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Hudson River Almanac December 23 - December 31, 2007

OVERVIEW

This may be year's end for us but it is only the beginning of winter for wildlife. Ice and eagles will dominate our sightings for the next two months. Swans made some news this week, both tundra and mute swans. We also have a question about those flocks of robins that seem to be hanging around...or are they the first robins of the New Year?

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

12/20 - Town of Cortlandt, HRM 38.5: My feet were cold, my hands were cold, and the fish weren't biting. The ice on this tiny pond was about 3" thick, and thinner where the current of Furnace Brook ran beneath. So small it hasn't a name, it was one of many 18th-19th century mill sites on the lower mile of this steeply descending Hudson tributary. I went into a trance, a state of altered being familiar to most ice fishermen. It comes upon us when action is slow but the mind is active. What was this brook like before all the dams? Swarming with native trout, I think. Was this a grist mill where farmers came on Saturdays to have their grist ground, and to talk weather and politics with their neighbors and friends? What spring flowers bloomed here and what small boys learned to swim in these waters? A sweet familiar call came to ear and I concentrated on the flock of 18 bluebirds overhead. Back to the present. At least there were no fish to clean this morning.
- Christopher Letts

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

12/24 - Stockport, HRM 121.5: I paddled my little red kayak westward from Stockport Creek while sporting my Santa cap, which gave me the look of one of Santa's elves. About midway across the channel, those weren't "three French hens" flying overhead, but rather 3 tundra swans vocalizing softly as they headed south.
- Fran Martino

[Tundra swans are often called "America's native swan." Their common name refers to their summer nesting range north of Hudson Bay in the Arctic tundra. They can usually be heard calling long before they are seen, which leads to another frequently used colloquial name: whistling swan. David Sibley remarks that distant flocks sound like "baying hounds." They can be differentiated from the more common mute swan by their smaller size, black bill (mute swans have an knobby orange bill) and a straight neck (mute swans have a lazy S-shaped neck). Tundra swans are occasional visitors to the Hudson Valley during late fall and spring migrations. Tom Lake.]

12/24 - Wappinger Creek, HRM 67.5: Yesterday's warm temperatures and heavy rains had broken up most of the ice that had formed in the tidewater inlet. A few hooded mergansers were diving at the eastern end of the inlet and a transitional eagle was keeping an eye on them.
- Stephen M. Seymour

12/24 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: The two young coyotes looked like bookends standing sentinel halfway up the east slope of the landfill - I think of them as "The Twins." Down on the flat at the bottom of the slope, 75 yards away, another coyote was feeding. It was dark gray and black, a big animal, and my presence did not slow its eating. An hour later, on my way to the parking lot, I passed the same way. The "little wolves" were gone, so I had to look at what had been their dinner: a deer kill that appeared several days old, at least what was left of it.
- Christopher Letts

12/24 - Croton Point, HRM 34: Took a walk around Croton Point today with old friends visiting from Oregon. We headed out along the park road and quietly watched 4 long-eared owls roosting in the white pines on the south-facing side of the Point. We hiked up on the landfill where a short-eared owl rose up from the long grass and circled the landfill several times before a peregrine falcon came off the river and dove on it. The two continued to tangle as they headed east toward the Croton River. Quite a day.
- Scott Craven

12/25 - Farmer's Landing, Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: Each winter birders await the onset of ice on the river, or "ice-in" as we call it. At dawn on Christmas morning, fully half the breadth of the Hudson in the six-mile reach from Marlboro-Clinton Point south to Newburgh-Beacon was ice-covered or sprinkled with floes. Directly out in front, in the shadow of Cedarcliff, were 6 bald eagles, 4 adults and 2 immatures, on shelf ice or floes drifting down river in the ebb tide. Most were feeding. Through the scope I watched one adult aggressively tear at a large fish it had clamped to the ice with its talons. The size, shape and color of the fish suggested gizzard shad. Ten feet away an immature anxiously paced, one foot to the other, clearly in a dither. At some point the adult would have its fill and the young would take the leavings, if the crows did not get there first.
- Tom Lake

[Wintering eagles on the Hudson have, for as long as there has been eagles and ice floes, used the ice as a means of transportation, like moving walkways at airports. The drifting ice takes them past potential opportunities for fish and waterfowl with minimal energy expenditure. And once food has been secured, the floes offer a measure of security. Tom Lake.]

12/25 - Putnam Valley, HRM 55.5: I spotted 8 robins and 2 bluebirds dining on insect life on the rain-exposed lawn. A month ago 20 robins came through and did their usual grass-searching but were most surprising when as many as 9 at a time were eating the berries of one of my Callicarpa (beauty berry) shrubs. Subsequently I've also seen juncos plucking these tiny berries. I agree with Chris Letts that juncos are abundant but they do not outnumber all other birds put together at my feeders. Over the last few weeks of casual observation I've noticed mourning doves are very abundant, cardinals seems scarce, blue jays seem less than normal, and chickadees about normal.
- Nancy P. Durr

12/25 - Sleepy Hollow, HRM 28: Looking out the window, I saw a flash of wings and spotted a rather large hawk as it landed on a squirrel. The hawk stood there clamped on the squirrel until it moved no more. At the same time a neighbor's cat crept to within 10' of the hawk and stood there, frozen, for 10 minutes. The cat and the hawk locked eyes. The hawk spread its shoulders to intimidate but the cat wouldn't move. Finally the cat charged and the hawk attempted to take off with his prey. The squirrel must have been too heavy because it was abandoned. The cat played with the dead squirrel for a half hour, then left. The hawk never came back. Not being a birder I can't tell you what kind of hawk it was. It seemed almost as large as an immature eagle, with a white underbody, lots of quarter-sized brown spots, and brown and white flecked wings.
- Doug Maass

12/25 - Sandy Hook, NJ: The influx of winter ducks continued: the raft of ruddy ducks in the Shrewsbury River had built from 50 a while ago to about 250 today.
- Dery Bennett

12/25 - Saugerties, HRM 102: Late last night, long after our Christmas visitors had left, we heard some "forest noises" outside but didn't think much of it. When I went out today there was red snow everywhere, beginning not more that 3' from the edge of our deck and continuing all through the woods north of our house and around the many places in the woods where you could see white-tailed deer had bedded down. By our wood pile I found a small doe, disemboweled and belly gutted but not eaten. Probably the work of coyotes, possibly coydogs or feral dogs. I left her where she was for tonight. I wanted to see what, if anything, came back to the kill. We often hear coyotes howling at night in summer.
- Dan Marazita

[I saw a few of what could be called "coydogs" in the early 1970s. At that time coyotes were far less common and it was generally thought that fact lead to occasional matings with dogs. At times they had group howls but more common was an occasional dog-like bark. I have not seen any coydogs in many years, while examining hundreds of eastern coyotes. It's thought that too many dog genes were maladaptive and that these animals were selected against in the wild. However, I suspect there are some domestic dog genes lurking in the genome of the eastern coyote that may be adaptive, or at least not harmful, to their existence in the eastern U.S. There may be a very rare coydog conceived, but I don't recall seeing one since the late l980s.
Advice: Do not feed coyotes. Hunting tends to keep them wild and fearful of people. Properly regulated trapping is also useful in keeping their numbers in check. The eastern coyote is hated by some for killing deer but it, in most of its range, eats more rodent meat than white-tail. Coyotes consume a wide variety of forage ranging from beech nuts and apples to insects such as grasshoppers, as well as frogs, birds, mice, chipmunks, and woodchucks. They eat a lot of road-killed deer. They also kill some domestic cats and on occasion some small or debilitated dogs. Personally I find New York State a more interesting place with them here than not, and they do far more good than harm. Ward Stone, NYSDEC Wildlife Pathologist.]

12/26 - Poughkeepsie, HRM 75: Warmer air temperatures had loosened the Hudson - 80% of the river was now floe ice. In early afternoon we watched the ice push upriver in the flood current as an immature bald eagle flew down river only a few feet over the floes. It veered inshore and landed atop a light tower where it was almost immediately chased away by a rough-legged hawk. At 3:00 PM, as though a switch had been pulled, the ice stopped dead in the river. The flood tide had ended more abruptly than I had ever seen it.
- Tom Lake, Brandon Leyba, Belinda Sedillo

12/26 - Poughkeepsie, HRM 74: At dusk approached, we noticed many fewer crows in the trees along the river in the one-mile reach that serves as a wintertime communal night roost. Where we normally see thousands we only saw a few hundred. The answer was out on the river: Along the same stretch of river front, perched on the shelf ice for nearly a half-mile, were many more hundreds of crows, choosing to be there, at least for now.
- Tom Lake, Brandon Leyba, Belinda Sedillo

12/26 - Staten Island, New York City: The weather was relatively warm so I took two hours off to intercept an outgoing tide at Wadsworth's Beach. Black ducks, brant, and red-breasted mergansers busied themselves in the swirling eddies. Bladder wrack, or brown algae, parted neatly on the rocks like so much freshly shampooed hair. Here and there, the white mark of the bottom half of an oyster still fastened to these stones. I generally fish this spot at night, so the convenience of daylight was not wasted on me. I immediately set to work finding a live oyster. With no fish interested in my offerings, I had the time, but it was still no easy task to find one. Finally, there it was, a live oyster clinging tightly to the rocks amid the blue mussels. Only my second live oyster in many years of searching the lower harbor. I hope it bodes well for the future. On the walk back I saw where the low tide had deposited a freshly dead, winter plumed, red-throated loon. Smaller than its common loon relative, with a turned up bill, I tried to imagine what brought it here, and what it had seen in its short life.
- Dave Taft

12/26 - Newark, NJ: At Newark Airport, near the banks of the Passaic River, a stressed tributary of the Hudson, with the steaming Budweiser brewery as a backdrop, a red-tailed hawk perched on a light standard keeping an eye on the weedy shoulder of Routes 1/9. The bird ignored the blasts of down-shifting diesel-powered 18-wheelers headed for the container port in Elizabeth. Here's to you, "Industrial red-tail!"
- Dery Bennett

12/27 - Greenburgh, Westchester County, HRM 27: Often on the way to my office I pass a small pond that has an island in the middle and a larger-than-life-size statue of a saint, whom I take to be St. John the Evangelist because there's a larger-than-life-size statue of an eagle sitting next to him. At various times I've seen a great blue heron or an egret perched on the saint's head, looking out over the pond. This morning the visiting bird was a male belted kingfisher. The bird stayed on the saint's head for a couple of minutes and then made its rattling cry and flew to the side of the pond. A few moments later a hawk flew over the pond, probably a red-tailed. I've read that during halcyon days kingfishers brought sailors calm seas and safe harbors two weeks preceding the solstice. I hope they also follow it.
- Susan Moritz

[The scientific name of the belted kingfisher - Ceryle alcyon - makes reference to the ancient Greek legend of Alcyone, a kingfisher that builds its nest on the surface of the ocean. The bird charms and calms the seas during its nesting season, supposedly the fourteen days preceding the winter solstice. Steve Stanne.]

12/27 - Farmer's Landing, HRM 67: I stood in the driving rain in mid-morning, appreciating modern waterproofing in rain jackets. No less than 80% of the river's width was full of floe ice at the start of the flood tide. Any loose ice had been drawn out of upriver creeks and marshes in the previous ebb tide. Scores of common mergansers and goldeneyes paddled in the open leads between the floes. Through the scope I watched an immature bald eagle eating a gizzard shad on an ice floe the size of a dining room table. A ring-billed gull circled the floe, time and again, waiting. Having had its fill, the eagle flew away over the ice field and immediately the gull hopped and swallowed what was left in one laborious gulp.
- Tom Lake, Brandon Leyba

12/27 - Town of Cortlandt, HRM 43: Another pre-dawn trudge out onto rapidly thinning ice. Yesterday's holes were still open - just drop in a line! And just like yesterday, only a few small sunfish were fooled into biting. So, why bother? Well, the setting was quite wonderful: a tiny lake set in a bowl and surrounded with steep, wooded slopes. A stream flows in, and out over a small dam, water music, free of charge, always a joy. Lots of time to muse, to think, to notice. A pair of courting pileated woodpeckers put on a wonderful show this morning, loud and flamboyant, impossible to miss. The flock of bluebirds did its morning overflight. Once a decade, wandering beavers find their way here, and this was the year. On the little island, dozens of saplings and a few sizeable trees had been dropped and chomped. What is next? It bears watching. When I walked off the ice after an hour or so, my heart was as light as my bucket. The whole day was ahead, but I had an adventure under my belt before breakfast; indeed, before my neighbors have reached their offices. And tomorrow, or in a month, the pond will "turn on" and my bucket will be as heavy as I want it to be, and the evening meal will be one to remember.
- Christopher Letts

12/27 - Sandy Hook, NJ: At the end of walk in the woods with Jersey Girl, an unleashed terrier mutt rescue dog, we came across a stock-still red fox. I saw it, the dog didn't see it, but soon picked up the scent, and the chase was on with a predictable result: slick fox outsmarts dumb suburban dog. There must be 30 dog walkers a day in this patch of woods, but that fox has not a worry in the world. The episode does raise an ethical issue, however: Is it okay to let a pet dog chase wildlife? Decidedly not.
- Dery Bennett

12/28 - Town of Schodack, Rensselaer County, HRM 140: This morning a flock of 15-20 robins appeared on my back lawn and the woods were full of them and their songs.
- Anne Hunter

[It is not uncommon to be asked, Were these the first robins of the new year or the last ones of last year? There was a time, not too long ago, when the "first robin of spring" had a full and significant meaning. Maybe it's climate change, a shift in their range, or robins making some kind of adaptation, but they appear to be resilient enough and capable of finding winter food to have a nearly year-round presence in the lower Hudson River Valley. Tom Lake.]

12/28 - Beacon, HRM 63: From our speeding Metro North commuter train we had only seconds to see and count the 30-35 canvasbacks, drakes and hens, floating in the ebb tide shallows just off shore at Brockway. A little farther out were too many common mergansers to count.
- Tom Lake, Brandon Leyba

12/28 - Scarborough, HRM 32: A speeding Metro North commuter train does not often allow time for details. Nevertheless, in this case we had ample time to estimate that the raft of lesser scaup just offshore numbered 75-80 birds.
- Tom Lake

12/28 - Dobbs Ferry, HRM 23.5: It is not uncommon at low tide to see the entrance to Wicker's Creek completely dry, sandbars extending across the mouth. Such was the case as we sped past on Metro North this morning. Several dozen mixed gulls were on the sand and standing right among them, like two big kids on the playground, were two adult bald eagles.
- Tom Lake, Brandon Leyba

12/30 - Denning's Point, HRM 60: Pandemonium! When you see a hundred gulls take off at once, look for a reason. Cutting a swath up the middle of their formation was an adult bald eagle, showing no interest in the gulls, but the gulls were nevertheless demonstrating much anxiety.
- Tom Lake, Brandon Leyba

12/31 - Nutten Hook, HRM 124: Five large vessels and their tugs shared the open water with me and my little red kayak on the last afternoon of 2007. Heating oil tankers were busy traveling north and south, as crew members loaded and unloaded fuels. One deckhand took a break from his task to cheerfully wave and shout New Year's tidings. His task was shoveling the snow off the deck and into the Hudson River.
- Fran Martino

12/31 - Westchester County, HRM 43: This was a marathon of mute swans - passing a one mile stretch of the East Branch of the Croton River, we counted 143 mute swans.
- Tom Lake, Belinda Sedillo

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