reddish cast. Tom Lake.]

3/5 - Dutchess County, Town of Wappinger: The change from blue sky came suddenly and we were in the midst of a mid-afternoon "white-out" snow squall. A strong and frigid west wind, gusting to 40 mph, had the nest tree swaying. Mama was perched in the nest, incubating. While her stoic look gave no hint of displeasure, it reminded me of how March frequently has some of the most violent weather of the year.

- Tom Lake

3/5 - Sandy Hook, NJ: There is a grassy field at the edge of the bay side of Sandy Hook. Today there were two distinct flocks of dark birds feeding: a batch of 50 brant and, 100' away, close to 500 blackbirds, mostly redwings, cowbirds, and starlings, with a few English sparrows mixed in. No yelling or fighting, just two flocks trying to make it through another 25°F, 30 mph northwest wind day. On the edge of another field, the Canada geese were beginning to pair up.

- Dery Bennett

3/6 - Cairo, Town of Purling, HRM 125: It was bitterly cold today, -2°F, and schools were on a 2-hour delay due to blowing snow. But as I was walking into work in New Paltz, I heard a flock of red-winged blackbirds.

- Lawrence Beigel

3/6 - Norrie Point, HRM 85: The river ice around Norrie Point was a jumbled mass of snow-covered chunks, riding up on one another and creating a gorgeous contrast of blinding white surfaces and deep shadows. Despite the drop in air temperature and subsequent re-freezing of much of the river's surface since last week, the eagles have become more abundant. Today we saw 5 rather than just the single pair of adults we've seen here on and off all winter. At one point we counted 3 perched on Esopus Island (2 juveniles and an adult) and 2 more adults in the air, circling around in search of food.

- Laurie Fila

3/6 - Farmer's Landing, HRM 67: At dawn it hurt to breathe. The air was +3°F, cold enough, but the wind, gusting to 35 mph made it feel like -40°F. The river ice was coalescing, filling in open areas. Eight miles upriver in Poughkeepsie, many thermometers had registered 0°F overnight.

- Tom Lake

3/6 - Dutchess County, Town of Wappinger: Early this morning I observed a changing of the watch; Papa flew off to the river and Mama replaced him in the bald eagle nest, incubating the eggs.

- Rosalie Pung

[The female bald eagle usually spends the night in the nest, incubating the eggs about 80% of the time The male helps, relieving the female from time to time so she can forage along the river, about 10 wing beats away. Tom Lake.]

3/6 - Brooklyn, New York City: The sudden cold snap caught everyone by surprise. Even the brant feeding along the median line of the Belt Parkway near Plumb Beach did so with a rare gingerness. The birds sat on their feet as they fed, moving with a strange rocking motion while making their odd calls. Just two days ago, in 62°F weather, I saw brant moving northbound.

- Dave Taft

3/7 - Newcomb, HRM 302: We had -31° overnight, not figuring in the windchill (Saranac Lake had -36°F). This morning it was still -16° when I arrived at the Adirondack Park Visitors Interpretive Center.

- Ellen Rathbone

3/7 - Dutchess County, Town of Wappinger: Back-to-back dawns of near zero. As I watched Mama gently rock in the eagle nest, 91 feet off the ground, I had to wonder if these were two of the worse nights she has ever experienced. An eagle would never choose to spend the night be exposed as she was with such wicked wind chills. Eagles seek communal night roosts, usually in conifers where the warmth of numbers and the shielding of leaves (needles), offer some windbreak and comfort.

- Tom Lake

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