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Hudson River Almanac June 25 - July 1, 2007

OVERVIEW

The incredible breadth of the Hudson watershed's flora and fauna, our diversity of life, was never more evident than it was this week. We were in awe of a giant sea sturgeon and then marveled at tiny, toothy Atlantic needlefish. The lesser-knowns ranged from diamondback terrapins to eastern prickly pear. They all served as a backdrop to the de-listing of the bald eagle from the federal endangered species list, perhaps the greatest environmental success story of the last decade in the Hudson River Valley.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

6/28 - Dutchess County, HRM 80: The NYSDEC Hudson River Fisheries Unit sturgeon tracking team netted an 8' long female Atlantic sturgeon this afternoon. Sturgeon over 4' in length tend to be females. This one may have been 35-40 years old. She appeared to be about to burst with eggs - her body was huge! The fish was fitted with a satellite tag for tracking and released after much prodding and encouragement.

- Amanda Higgs, Rebecca Johnson

[Atlantic sturgeon are the stuff of myth and legend. They are the largest fish to regularly inhabit the Hudson, reaching 10-12' in length and weighing in excess of 350 lb. Biologically they are a fish but their countenance suggests far more. They are a primitive-looking and wonderfully adapted creature belonging to an order of fishes whose evolutionary origins reaches back into the Triassic, at least 200 million years ago. Sturgeon grow very slowly - taking as long or longer than humans to reach maturity - and rival us in longevity, surviving 50 years or more in the wild. Tom Lake.]

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

6/25 - Furnace Woods, HRM 38.5: Today we picked the first peas, blueberries, and tomatoes, all on the same day. Granddaughter Thalia, 2, ate most of the peas from the shells before they got to the kitchen door. We got to listen to the muted gobbling of a flock of wild turkeys in the adjacent woods. Northern Westchester seems headed for a drought. I have recorded less than 3.0" of rain since the April deluge and things look bleak. The lawn has gone from lush and green to crispy-crunchy in a week and streams are fading fast.

- Christopher Letts

6/26 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: There are plenty of shades of blues around this time of the year, from the soft blue of bluebirds in the shrubs and the grayish-blue of herons in the marshes, to the cerulean blue crabs in the river. But as soft and pleasing as those hues tend to be, perhaps the most striking blue is the indigo bunting. I tend to see these songbirds only once or twice a year. As I walked a wooded trail to the river today, an indigo bunting landed on a limb along the path. As silly as it seemed, I stretched my encounter, standing rock still for five minutes, enjoying the most vibrant blue in the Hudson Valley.

- Tom Lake

6/26 - Cornwall Bay, HRM 58: It was a fiercely hot day, 92 degrees F in the shade by mid-afternoon. The ebbing tide had pretty much emptied out the bay and scores of gulls dotted the exposed deadfalls and sandbars. A congregation of at least 50 Canada geese milled around in the shallows, a mix of adults and young. A great blue heron methodically pursued a school of fish, probably killifish. An adult bald eagle perched in a cottonwood on nearby Sloop Hill reflected the hazy summer light. With an amazing array of prey within a short flight, it reminded me of what an easy, lazy existence these birds enjoy, at least in summer.

- Tom Lake

6/27 - Minerva, HRM 284: This is the end of a story with an unknown beginning: The lifeguard at Minerva Lake noticed a small animal on a raft anchored 150' offshore. The critter left the raft, jumped into the water, swam to shore, climbed out, shook itself off, and took off up the beach. It was a red squirrel.

- Mike Corey

6/27 - Croton River, HRM 34: Last night's rain left a freshness in the air, a welcome relief from the increasingly hot and polluted air we've been breathing this month. At 5:45 AM a juvenile bald eagle sailed down the Croton gorge and across the railroad tracks to a clump of tall cottonwoods on Croton Point. It was soon followed by an adult. The adult had no sooner crossed the train trestle when it went into a shallow stoop and came up with a large menhaden. It headed for the same clump of cottonwoods and disappeared. Just a few minutes later, a second adult came down the gorge and disappeared into the trees. We decided that the young bird was newly fledged from a nest upstream. The adults, we guessed, were the parents, keeping an eye on junior, making sure it had enough to eat.

- Gino Garner, Christopher Letts

6/28 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: The Underhill clan, whose dynasty held sway over this peninsula for roughly the entire 19th century, dabbled in many endeavors. At one point they experimented with raising silkworms for the silk trade, planting orchards of mulberry trees to feed the caterpillars. It makes a nice story, and it is fun to imagine that some of the hundreds of mature mulberry trees on the point are descended from those orchards. Regardless, the mulberries are ripe, and shape my daily morning walks here. Not all mulberry trees are created equal. Some bear no fruit; some bear tiny hard nubbins of fruit that are anything but juicy. The rest are on a continuum as to size, color and sweetness. All the years of hybridization have yielded fruit from white to pink to red to purple-black. Some trees bear insipid fruit, some are almost too sweet and some, well, Goldilocks would have to agree, are just right! I have my favorite trees, and for the month between mid-June and mid-July, I graze my way in a zig-zag path from one end of the point to the other, breakfasting on mulberries, sharing with the birds and squirrels a bonanza of fruit which only we seem to value.

- Christopher Letts

6/28 - Hudson Valley: The U.S. Secretary of the Interior today announced the removal of the bald eagle from the list of threatened and endangered species. After nearly disappearing from most of the United States decades ago, the bald eagle is now flourishing across the nation and no longer needs the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Although the bald eagle will no longer enjoy federal protection under that law, hunting or harassing the bird, as well as trading in its parts, will remain illegal thanks to the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, as well as various state laws.

[The first successful fledge along the tidewater Hudson in 100 years occurred in Greene County in 1997. Ten years later, thanks to the NYSDEC Endangered Species Unit leader Pete Nye, his crew, and an enlightened citizenry, we have at least 18 successful nesting pairs. Tom Lake.]

6/29 - Anthony's Nose, HRM 86: We saw an adult bald eagle with light coloration swoop away from the bank of the river as our Metro North commuter train passed its location just south of Bear Mountain Bridge, and then watched as it soared above the water. It was a fine way to commemorate the removal of the eagle from the federal endangered species list this week.

- Mike Boyajian, Jeri Wagner

6/29 - Sandy Hook, NJ: We are enjoying the peak flowering of the prickly pear, big bright waxy yellow flowers.

- Dery Bennett

[The eastern prickly pear, the only native cactus in northeast North America, is present in the Hudson Valley in a few locations best kept secret from the collectors among us. Prickly pear are always found in sites with full sun and a south-southwest exposure. While tolerant of marginal soils, they are sensitive to human disturbance and are protected by law in New York State. Tom Lake.]

6/30 - Norrie Point, HRM 85: We had a great public seining program at Norrie Point today. We didn't catch any of the giant sturgeon the NYSDEC have been studying nearby, but kids and grownups alike did manage to net some very interesting pieces of the estuary puzzle. In addition to several adult pumpkinseeds, bullheads, eels, and white perch, we also found a fresh crop of youngsters-of-the-year: largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, carp (or goldfish), tessellated darters, and white perch. It was a miniature version of a typical shallow water community. The catch of the day was 2 Atlantic needlefish, 2.5-3" long. Young and old ooohed and aaahed at their incredibly thin bodies (the name says it all) and elongated heads. They are usually found further south in more brackish waters, but their presence today was not unique. Last summer a surprised angler caught a 19" adult needlefish in Rondout Creek. Water temperature was 79 degrees F.

- Chris Bowser, Emily Swanzey, Laurie Fila, Brian Reid

[Natural selection designed the Atlantic needlefish to be a consummate predator. They are sight-feeders with over 20% of their adult length taken up by slender tooth-studded jaws. Adults can reach nearly two feet in length and will frequently leap out of the water in pursuit of prey. Known more as a temperate to tropical marine species, their presence in the Hudson went largely unnoticed until about 25 years ago. They seem to have adapted well and, since larval needlefish have been captured in the Hudson Highlands, it is likely that they are spawning in the estuary. A needlefish oddity occurs when you cook them (they are delicious smoked): their bones turn Kelly green. Tom Lake.]

6/30 - Beacon, HRM 61: Walking the River Walk trail we noted the blooms of far too many of the invasive trees of heaven (Ailanthus) as well as those of our more welcome and native staghorn sumac. Sumac is a good provider of fruit for wildlife. There was lots of flowering common mullen, those strange flowering spikes as exotic as any tropical plant. Mullen is a non-native plant, probably introduced in colonial times from Eurasia, and now naturalized and widespread across North America. Walking south on the trail, we smelled a scent of vinegar or stale wine. On our walk back we solved the mystery: below a tree just off the path were hundreds of mulberries that had been squashed and were fermenting nicely in the sun.

- Carolyn Plage, Ed Connelly

6/30 - Putnam Valley, HRM 55.5: I have a leaky hose-nozzle head that I've rigged above a birdbath to make droplet-splashy sounds. The minimal flow of fresh water keeps the birdbath algae free. The slight overflow from the birdbath is directed to mimic natural watering of the watercress that I grow in a large pot in the shade of the birdbath, the seepage from which dampens the soil for nearby moisture-loving plants. The audible droplets from the elevated, leaky hose-nozzle are quite attractive to the birds (and music for me when I'm nearby); cowbirds, house finches, and goldfinches are drawn in regularly to drink and bathe. The treat this morning was a female bluebird. She perched for a while on the nozzle wand, scanned for insects, waited for the house finches to leave, then drank, bathed, and flew off to her nearby birdhouse nest, which I suspect has a second brood incubating.

- Nancy P. Durr

[Bluebirds will often have a second brood, not only if the first has been interrupted, but even if the first was successful. I've heard of cases where they incubate eggs even as they are still feeding nearly fledged youngsters from a previous brood. Rich Guthrie.]

6/30 - Verplanck, HRM 40.5: We stopped by the edge of Lake Meahagh today, just a hundred feet from where it drains into the Hudson, so my granddaughter and I could count the distinct white shapes that dotted the east end of the lake. We counted 62 mute swans but more might have been hidden from our view. The lake also has great clumping mats of aquatic vegetation, like floating emerald islands, clearly attractive to the swans. On the grassy west bank, next to Kings Ferry Road, there were probably an equal number of Canada geese of varying ages. Among them a lone swan preened seeming to prefer the company of the geese rather than the swans.

- Pat Korn

6/30 - Rockland Lake, HRM 31: While a small but determined group was clearing the invasive mile-a-minute vine along the east perimeter of Rockland Lake State Park, we stepped a little too close to a large red-tailed hawk enjoying breakfast. A quick flight to a new location brought the bird into a clear vantage point just yards away. With one eye on us and one on his meal this masterful bird continued to rip at his prey with little concern as we stared in rapt attention.

- Margie Turin, Brent Turrin, Laura Weyenth, Elsa Weyeneth, Larry Pringle, Alexandra Saltow

6/29 - Queens, NY: Diamondback terrapins have been nesting in the usual large numbers on Ruler's Bar Hassock at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Yesterday was a banner day; the terrapins love the mix of clouds and sun, and high tide was perfectly timed for a mid-day nesting frenzy. My volunteer team had no time to pause between recording nesting terrapins and processing terrapins that had finished. At 10:00 AM I saw a young raccoon that either stayed up late or got up early. He was feasting on a nest laid not an hour earlier. This morning in a cursory survey, I counted 96 nests laid yesterday and predated by raccoons last night. So far this year the raccoons have gotten every nest we saw being laid.

- Russell Burke, Hofstra University

[Raccoons are not native on this island. We have good evidence there were no raccoons on Ruler's Bar Hassock 20 years ago. Even where raccoons and turtles have been interacting over evolutionary time scales, raccoon populations are probably many times higher now than they were in the past. The intensity of raccoon predation pressure on turtles (and everything else within their reach) is an altogether new thing, and it is not surprising that turtle recruitment is plummeting wherever raccoons are common. Raccoon populations now and in the past were not limited much by any predator anyone can find; no predator takes enough young to matter, and adults are too big a fight for anyone to bother with profitably. Perhaps it is food limitation or habitat requirements; we'll probably never know. However, we do know raccoons occur in much higher density in human-altered environments then they do elsewhere. Russell Burke.]

7/1 - Newcomb, HRM 302: We visited the bluebird boxes out on the golf course today and counted 3-4 babies in one and 4-5 in another. St. John's wort is now in bloom, as is crown vetch. Lots of spittle bugs this year. I think they are just really evident this year due to the lack of rain (2.92" in June).

- Ellen Rathbone, Toby Rathbone

7/1 - Croton Point, HRM 35-34: Another delicious cool front, the kind of weather that makes a hard day's work sound like a good idea. I was breakfasting on mulberries and admiring the full moon in the dawn sky, taking my time. I heard branches rattle, and my own personal "skyshed" was full of eagle. It was a big sub-adult, a "dirty bird" and it was carrying its own breakfast - a muskrat. I watched it disappear over the top of the dump, rat tail dangling, with a retinue of scolding crows.

- Christopher Letts

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