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Hudson River Almanac February 20 - February 26, 2008

OVERVIEW

For the most part, the Almanac reports natural history events involving weather and wildlife. However, the occasional extra-terrestrial entry, such as lat week's total lunar eclipse and this week's fireball, expands the boundaries of our journal to include a broad and welcome context.


HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

2/26 - Staten Island, New York City: Kathy Garofalo called to tell me that we had a rare visitor. When I reached Great Kills Park, we were able to relocate the snowy owl she had mentioned to me that morning - from the looks of it, an immature female, large and dark, but with a white face and those piercing yellow eyes that make them look so predatory. I mentioned the bird to park police officer William Wilkens Jr. as I was leaving, and he seemed eager to see it. So, as we stared together at the bird, his new binoculars still focusing in and out, he told me it was his first snowy owl. It was fun to be out with an excited new bird watcher, and it allowed me the privilege to further appreciate the beauty of these birds. Not to mention the miracle that brings them to us cyclically some winters.
- Dave Taft


NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

2/20 - Newcomb, HRM 302: To better view the total lunar eclipse, Toby Rathbone and I went out to ski and walk the golf course in the moonlight. It turned out not to be ideal. The moon was great and the skiing was excellent, for me, but Toby had a hard time of it. The snow wouldn't support his weight; he would hover on the surface for a second or so, and then crash through into near chest deep snow. We finally had to call it quits. We peeked out again later, around 10:00 PM, and it looked like brown smoke across the surface of the moon.
- Ellen Rathbone

2/20 - Essex County, HRM 280: The sky was very clear for the lunar eclipse tonight. I watched it out the window all the way home along the Northway. It was beautiful. The normally whitish moon turned a fine amber color as the eclipse progressed. It was stunning.
- Mike Corey

2/20 - West Point, HRM52: As I was leaving West Point Building 667 late this afternoon, I looked up and saw Igraine - the female red-tailed hawk and mate to the late Uther Pendragon - sitting on the top of the Catholic Chapel. This was one of Uther's favorite perches and I was pleased to see her sitting there. Twice before this winter, I had noticed her there and she often would wait until I did see her and acknowledge her before flying off. I hope she will return to the light tower nest site and raise a new brood with a new found mate. It turned out Uther did produce one last brood with Igraine. I saw the offspring last August and the young male behaved almost exactly like the young Uther and Uther's son Arthur. At the time, I thought Igraine had found a new mate to help raise the brood (at a new nest site), but it could very well have been one of the adults from any earlier brood. I hope to have a clearer answer this spring.
- Jim Beemer, Natural Resources Manager

2/21 - Ulster Park, HRM 85: We spotted our first male red-wing blackbird in a backyard tree today.
- Fran Drakert, Bill Drakert

2/21 - Town of Schodack, Rensselaer County, HRM 140: In late December, I saw a flock of 15-20 robins on my back lawn and the woods were full of them and their songs. At that time I was persuaded to think that these might have been holdover, or winter robins. Today there were, once again, flocks of them all over. I wonder what they eat in the winter? At the same time, I also saw my first bluebird of the season.
- Anne Hunter

[At some point in late winter, birds like robins change from wintering holdovers to migrating flocks. That time is fast approaching when birds that have migrated only a short distance, will begin to slowly move back into their traditional breeding ranges. Tom Lake.]

2/21 - North Greenbush, HRM 147: Going out to my compost station today, with containers of old carrots and coffee grounds in hand, I heard some rattling and rustling noises from under the ancient pines that are on the edge of my woods. Looking closer, I saw at least 18, perhaps 20 wild turkeys, not more than 100 feet from me. I froze on my path, not daring to move. I watched as the turkeys poked around amidst the recently broken pine branches. They acted like little soldiers on patrol, checking here, checking there. Carefully, they made their way back into woods, meandering along. A couple paused and seemingly took a drink from the brooklet that emerges from the ground. My dogs were sitting in the sun in front of my home and they never heard the turkeys!
- Pat Van Alstyne

2/21 - Beacon to Croton-Harmon, HRM 61-34: This morning was a good one for eagle watching from Metro North's 6:47 AM train out of Poughkeepsie. We spotted 12 bald eagles between Beacon and Croton Harmon. At least eight of them were adults. The largest group consisted of three adults and one immature in the park at the Peekskill train station. That's a good number when there isn't much ice on the river.
- Malcolm Castro, Bob Kelly

2/21 - George's Island, HRM 39: I launched my kayak from George's Island at 2:00 PM today. The tide was ebbing and it was a bright, sunny day, which masked how cold it actually was - gloves and paddle jacket quickly became encrusted with ice particles. Yesterday, I had noticed a pair of adult bald eagles, possibly a mated pair, perched 20 feet high in a tree on the south end of the Oscawana Island promontory. They were there today as well, in clear sight, watching the river, 25 feet from where I passed on the water.
- Steve Butterfass

2/21 - Sandy Hook, NJ: There were big flocks of starlings, 200-300 in a flock, here today. At least I thought they were starlings until the binoculars revealed them to be a mixed bag of starlings, male red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, and a couple of common grackles, working the lawn. The local gang of cedar waxwings apparently harbors one Bohemian waxwing, which accounts for the serious bird-listers skulking around in the woods armed with expensive-looking binoculars.
- Dery Bennett

2/22 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: In a foot of fresh snow, our returning mated pair of red foxes began to snuffle around the woodpile and brush pile, probably contemplating setting up shop for another breeding season.
- Diane Lowry

2/23 - Minerva, HRM 284: The dog and I just got in from a fine snowshoe hike (he wore paws, I wore the shoes), and it was a beautiful time to be out. Minerva has about 2.5 feet of snow on the ground in the woods, and it was a pleasure to be out in it. I spent some time looking for tracks - we had a couple of inches of fresh fluffy snow yesterday. Similar to what I've been seeing all winter, other than the ubiquitous tracks of all sizes of white-tailed deer, there's been little to find. The deer are everywhere. Sunflower seeds that I normally put out for birds are gobbled up by the pesky hoofed beasts. Shrubs and small trees in the woods that are normally ignored by deer are being chomped to within an inch or so of their lives.
- Mike Corey

2/23 Hyde Park, HRM 82: A friend from Johnstown (NY) called yesterday during the snowstorm to tell me a barred owl had landed in a pine tree in her backyard and a huge assortment of woodpeckers were at her feeders, including a pileated. Although I had an assortment of woodpeckers at my feeders as well, I lamented that I had not yet been blessed with any pileated guests. This morning, as I cleared the path to the driveway, a large black-and-white bird flew up from an elm 10' away, landed in a dead tree across the road and clucked at me, as if answering my complaints. Finally, a pileated! It waited patiently across the street, occasionally knocking away at the tree, until I had finished shoveling. I hid behind a snow-covered evergreen and watched as it returned to its excavation in the elm tree. It appeared to be a female; is it too much to hope a pair might settle in this spring?
- Susan Maresca

2/23 - Verplanck, HRM 40.5: A gorgeous adult eagle sat atop a tree near a house on the hill that overlooks the river. We were invited to view the bird from their driveway and were simply awestruck at how clear a view we had. Its yellow eyes seem to pierce right through us and we could see the sharpness of its talons wrapped around the branch. The most thrilling part was seeing the paisley-like patterns on its velvety chest and the contrast between the vivid white of its head and tail against its dark body.
- Dorothy Ferguson, Bob Ferguson

2/23 - George's Island, HRM 39: The view was like a picture postcard: water a battleship gray, sky gray with a bluish tinge to it, and trees decorated with white "icing" on their branches. There was virtually no wind and the stillness could almost be heard. We were delighted to see an adult eagle perched on the top of the highest tree. Soon the next tree became occupied with an pair of immatures sitting close together on one branch, and then another adult sitting higher up on the same tree. A pair of adults gave us an aerial show overhead and then flew around the back of Dogan Point. Two more immatures flew in, stayed for a while and then flew off.
- Dorothy Ferguson, Bob Ferguson

2/24 Town of Wappinger, HRM 67-66: This winter has not provided many opportunities for a good long trek on snowshoes. The 10-12" of new snow had a crusty coating that made it as much snow-sliding as snowshoeing. The rewards for a mile walk along the river were many from tracks to sightings. Two small groups of foraging bluebirds made a colorful contrast in the pure white snow. Several sets of coyote tracks, possibly my midnight troubadours, cris-crossed the railroad right-of-way. An adult bald eagle whizzed past no more than 100 feet away, seemingly oblivious to me and certainly in a hurry. When I took the time to stop, look, and count (how jaded are we getting with regard to eagle sightings?) I counted 4 immatures and 2 other adults with the three-mile range of my binoculars.
- Tom Lake

2/24 - Croton-on-Hudson, HRM 35: We were taking advantage of the clear sky tonight by doing a "no headlamps" snowshoe. On the trek home, the sky lit up with a series of flashes like a distant, silent lightning strike. We looked up and saw the largest (or closest) meteorite we had ever seen. We were able to follow its path for a second until it faded.
- Erin Sine, Kurt Winkelman & Cynthia Fowx

[From the description, this sounds like what is known colloquially as a fireball. Almost any object - a grain of sand, a meteorite, space junk - entering the earth's atmosphere from outside heats up, producing a glow. Most objects - and there are many millions of them - burn up and we never even notice. More heat resistant material lingers and if it is large enough, can produce a brief but spectacular fireball. If you are out at night and observant, it is not rare to occasionally see a fireball, and almost always by accident. Several years ago, one reflected its flash on the surface of Wappinger Creek at 2:00 AM while I was striped bass fishing. Perhaps the most memorable occurrence was a public night-seining program at Croton in September 2000, when "a bright orange fireball streaked across the northern sky" as a backdrop to the setting of our 250 foot net. The ooohs and aaaahs lasted for a full minute. Tom Lake.]

2/24 - Shrewsbury River, NJ: The number of wintering ruddy ducks, off by themselves, was up to about 400. Nearby, with as many as 10 each, were brant, American wigeon, bufflehead, hooded merganser, black duck, and a solitary mute swan in the distance.
- Dery Bennett

2/25 - Orange County, HRM 56: I spotted a pair of adult bald eagles this morning. They flew in from the north, circled around over Goosepond State Park for several minutes, then disappeared. I had never seen anything like it here.
- Kate Mitchell

2/25 Garrison to Ossining, HRM 51-33: In this 18-mile run, this morning, we counted 5 bald eagles along the river from our Metro North commuter car.
- Mike Boyajian, Jeri Wagner

2/26 Newcomb, HRM 302: 7" more. We now have 38" on the ground at our snow stick.
- Ellen Rathbone

2/26 - Sandy Hook, NJ: How do you count individual ducks in a big, really big, raft of wintering greater scaup (with only a few lesser scaup included)? These were in Spermaceti Cove on the west side of the Hook. From a distance the rafts looks like black patches on steel gray water. Up closer, with binoculars, or when the birds are rocking in choppy water, they show much of their white sides. A few weeks ago, we estimated 5,000 birds in two separate rafts. Now, it's more like 10,000-12,000 in adjacent coves and one thin batch stretching out between the two. And they are active - swimming and flying from one raft to another, stringing out and bunching up, most so close they are almost touching each other. Solution: You count the scaup in the field of your binoculars and multiply by the number of fields; when your eyes fill up with tears and stop working you add 10% and head for the barn.
- Dery Bennett


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