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Hudson River Almanac February 4 - February 12, 2008

OVERVIEW

While it is not easy to categorize a winter as being atypical due to all of the factors involved, we continue to gather evidence on this one! In the past week, the extremes ran from a record high temperature in Manhattan to near record lows in the High Peaks, and several winter thunder and lightning storms in between.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

2/10 - Verplanck, HRM 40.5: A cold front swept over Rockland County, across the river, and straight toward us, bringing bitter cold and blustery winds gusting over 35 mph. I met a busload of kids and parents from NYSDEC's New York City Camps Diversity, as well as students from the Albany Camps Diversity, many of whom had never seen a bald eagle in the wild. Our first 10 minutes on the Verplanck waterfront, in the midst of a swirling whiteout, might have been the most impressive display of eagles I have ever seen. We had at least a dozen adults and immatures close overhead engaged in courtship and play. They hovered in the wind, with wing-touches, talon grabs, and general horsing around. Some were so close we could hear their wings. They were like larger-than-life phantoms in the wind and snow. From the kids and others we heard one continuous "Ohmygod!" After 10 minutes or so, it died down, many of the birds having been blown away by the strong winds. You cannot script these moments; this was a real-time event that might not occur again for months, or years, or ever.
- Tom Lake, Andra Sramek, Jessica Perez, Yusuf Burgess, Christopher Letts

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

2/4 - Putnam County, HRM 53: If you can blank out the noise of traffic on Route 301, a couple of hours on Canopus Lake will let you have an "Adirondack experience." Squint just a little, and the pine forest on the rugged hills becomes north woods conifers, the edging marshes and small islands reminiscent of beaver country. Calls of mating pileated woodpeckers and the "Gronk! Gronk!" of cruising ravens flesh out the North Country illusion.
- Christopher Letts

2/5 - Wappinger Falls, HRM 68: They were easy to hear in the silence of night - a howling pack of coyotes. They were nearby, as well, as I listened to them talking to one another.
- Jen Kovach

2/5 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: Another confusing "winter" weather pattern brought us thunder, lightning, and 2.5" of rain overnight.
- Tom Lake

2/5 - Sandy Hook, NJ: From out of the blue this morning, one of the coves on the bay side of Sandy Hook seemed almost clogged with scaup, colloquially known as bluebills or broadbills, mostly bunched up tight against the wetland shore - one great swath of black waterfowl. Maybe there were some lesser scaup mixed in, but they looked like an all-greater gathering. A very rough estimate was at least 5,000 birds, approaching the 10,000-bird rafts we used to see farther out on Raritan Bay a generation ago.
- Dery Bennett

2/6 - New Hamburg, HRM 67.5: It was 8:30 PM, dark as midnight with the new moon, and worthy of a riverside visit. It seemed like an odd combination with the shadowy images of ice floes slowly moving upriver in the rising tide, damp and very cold air, and yet a spectacular light show with thunder and lightning in the west as a cold front swept over dropping 1.25" of rain.
- Tom Lake

2/6 - West Point, HRM 52: Well, Punxsutawney Phil's Academy cousin thinks his more famous relative is a little daft. Today I spotted a nice fat, active woodchuck actively foraging on a West Point Academy hillside. It didn't seem like he thought six more weeks of winter was coming.
- Jim Beemer

2/6 - Sleepy Hollow, HRM 27: George Hatzmann has been a hunter, angler, and trapper in Westchester for more than 6 decades, and certainly has seen changes. For many years I have listened to his fond remembrances of family canoe trips on the Pocantico River. In recent weeks those memories, perhaps lubricated with a little spring fever, got brighter. That is how we ended up a couple of miles upstream from Pocantico Lake, canoe on top, with air and water temperatures both uncomfortably close to freezing. After fits and starts we launched, and the trouble, as they say, soon began. What George recalled from a quarter of a century back was a wide, park-like flood plain with a user friendly stream flowing through wildlife-rich riparian habitat. What we got was shoal water, silt banks, and brush-choked sharp bends in the channel. Huge new homes and a famous country club had contributed trash and construction debris, flung over the woodland slopes - out of sight to them, but clearly visible to us.
In the end, we made it down to Pocantico Lake and we spent more time in the canoe than we did dragging it, though it didn't always seem that way. We jumped a herd of deer, flushed a big flock of mallard and black ducks, AND saw two kingfishers. A swift brown form ran down a sloping log into the water; we couldn't be certain, but it looked like a mink. Around a final bend, the waters broadened and a bridge loomed. On the bridge and facing the other way were Big John and Midgie, of "Boyz at the Bridge," fishing. How often do you get the chance? We glided under the bridge. George, in the bow, grabbed one of the fishing lines and yanked hard. The uproar on the bridge was gratifying to say the least.
- Christopher Letts

2/6 - Manhattan, HRM 5: The air temperature reached 68 degrees F today establishing a new record for the date. The previous record high was 58 degrees.
- National Weather Service

2/7 - New Baltimore, HRM 131.5: A major tributary, perhaps the Mohawk River, let loose its ice today. The Hudson was high, with a bank-to-bank load of slushy icy cakes, over its banks in places, onto yards, forming ribbons of dirty debris. It happens every year, usually more into late winter, when creeks and streams thaw, ice jams up, and then the river lets go.
- Rich Guthrie

2/7 - Croton Point, HRM 35: Always nice to trade observations with riverman Cal Greenberg, who lives in a waterfront bungalow in the old river town of Verplanck. We tend to credit wintering eagles for the dearth of winter ducks in recent years. I'd seen just one take a goldeneye this season, but Cal had spotted a small flock, diving off Potato Rock, an old name for the northwest tip of the Point. "And know what?" said Cal, "There was a seal diving with them!" Cal had also watched an eagle take a gull out of the air near his home in Verplanck. It was the third time he had seen this "and it was always a greater blackback."
- Christopher Letts

2/8 - Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 76: The storms had passed but the effects were just now appearing. The Fall Kill was well over its banks into the flood plan and up into the trees. Ice jams had broken and sudden freshets swelled the creek even more. A small herd of four white-tailed deer appeared stream side at a place where they were used to crossing in a bound-and-a-half. Today a bound-and-a-half only got them to a point, up to their knees, where they had to wade.
- Tom Lake

2/8 - Fishkill, HRM 61.4: We saw our first male red-winged blackbird this morning at one of our feeders. This is the earliest we've seen them. I checked my notebook; it looks to be about 10 days early. I started keeping track of things during the winter of 2000-2001. Below are the first sighting dates of male red-winged blackbirds for the last three years:
2005: Feb 18
2006: Feb 19
2007: Feb 24
- Irene Penney

2/8 - Sandy Hook, NJ: Two days after 60 degree weather, some crocuses were an inch up and in the backyard a pair of house sparrows have laid claim to the bird house. A pair of robins came to drink from the bird bath. Yet, the bays and rivers are loaded with greater scaup. It's a confusing season.
- Dery Bennett

2/9 - Verplanck, HRM 40.5: From Old Steamboat Dock we had a great close-up look when a harbor seal popped up from the river with a fish in its mouth. As we watched, it continued to pop up and down in the water, munching on its fish.
- Vicki Goldberg

2/9 - Furnace Woods, HRM 38.5: Thalia April, two and a half, announced that a walk in the falling snow would be just the thing. We bundled up and let ourselves out the back door. The flakes were large and feathery, and enough had fallen so that there were tracks to be seen. Around the feeders the traceries of bird tracks were thick and gray squirrels had been foraging. Near a woodpile a chipmunk had ventured out and its tracks led us to the red swing. We swung in the snowflakes until everyone's hands were cold, and then back to a blazing fire and hot chocolate. An hour later, peering out the back door, Thalia spotted the first blossoms of snowdrops. Surely they had not been there when we searched that flower bed for tracks, such a short time earlier?
- Christopher Letts

2/10 - Sandy Hook, NJ: This was an annual winter waterfowl walk, theoretically taken when there should be lots of ice around to concentrates ducks in small open-water sites for easy spotting. There was no ice this year even though it was a wintry day with 30 mph northwest winds. However, in various bays and ponds we racked up an impressive number of winter waterfowl: greater scaup (thousands), hooded merganser, coot, gadwall, mallard, black duck, ring-necked duck, American widgeon, Canada goose, brant, mute swan, bufflehead, shoveler, and ruddy duck. In the air we spotted one red-tailed hawk and a harrier, plus a dozen turkey vultures riding the wind with nary a wing beat. Notable by their absence (or invisible to our watering eyes): goldeneye, long-tail duck (old squaw), canvasback, and red breasted merganser.
- Dery Bennett

2/11 - Wappinger Creek, HRM 67.5: At dawn the air was a crisp 5 degrees with a windchill of -15 degrees F. Even with warm gloves my fingers ached. The winds of overnight, gusting to 40 mph had subsided. It was a super-freeze and, if by magic, the tidal Wappinger was nearly covered with ice. At the edge of the sheet a large flock of Canada geese had set down, 75 birds at least, some up on the shelf, others in the water, all making me feel even colder.
- Tom Lake

2/11 - Annsville Bay, HRM 43.5: It was a 9 degree morning for bald eagles as we surveyed from aboard our Metro North commuter train headed into Manhattan. We counted 8 bald eagles, a mix of adults and immatures, on the ice in Annsville Bay.
- Mike Boyajian, Jeri Wagner

2/11 - Croton-on-Hudson, HRM 35: There was no need to check the thermometer this morning - one look at the rhododendron bushes was enough. Their usually shiny, tough, green leaves that spread in circles around the flower heads, were tightly folded, dark and lifeless-looking against the branches. When it's really cold, the rhododendrons seem to huddle, "shoulders" hunched, "hands" clasped together for warmth. It was officially cold: the thermometer read 5 degrees F!
- Robin Fox

2/12 - Newcomb, HRM 302: The air went down to -15 degrees F overnight and, even now in mid-morning, it had only risen to -8.
- Ellen Rathbone

2/12 - Kowawese, HRM 59: A pair of wintering adult bald eagles flew low over the ice field of Cornwall Bay toward Sloop Hill. One of them, having seen something, broke off and made a pass into the shallows, dragging its talons in an open lead, but missing whatever it was. A white, cottony mist crept down over the face of Storm King as a snowstorm arrived from the west.
- Tom Lake

2/12 - Little Stony Point, HRM 55: It is unusual to see two avian anomalies within a span of minutes, but that's what happened. I watched a gathering of ring-billed gulls close offshore fussing about in the river and noticed that a few feet away a lone duck was paddling slowly among the ice cakes. It was a single male canvasback, an odd sighting. It seemed healthy enough but such occurrences usually indicate a bird that has lost touch with its flock, perhaps injured, ill, weakened in some way. Swinging my binocular across to Orange County I saw a large dark bird turning tight circles in the swale between Crow's Nest and Storm King Mountain. It looked like an immature bald eagle either hunting or feeling for a thermal. I kept watching and when it banked into the light I could see the whitish band at the base of its tail, a golden eagle, a raptor not seen with any regularity in the Hudson Valley.
- Tom Lake

[Golden eagles are uncommon in the Hudson Valley. There have been a couple of them in northeastern Dutchess County for many winters, but the rest of the year we tend to see them only in migration. Golden eagles, one of the Native American archetypes for the "Thunderbird," is more of an uplands raptor and less inclined than bald eagles to be near big water. With talons larger and stronger than those of the bald eagle, they are known as fast and powerful hunters. Tom Lake.]

2/12 - Crugers, HRM 34: As the predicted storm approached, there was quite a bit of traffic at the bird feeders. Eleven male red-winged blackbirds spent much of the morning here.
- Dianne Picciano

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