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Hudson River Almanac January 22 - January 28, 2008

OVERVIEW

Harbor seals and other marine mammals have been sporadic visitors to the Hudson estuary for millennia. In recent years we may have begun to do a more thorough job of reporting them. This past week saw several more records, possibly of the same animal. Most of the seals are in the river to dine on the bounty of fish, especially in late winter and spring. Many are juveniles and, almost without exception, are in healthy condition. Just as winter finches and the occasional moose tie us to the northern reaches of the watershed and beyond, seals remind us of our connection to the sea.

HIGHLIGHT FROM LAST WEEK

1/19 - Rockwood Hall, Westchester County, HRM 31: In early afternoon, a harbor seal was hauled out on a glacial erratic at low tide, just offshore, directly across the Hudson River from Hook Mountain. As a Parks and Recreation supervisor for the Taconic Region of the NYS OPRHP, I had heard a radio dispatch referring to a seal sighting, and had traveled to Rockwood Hall to verify and to make sure the animal was not in distress.
- Laurence Gill

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

1/22 - Rhinebeck, HRM 92: This morning, when Josette Lee and I walked south on Mill Road, we saw "pancake ice" on the Landsman Kill, a tributary that runs southwest from Rhinebeck to the Hudson. The ice was just beyond a small dam that was built many years ago for a mill. We counted 5-6 dozen of the pancakes, ranging from 8-10" in diameter to over two feet across. They looked like sugar-coated lily pads, with raised edges, and at one side of the kill, they had started to join into a solid sheet of ice. I've seen pancake ice in the high Arctic, in salt water, but I didn't know that it formed in fresh water.
- Phyllis Marsteller

[This may have been frazil ice that first forms as tiny, round crystals throughout the water in cold weather after nucleating in some way that has long been a puzzle to scientists. Turbulent, super-cooled (slightly below 32 degrees F) water tumbles the crystals around making them grow until they float at the surface in loose agglomerations. It looks like floating snow. If frazil touches something underwater, a deadfall or a rock, it sticks, building from the sides and from the middle of the river and can eventually form dams, as is the case at the Ice Meadows (HRM 245) where the ice can grow to near glacial proportions. Cobbles and gravels at the bottom can be popped to the surface when the ice becomes buoyant enough. This process adds to the other river dynamics that are constantly moving sand, silt, gravel, and cobbles along the riverbed. Evelyn Greene.]

1/22 - Kowawese, HRM 59: It was a bitter cold morning and the only respite would be hiking a woodland trail. The 6th grades from Vail's Gate High Tech Magnet School had joined me for a brisk walk. Lack of snow made winter tracking of the park's nocturnal wildlife nearly impossible but we did come across one set of interesting tracks, a confused coyote that had come to the edge of a trail and had made several turns in place possibly trying to decide which way to go. Later on the beach we stood on the sand and I spoke to the group, facing into a frigid zero-degrees Fahrenheit windchill. A student, her back to the wind, asked, "Mr. Lake, are you crying?"
- Tom Lake, Barbara Oliver, S. Gerald

1/22 - Constitution Marsh, HRM 51.4: From our early morning Metro North commuter train we spotted a lone adult bald eagle perched proudly in a tree in Constitution Marsh. We could only wonder where the other two were that we had seen a few days earlier. Later on our trip the conductor announced that he had seen four eagles on the ice.
- Mike Boyajian, Jeri Wagner

1/23 - Oscawana, HRM 39.5: A beautiful adult bald eagle was sunning itself on one of the high south-facing branches of Oscawana Island. In the sky a little to the south, 4 more eagles cavorted high overhead. The adult flew off its perch, swooped down towards the river, and came back with a large fish in its talons. It landed in a tree and voraciously devoured its meal.
- Dorothy Ferguson, Bob Ferguson

1/23 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: We quietly stepped through the soft pine needle carpet, scanned high up through the evergreen branches, and were delighted to see two long-eared owls in one tree, one owl facing us directly. The distinctive long tufts and vertical markings on its chest were clearly evident. Later we discovered a third owl roosting in a nearby tree.
- Dorothy Ferguson, Bob Ferguson

1/24 - Putnam County, HRM 54: I stepped out onto Canopus Lake, in Fahnestock Park near the headwaters of Sprout Brook, a Hudson River tributary, just as the sun was disappearing. There were about 8" inches of hard ice underfoot. This lake is well-known to be either "on" or "off," but rarely in between. It did not take me long to realize that no fish would be coming up through the holes this evening. As last light ebbed away, I left the lake to the ravens and coyotes.
- Tom Lake

1/24 - Bear Mountain Bridge, HRM 46: I watched a northbound adult eagle as I crossed the Bear Mountain Bridge this afternoon. The eagle banked hard to the left to avoid a dive-bombing peregrine falcon; the peregrine turned, climbed, and made a second pass at the eagle before returning to its perch on the bridge. The eagle continued north. It looked like a C-5 cargo plane compared to the peregrine's F-14 maneuvers.
- Stephen M. Seymour

[For many years we have jokingly referred to the peregrine falcons on the Bear Mountain Bridge as the "toll-collectors." As migrating autumn songbirds search for a narrow crossing of the Hudson River, they often settle on the passage from Anthony's Nose across to Bear Mountain. At those times it is not uncommon to see a peregrine come blasting out of the sky to scatter a flock of cedar waxwings or blackbirds. Tom Lake.]

1/25 - Beacon, HRM 61: While visiting the Dia-Beacon Museum, we were delighted to see two dozen robins in the parking lot feeding on the copious scarlet-orange berries of the European hornbeam trees. What a photo op!
- Jen Rab

1/25- Putnam County, HRM 54: Just after dawn I returned to Canopus Lake. There had been a light dusting of snow overnight and as I walked out on a fresh coating I could see some faint tracks. Small circular ridges marked my six holes from last evening. I followed a singular, linear pattern of dog paws, from hole to hole. A lone coyote had been out in the night checking each for bits of breakfast muffins or leftovers from lunch. Ice fishermen will, on occasion leave such things, as well as a small fish or two on the ice for the ravens.
- Tom Lake

1/26 - Glasco, HRM 100: I knew I had waited too long to get to the river; the sun was gone in the west and the afterglow was shining across Tivoli Bays across the way. The steady ice floes in the river told me the tide was pretty much at flood slack. In the absence of much light, establishing a sight image for eagles would not be easy. Luckily I was able to locate two adults perched on ice floes, their white heads like beacons. One immature, more of a dark smudge on a slab of white ice, was midway between them. None of them seemed in a hurry to get anywhere.
- Tom Lake

1/26 - Poughkeepsie, HRM 75: The weather had been so nice during the "January Thaw," that I decided to try my luck with doughball fishing for carp off the Poughkeepsie waterfront. I had some good opportunities over a span of a few days in the ice-less river, but did not receive a single nibble.
- Glen Heinsohn

1/26 - Hackensack Meadowlands, NJ: Highway hawks at 60 mph: I spotted a rough-legged hawk on a high tension tower, a red-tailed hawk on a small tree near Giants Stadium, and 3 more red-tails and a smaller hawk, maybe a red-shouldered, in bare trees along the New Jersey Turnpike just north of Newark Airport..
- Dery Bennett

1/27 - Norrie Point, HRM 85: There was a lone female ruddy duck in the southwest corner of the Norrie Point marina this afternoon, the first ruddy duck I've ever seen there. It was interesting to watch her feeding. When she dove, she'd often come up under the thin layer of ice that had formed around the edges of the piers. When she did this, she'd roll and give a kick and shoot unerringly towards the open water with her back up against the ice. She was amazingly unconcerned about close human presence as I was about 15' away from her when I first saw her and I continued to watch from that distance.
- David Lund

1/27 - Milton, HRM 71.5: It was a clear day with a few clouds and temperatures in the high 30s. We had no difficulty in finding the albino red-tailed hawk purported to be in a field west of Milton. Although distant, it was quite visible as it perched atop a pole beside a frozen pond. A little farther north, another normally colored red-tail was also seen as it perched in a bare deciduous tree along the perimeter of a nearby field. Without field glasses, one might almost think the albino red-tail was a snowy owl, it was such a bright white with some black markings in the wings.
- Merrill Spaeth, Ed Spaeth

1/27 - Beacon, HRM 61: As we walked along the riverside trail in late afternoon, we spotted a mockingbird chasing a robin from its cache of berries. Few other birds were seen. A freight train rumbling along the western shore seemed to have frightened waves of gulls as they flew up from the river and circled over Newburgh landing. The river for the most part was ice-free except for rim ice along the banks. Heading back to car, we enjoyed a glorious sunset as well.
- Merrill Spaeth, Ed Spaeth

1/27 - Shrewsbury River, NJ: I counted 200 ruddy ducks in two separate flocks on the river plus a red-tailed hawk on a telephone pole and 10 mute swans in the distance. The river was open but smaller creeks had ice. Later I watched herring gulls land on slick, new creek ice without a single skid or trip. They swoop down close to the ice at high speed, then climb one foot into the wind and drop gently onto the ice. Neater than a gymnast nailing a landing.
- Dery Bennett

1/28 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67.5: The digital clock said 0321 when my dog and I suddenly sat up in bed. It was a pair of owls serenading - one was literally right outside our window in a Norway maple, another not far away. The calls, though clear, were not altogether familiar. They sounded like "puppies fussing and cats complaining," with one owl making a short direct vocalization (male?) and the other a more varied and longer response (female?). If I did not know that these were owls in trees I would have thought they were cats and dogs. Later I would listen to owl calls on tape and, given the tone, variety, and dialogue, would tentatively conclude that they were short-eared owls. However, after conferring with naturalists and owl experts like Jim Beamer, Rich Guthrie, Erik Kiviat, Pete Nye, and Steve Stanne, I came to realize that these could have been uncommon variations on the calls of barred or screech owls. A postscript to this story was the dead (frozen) Norway rat that I found on my back deck, coincidently under the Norway maple, at first light. We have no cats around our neighborhood, as far as I know, so the Norway rat was a real delivery, likely dropped by one of the owls as it flew over.
- Tom Lake, Cody the golden retriever

[There is a rich folklore worldwide in human culture, a mythology that the presence of owls calling at night portends doom. This is a bad rap that occasionally results in doom for the owls. In contrast, Native Algonquian people in the Hudson Valley generally saw owls in a more positive role a protector, or guardian. Tom Lake.]

1/28 - Poughkeepsie, HRM 75.5: Leaving work and walking down the top level of the parking deck across from the Poughkeepsie Grand Hotel, I was marveling at how nice the weather was. Just then, from behind, a good-sized bird buzzed right past my left hand, giving me a good start, then continued flying between the 3rd and 4th decks no more than two feet off the pavement, finally sweeping up to the roof of the building behind the deck. My hunch was right: it was the Cooper's hawk that has been terrorizing the birds I feed in the lot outside the office.
- Donna Lenhart

1/28 - Town of Fishkill, HRM 63: Has anyone noticed that there may be fewer wild turkeys around this winter? The small flocks I'm used to seeing along route 9D in Dutchess County have been absent this winter, unless there is enough food back in the woods to keep them content and out of sight.
- Stephen M. Seymour

1/28 - Manhattan, HRM 5.5: A good number of New Yorkers watched a harbor seal hauled out on a dock at the 79th Street Boat Basin today. We estimated that the seal was 3-4' long and weighed about 90 lb.
- Leslie Day

[Photos of this seal seem to confirm that it is the same animal that we have tracked in the lower estuary over the last three weeks: 12/31 - Piermont HRM25; 1/15 - West Point HRM52.5; 1/17 - Ossining HRM33; 1/19 - Rockwood Hall HRM31; 1/19 - Sleepy Hollow HRM28, and 1/28 - Manhattan HRM5.5. To report a marine mammal sighting, call the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation's 24-hour Hotline, (631) 369-9829.]

1/28 - Sandy Hook, NJ: There were many gulls in the air but one of them, while the same silver-and-white color, flew low over the phragmites, bobbing and fluttering - a male northern harrier (marsh hawk). These silver males, sometimes referred to as "ghost birds," are special; most harriers I see are females or immatures, in various shades of brown and tan.
- Dery Bennett

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