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Hudson River Almanac December 16 - December 23, 2007

OVERVIEW

The Winter Solstice is nearly a holy day in some cultures. For those of us who watch the world we live in a little more closely, we know it as the day when the daily angle of the sun will dip no lower and will soon begin to rise higher in a march to springtime. But for the time being, short days and long, cold nights have their effect on the wintering bald eagles as the number of migrants continues to increase along the lower Hudson's tidewater.


HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

12/20 - Sandy Hook, NJ: A walk on the ocean side of the Hook revealed a surf clam massacre. On a mile of beach there was a 3-foot wide band of 2 inch-long surf clams, some still alive, washed up at the high water line. I couldn't tell how long the band of death was but I estimated 200-300 clams per foot of beach. They were kicked ashore by the nor'easter five days ago. Surf clams, a valuable commercial species for clam strips and for chowder, are found offshore in about 60 feet of water from New York to Virginia. If the youngsters set too close to shore, they are vulnerable to a roaring surf. Hundreds of gulls, herring, blackback, and ring billed, were doing their beach cleanup job. A half-dozen surf fishermen were out as well, using clams and eels for bait, but no fish.
- Dery Bennett


NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

12/16 - Staten Island, New York City: Yesterday's Christmas Bird Count on Staten Island ended up with 106 species (our record high count is 109) and somewhere between 12,000-15,000 birds. We're still totaling up. This is a far cry from the old days when the Fresh Kills dump was open; we would routinely get 150,000 gulls, in addition to everything else. Great Kills produced a flock of 30 tree swallows at Crooke's Point, an unusual sighting for this time of year. There were also large numbers of northern gannets offshore; about 50 were reported from Great Kills, giving us 95 for the day, a new record for Staten Island. There was also a peregrine falcon at Miller Field and a barn owl in one of the towers. In recent weeks there had been a flock of up to 20 snow buntings at Miller Field, along with one Lapland longspur. These were not seen on the count day, however.
- Ed Johnson

[The Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island went into operation in 1948 and closed in 2001. At its peak, it was the world's largest man-made dump, 2200 acres, 4.6 square miles. The name Fresh Kills refers to the creeks draining a tidal marsh adjacent to and partially filled by the dump. Tom Lake.]

12/17 - Hughsonville, HRM 67.5: I was working on the eaves of my barn. Climbing off my ladder caused me to look up and there, lazily slaloming 100' above was an adult bald eagle. The bird didn't appear to be searching for food, just enjoying a cloudless ride. It was an awesome sight and the viewing of this eagle could not have been clearer.
- Wayne Theiss

12/18 - Coxsackie to Athens, HRM 124-118: Bald eagles, woodpeckers, and hermit thrush were highlights for my small territory, a portion of the overall Catskill-Coxsackie Christmas Bird Count. Our section of the standard 15 mile-diameter count circle was along the west bank of the river between Coxsackie and Athens. We counted 9 eagles, 7 adults and 2 immatures. Along Four Mile Point Road, one tree full of poison ivy berries had 5 woodpecker species over a five minute period: downy, hairy, red-bellied, pileated, and common flicker. A hermit thrush was feeding on the berries, along with many robins. This was one of 4 hermit thrushes we found for the day. Other "good birds" for our team, among our 52 species, were great blue heron, merlin, barred owl, winter wren, and red-winged blackbird.
- Alan Mapes

12/18 - Danskammer Point, HRM 66.5: Bald eagle migration activity was busy today: 4 adult birds and 4 immatures. Numerous common mergansers were scattered out in the river.
- Sue Tokle

12/18 - Manitou Marsh, HRM 46.5: We spotted a lone bald eagle perched in Manitou Marsh this morning from our Metro North commuter train. We were surprised, not having seen one there before. We could not tell if it was an adult or immature. The light, the speed of the train, and the fact that we were not expecting to see one had us a little stunned and we could not focus on the details.
- Mike Boyajian, Jeri Wagner

12/18 - George's Island to Oscawana Island, HRM 39-38: The day was sunny, warm, and somewhat breezy, and an hour in a kayak was just what the doctor ordered. An adult bald eagle lifted off its perch on a branch at Oscawana. That one and a couple others seemed to follow me back to the boat launch at George's Island.
- Steve Butterfass

12/18 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: Croton Point is one of the few areas that I know gets plowed after snowstorms so I can go for a walk with my best constant companion Elky. Elky is a rescue dog and we will soon be celebrating our first year anniversary . The shelter said she was mostly yellow lab, my favorite breed for many reasons, including that I wanted a swimming companion. As it turns out, she is afraid of the water and doesn't have a clue what "fetch" means, but she's the best and I thank her for getting me out every day and refocused on birding. Today I saw a spotted thrush that did not appear to be a wood thrush, hermit thrush, or veery. It hopped around and lifted its tail a few times. I don't think it was a pipit because it was alone and hopped on the ground like a thrush. The spots were not very pronounced and it appeared to be all grey from head to tail.
- Jane Shumsky

[Our best guess: if it was a thrush, the tail lifting habit is characteristic of hermit thrushes. Steve Stanne, Rich Guthrie.]


12/18 - Staten Island, New York City: Leaving the car as I arrived at Fort Wadsworth, I happened to notice a single blooming dandelion. Looking about the small grassy island in the parking lot, I noted at least five others with flowers held tight to the ground. Whistling "Jingle Bells," I tripped past and into my office.
- Dave Taft

12/19 - Beacon, HRM 61: From this morning's Metro North commuter train, I spotted 4 bald eagles. Three were in trees at Beacon, the fourth was on near-shore shelf ice just south of Beacon. Two were adults, the other 2 were seen in silhouette. This was the most I've seen on a single trip since last winter.
- Malcolm A. Castro

12/19 - Town of Cortlandt, Westchester County, HRM 43: I walked out onto a frozen Loundsbury Pond, an impoundment of Dickey Brook, a Hudson River tributary, while it was still dark and bored a half-dozen holes in the ice. After more than half a century, this annual rite is still a thrill, still a miracle. I dropped the tiny lure into the black water, picked up my little ice fishing rod, and began that hand-jive we call jigging.
A gang of blue jays was making small talk in the shoreline brush. Ducks were muttering in an open lead 200 yards away. I could see the rod tip by now so I felt and saw the first bite. These are not trophy fish, but that first pull of the season is like an electric shock traveling up the line and into your hand. A couple of seconds and a chunky 8" pumpkinseed sunfish was bouncing on the ice. One of our prettiest fish, they are also tasty from the cold, clear winter waters. A red-tailed hawk landed 50 yards away, and kept an eye on me while looking for gray squirrels.
When I left the ice an hour later, a mixed bag of a dozen sunfishes was thumping in my bucket. I could hear the sweet call notes of bluebirds, and a pileated woodpecker came right down the middle of the lake whooping it up, trying to impress the girls. Another season had begun.
- Christopher Letts

12/19 - Brooklyn, New York City: The "raptor parkway" (Belt Parkway) produced this morning. As I traveled past the landfill at Pennsylvania Avenue, a large bird on one of the lamp posts turned out to be a red-tailed hawk. As I wondered whether it was the Bay Ridge bird I'd been seeing for several weeks, a flock of starlings careened past the car hood and above them a very determined merlin with empty talons.
- Dave Taft

12/20 - Newcomb, HRM 302: Two inches of fluffy new snow fell overnight.
- Ellen Rathbone

12/20 - Constitution Marsh, HRM 51.4: From our Metro North commuter train car this morning we spotted an immature bald eagle perched in a tree next to a crow in Constitution Marsh. The birds flew off in opposite directions as our train roared by their position. As it angled off the tree, the wings of the eagle seemed as long as rail ties.
- Mike Boyajian, Jeri Wagner

12/21 - Cedarcliff to Danskammer Point, HRM 68-66: The annual year-end exodus from the frozen north country appears to be underway. Of course the "north country" was not really all frozen yet, but the skim ice on ponds and lakes had delivered its message. At midday there were 8 bald eagles in view along the west side of the river, none of whom would call Orange County home. A pair of adults were perched side-by-side in a red oak along the river at Cedarcliff, two more just south at Soap Hill, another pair of adults at the north end of Danskammer Point, and finally two in the air circling in silhouette over the swale below Cedarcliff. A real bunch of birds that augers well for our winter viewing enjoyment.
In mid-river, in front of these birds, spanning a couple of hundred yards, was a large and loose raft of common mergansers, mostly drakes but also a few hens. A similar number and configuration of mergansers had been there yesterday but there was no way of telling if these were the same birds. On the east side of the river, a lone adult eagle, the female of the local nest, perched in a pine. If past seasons are any predictor, she will begin spring renovations on the nest (NY62) next month.
- Tom Lake

12/21 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: While running this morning I spotted 3 long-eared owls in the trees near the parking area. As I passed the landfill, I saw a kestrel and a very healthy looking red coyote. This afternoon I went back with my wife and youngest son and there were 5 long-eared owls roosting together in the same tree.
- Bill Kress, Nancy Kress, Tom Kress

12/22 - Hudson Valley: The Winter Solstice technically arrived at 1:08 AM, an untidy hour to be up and watching the world shift from autumn to winter. But I made the effort and, as is the case 99% of the time, a nighttime foray along the river provided solitude and little else. It did remind me, however, just how much the blinding lights from the power generating facilities wash out the night sky.
- Tom Lake

12/22 - Cornwall-on-Hudson, HRM 57: Could you tell us about the diet of Hudson River bald eagles? Which fish species do they usually feed on?
- Pam Golben

[Bald eagles are not picky. I'm convinced that they do not choose fish based on flavor or texture, as we might. I think it is more fish of opportunity. In spring, we see them with river herring and the occasional small American shad. That is about the only season that seems to have specific prey species. On a year-round basis, they are often seen feeding on gizzard shad (this is why I know their sense of taste is dulled), striped bass, carp, goldfish (when they can get them), white catfish, channel catfish, brown bullheads, and occasionally white suckers. What all these species share is being "fish of a size," as opposed to smaller fish like white perch, although I've seen them wolfing down white perch when times get tough. And, finally, let's not leave out what might be their Number One favorite, the American eel! We have seen bald eagles flying past in February with an eel dangling from their talons when the river was socked in with ice and you wondered where they might have found open water, let alone where they might have found an eel so careless as to be anywhere near. Tom Lake.]

12/22 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: I had missed seeing the long-eared owls at Croton Point for several days but today I spotted a dozen pellets in the same area as before, and was lucky enough to see two long-eareds near the camper's parking lot. There was another like-minded soul walking their dog today and he informed me that he had seen a great blue heron a few days earlier near the Croton Point caretakers cottage
- Jane Shumsky

[Owl pellets are essentially the indigestible parts of the prey that the owl has eaten. These include bone, feathers, and fur, parts of small rodents and birds. These coalesce into a tight bundle called a pellet. A few hours after an owl has dined, they will regurgitate a pellet. These are frequently found on the ground under owl roosts and, by picking one apart, you can pretty well decipher their last meal.
In a trend that has taken decades to develop, and is perhaps traceable to climate change, great blue herons regularly test the winter before opting to migrate south. We have seen great blues adapting, hanging around in winter in the lower estuary when an inch or more of ice covers most ponds, lakes and even the near-shore shallows of the river. We have seen them hammering on thin ice to retrieve a fish as well as scavenging on gull and eagles leftovers. If the ice gets too thick and open water completely disappears, they will as well. Tom Lake.]

12/23 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: A few times each winter a set of circumstances meet to create something magical. With nearly a foot of snow on the ground, air temperature in the mid-40s, and a gentle rain falling, the forest was transformed into fog. The crust on the snow was soft enough so that my snowshoes made almost no sound. The loudest music came from what seemed like a dozen white-throated sparrows, but may have been only a few. The woods sloped down to the river and even though I scattered juncos into the air as I walked, a pair of white-tailed deer seemed surprised when I came through a stand of maples and our eyes met. They bounded away in no great hurry. The mist, the fog, the quiet woods all seemed to have a way of slowing down the world.
- Tom Lake

12/23 - Manhattan, HRM 4: I was walking my dog, Sadie, through Riverside Park South early this morning when a great blue heron took off from a tiny beach on the Hudson River at 62nd Street. As I continued south under the West Side Highway, I spotted the silhouette of a kestrel in a small tree, newly planted in the park. As I got closer I could see it was a female. This new part of Riverside Park South is wonderful because of the access wading birds will have - there are many small beaches. I have seen the kestrel here, usually in winter, but I have never seen a great blue heron in Riverside Park. These sightings were a really wonderful gift!
- Leslie Day

12/23 - Mid-Hudson Valley, HRM 65: Thunder, lightning and 55 degrees F in December! A strong storm front extending southwest to northeast crossed the Hudson Valley after dark, knocking out power in places with high winds, torrential rain, resounding thunder, and a light show in the sky. It all seemed odd for the second day of winter. By midnight, the front was gone and the full moon bathed the surviving snow in a glorious white glow.
- Tom Lake

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