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Hudson River Almanac August 24 - August 31, 2008

OVERVIEW

It is not often that orchids find their way into an Almanac entry, yet this week we had three reports. Orchids and the Hudson Valley are not usually thought of as coexisting. Following the mountain lion report last week, we have an entry this week of another elusive wilderness predator. These entries are important for two reasons: no matter how unlikely they are, you can never discount them entirely, and they allow us the opportunity to talk about the level of evidence necessary to make an actual confirmation.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

8/27 - Tarrytown, HRM 27: While birding this morning an orange flash between trees caught my fellow birder's eye. After searching the branches of a large sugar maple, we were pleasantly surprised to find an orange variant scarlet tanager. What a great looking bird!
- Brian Bury

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

8/24 - Newcomb, HRM 302: My sunflowers were pushing close to ten feet tall! Okay, maybe only eight, but still, they are huge. I trimmed branches that I could reach off my honeysuckles in preparation of cutting down the shrubs to make way for new native shrubs and trees. While I was sitting in their shade, I watched bluebirds, a goldfinch and a few other birds - maybe robins in the dense branches - come in and eat the berries. So much for my theory that the birds don't eat honeysuckle berries until late in the season and as a last resort because they are not nutritious.
- Ellen Rathbone

8/24 - Furnace Woods, HRM 38.5: A rap on the door announced George Hatzmann bearing gifts: two 9 lb. bluefish just caught in the Tappan Zee. They looked almost like small tuna, hefty, football-shaped, husky fish.
- Christopher Letts

8/25 - Norrie Point, HRM 85: Herons aplenty! Two green herons padded about atop the water chestnut bed in the cove adjacent to the Norrie Point Environmental Center this morning. In the afternoon we were treated to a nice grouping of 5 great egrets wading around a little further south in the chestnut bed, teetering a bit now and then to stay balanced. Later in the day we could see just how much larger the great blue heron is compared to the great egret when both ended up in the same area. The great egrets were large birds to be sure, but the great blue was noticeably taller.
- Laurie Fila

8/25 - Staten Island, New York City: In a small undisturbed field was an orchid - slender ladies tresses (Spiranthes lacera) - in full bloom. I've been eagerly awaiting these flowers since noticing its tiny leaves late last fall. The tiniest white and green flowers spiraled their way up each flower spike like tiny bottle rockets. With a hand lens, even these 3.0-4.0 mm flowers were distinctly orchid-like down to their frilly little lips. Strolling through the beautiful late summer weather, the goldenrods and the orchids, I noted a slight difference in one or two of the stalks and bent down to examine a small group of plants more carefully. Sure enough, along with the slender ladies tresses were several stalks of a close relative, little ladies tresses (Spiranthes tuberosa) which I had no idea existed in this old field. This brings my Spiranthes species count here to three. In just a few more weeks, the nodding ladies tresses (Spiranthes cernua) will be blooming. This plant is my personal summer swan song. When I see it, I know only New England aster and seaside goldenrod lie between me and a long winter.
- Dave Taft

8/26 - Newcomb, HRM 302: I've now had two people come to me with wolverine sightings. Both were adamant that what they saw were wolverines. One claimed the animal they saw was the size of a medium dog, 50-60 lb., and pretty sure it had white markings on its back. I tried to convince them that it was more likely an old male fisher that can get rather large and have grizzled fur along the back, making it look somewhat wolverine-ish. Then again, I suppose it could have been a small black bear.
- Ellen Rathbone

[The wolverine is the largest of the weasels, a mammal of the Canadian wilderness, northern forests, mountains, and the Arctic tundra. As the Laurentide ice sheet receded from this area about 18,000 years ago and life returned to the proto-Hudson Valley, it is very likely that wolverines were a part of the boreal fauna. However, in historic times, neither Pete Nye nor Ward Stone of NYSDEC can recall any evidence of wolverines in New York State. Like the mountain lion (see 8/19) such ephemeral sightings require hard evidence. Tom Lake.]

8/26 - Stockport Flats, HRM 121: During our public canoe trip we had a stellar opportunity to see a slew of fish-eating birds: several juvenile bald eagles, 2-3 osprey, many great blue herons, a pair of green herons, a number of belted kingfishers, and a double-crested cormorant. Almost all of these birds cooperated by either soaring almost directly overhead or by staying still long enough for people to grab binoculars and get a closer view. All in all it was an amazing chance for the trip participants to see these birds in their natural habitat.
- Laurie Fila, Bree Zogaria

8/26 - Beacon, HRM 61: On this beautiful cool, clear day that felt more like late September than late August, we walked along the Hudson's shore. At the Denning's Point cove one great egret and one snowy egret stood out beyond the carpet of vegetation while several small birds landed on top of the leaves of the water chestnuts. At least two of them were bluebirds using an unusual "bug hunting" site for songbirds. From the trail heading north to Long Dock, another vast carpet of water chestnut spread from 20' off shore out into the river. On the far side of the carpet perched 6 double-crested cormorants. Another paddled nonchalantly along the shore just below the trail, diving down as we came abreast of it. Back at the bridge over the railroad tracks we watched as a doe and her fawn oh-so-slowly ambled across the tracks with a southbound train fast approaching. They seemed unconcerned and made it to the edge of the tracks just in the nick of time, then bounded into the woods. We couldn't help but wonder how often deer take this deadly stroll and do not survive another day.
- Carolyn Plage, Ed Connelly, Chance Plage

8/26 - Sleepy Hollow, HRM 28: Driving home after dark we were surprised to encounter a red fox crossing Riverside Drive. This fellow, not much bigger than a big house cat, seemed unconcerned with our presence and casually walked across our headlights and up the hill, pausing to sniff a pile of empty beer cans. Perhaps we shouldn't have been so surprised since several of our neighbors have reported sighting a fox several times over the past 10 years.
- Diane Maass, Doug Maass

8/26 - Westchester County: A quick trip to Westchester County was enough time to identify at least one of two species of Spiranthes orchids at the Mianus River Gorge. Slender ladies tresses (Spiranthes lacera) was blooming nicely, its green and white flowers still a work of delicate beauty after however many eons. Mark Weckel and I marveled at the plants and speculated about their close relatives spiking nearby. The field probably has nodding ladies tresses (Spiranthes cernua), but the dry, crusty soil here suggests the plants might be something related but quite different. A week or two will probably be all it takes to find out.
- Dave Taft

8/27 - Newcomb, HRM 302: We have not seen a single red admiral butterfly here this summer. I wonder if others are noticing its absence? According to our butterfly expert at Paul Smiths, they migrate north for food, so we are speculating that maybe food supplies were good this year further south and none made it up here.
- Ellen Rathbone

[In the mid-Hudson Valley, I can report having seen two during July and August. One other, a dew-soaked red admiral, spent the night resting on the roof of my truck in East Greenbush, Rensselaer County. Tom Lake.]

8/27 - Norrie Point, HRM 85: I was reminded how just how serendipitous wildlife sightings can be when I happened to look up from my computer screen and saw a cormorant surface just off the back patio holding a fish in its beak. The bird seemed to be having trouble swallowing the fish, allowing me time to get a better look with binoculars. The bird had caught a good-sized eel and repeatedly dove under water in an apparent attempt to get a more favorable grip. After several dives the cormorant gulped the eel down and I could see the bulge in its neck as the eel finally became lunch.
- Laurie Fila

8/28 Newburgh, HRM 61: It was a delight to be out on the river today with the NYSDEC Hudson River Fisheries Unit, checking blue crab pots. When we arrived early this morning, we were greeted by a large cement barge heading upriver, and two eagles, one juvenile and one adult, heading down river. In the 40 pots we pulled, we caught 2 females and about 80 males. Even though I was covered in mud, pulling in crab pots covered in tiny zebra mussels, not to mention the smelly dead fish (bait), it is always one of my favorite Hudson River adventures.
- Rebecca Houser

[Atlantic blue crabs have several colloquial names known mainly to rivermen and crabbers: Adult males are called "jimmies," mature females are called "sooks," and immature females are known as "sallys." Tom Lake.]

8/28 - Bronx, New York City: Another group of mysterious Spiranthes leaves revealed their identity today. An old trailside in Pelham Bay, not much to look at superficially, proved interesting enough to spend two-and-a-half hours on my hands and knees. Ultimately, I counted 45 spikes of little ladies tresses (Spiranthes tuberosa) a tiny orchid, none taller than ten-inches, most far less than half that size. The flowers on nodding ladies tresses (Spiranthes lacera) look like corsages next to these 2.0 mm-long flowers. But under a hand lens, that trademark orchid complexity is clearly evident. It makes me shudder to think how many evolutionary mistakes go into making one of these.
- Dave Taft

8/28 - Jamaica Bay, New York Bight: Mark VanGorden and I had an interesting field trip to Rockaway Inlet and Jamaica Bay. I was there primarily to scope out potential educational field trip sites, but of course we couldn't resist seining! The small beach next to the Brigham Street Bulkhead (basically the mouth of Sheepshead Bay) was the most interesting, with a trio of juvenile crevalle jacks, an eight-inch needlefish, an emerald green juvenile cunner, many silversides, young-of-the-year striped killifish, a snapper blue, and five lookdowns. The physical appearance of the lookdown stretches belief! Their bodies are laterally compressed like a silver dollar pancake, which also indicated their color. The fish were each about three inches long, but had streamers on their dorsal fins triple their body length, and the incredibly long face they are named for. In the non-fish world, the catch also included hermit crabs, a calico crab, several mud crabs, moon jellyfish, and a few ragged lions-mane jellyfish and comb jellies. Salinity was around 27.0 ppt.
- Chris Bowser

8/29 - Staten Island, New York City: I'd interrupted a red-tailed hawk from his fresh mouse dinner from the look the bird shot me from his perch on the top of a light pole. As I disappeared into the woods in the hopes of finding more orchid sites, I was greeted by a small stand of New York ironweed. The first time I've encountered it within the city limits.
- Dave Taft

8/30 - Esopus Meadows, HRM 87: My wife and I had the pleasure of stopping at Esopus Meadows Lighthouse Park this afternoon and were treated to the sight of numerous snowy egrets, a couple of osprey and, closer to shore, a couple of smaller wading birds, perhaps green herons. We went back later in the evening and the egrets were still there.
- William Paskey, Andrea Paskey

8/30 - New Windsor, HRM 59: Low tide and sunrise would occur simultaneously this morning, except the mountains to the east were cloaked in low clouds. It would be a sultry late-summer dawn. First light was softly diffused by the humidity - everything was wet. The extra low moon tide allowed the wide sandy beach to reach into the shallows, showing some bottom that is rarely exposed. I was alone except for a single adult great blue heron. I am used to seeing them feed in marshes and tributaries and from deadfalls in water chestnut beds. This one, however, methodically stalked, with stealth and precision, the shallows along the entire beach. Schools of small fish were the target and it did not take long to see, through ten-power binoculars, that they were killifish and young-of-the-year herring, probably bluebacks. I kept an informal count in my head. It seemed that the heron had much more success stabbing the killies than the elusive herring. After an hour the heron took off, heading toward Moodna Creek, possibly in response to a loud chortle from an eagle perched in a cottonwood several hundreds yards down river.
- Tom Lake

8/31 - Waterford to Peebles Island, HRM 158-159: We had beautiful weather for an early morning paddle from Waterford; the sun on the cliffs along the south side of Peebles Island highlighted the early fall foliage. Bird sightings included an adult bald eagle, an immature black-crowned night heron, two green herons, and several great blue herons.
- Scott Stoner, John Kent

8/31 - Green Island, HRM 152: The new moon low tide came at midday and was impressive. Mid-river reefs that I had never seen were exposed. The river was quiet, wildlife was scarce, and it seemed to me that the story had ended. But as I was leaving I looked up. While I do quite a lot of birding, I'm more of an earth-bound observer, so I have to remind myself to look at the sky. A large dark raptor was doing pirouettes high over head, its flat wings giving me an idea of its identity. I still was not sure until the bright sun flashed on its white tail - an adult bald eagle.
I went back in early evening for high tide. As much as I expect it, I am always surprised at how much the tide changes the character the river. As the tide came full, you could almost sense the energy in the air, the strength of the current. I sat for a couple of hours as the tide ebbed, daylight faded, and the sky grew black as midnight. This was new moon plus one day, which meant no moon at all. There were so many stars in the sky that it had a three-dimensional effect, a rare occurrence in the washed-out skies of the Northeast. A large school of small fish came rushing up along the shore. I wish I could say that I knew what they were but I had no idea. I listened to them for five minutes, as long as my curiosity allowed. Then I walked to the water's edge, shined my light, and a hundred two-inch-long fish scattered. Killifish? Late season blueback herring? Sometimes it is better to skip the details and simply enjoy the big picture.
- Tom Lake

8/31 - Tivoli North Bay, HRM 100.5: I was kayaking when I spotted a large northern map turtle basking on a log. I slowly approached but it slipped into the creek as I got within a few yards. Later, on my way out towards the Hudson, the turtle was back on its log. This time, I drifted slowly towards it, and I was able to gently place my hand on it carapace. The turtle's carapace was dull and well-worn, with patches of algae, so it was probably a long-lived individual, likely a female, as it had a relatively large head. The literature says that map turtles are especially wary of humans, but this one seemed to be the exception. Other critter sightings that afternoon included green herons, kingfishers and a bald eagle carrying its lunch.
- David J. Yozzo

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