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Hudson River Almanac September 24 - September 30, 2008

OVERVIEW

While it is always rewarding to focus on natural history notables like orchids, merlins, monarchs, and moose, a stern reminder of our ecological vulnerability - the invasive mitten crab - also stands out this week. Starting this week, we introduce a contributor profile, an occasional look at some of our long-term, insightful observers.


HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

9/25 - Staten Island, New York City: One of the last stops on my annual warm weather flower travels is a sandy trail in southern Staten Island. Here, each fall, one of the most un-flowery of flowers, autumn coralroot (Corralorhiza odontorrhiza) blooms. It is a tiny flower whose habits and appearance contrast starkly with the rest of its family, the orchids. Each year, I alternately marvel at how evolution has left it in such a mess, why the plant bothers to flower at all, and why I bother to search for it to begin with. The plant is hard to find. For one thing it has no leaves to find and, consequently, no chlorophyll. It relies completely upon those strange and poorly understood underground connections between mushrooms, molds, and orchids. The flower measures just millimeters long, including its most showy part, the ovary. Bead-like, the ovary is a bright yellowish green, while the flower hangs from it like an afterthought. Bent downward and looking like a bird's beak, it never fully opens and is almost certainly self pollinated. Nonetheless it is an orchid, and close inspection reveals a glorious (and tiny) white and purple-spotted lip almost completely enclosed by russet colored sepals and petals. I counted thirty four spikes of autumn coralroot this year, not saying how many plants just didn't flower.
- Dave Taft


NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

9/24 - Newcomb, HRM 302: We had a class of third-graders today from Tupper Lake and took them on a Discover Nature Walk - anything was fair game. We only made it a quarter-mile down the trail in an hour! Mushrooms, strange aquatic growths, cones, leaves, berries, smells, sounds, textures, the students were caught up in it all. We even found a baby snapping turtle, smaller than a half-dollar. It's now sitting in a bowl on my desk. We decided that it will over-winter here, fattening up for spring.
- Ellen Rathbone

[When we began the Almanac in 1994, we consciously decided that our journal would be all about the flora, fauna, and the natural history of the Hudson River watershed. People were secondary to the theme of the narrative. Now, however, since some of our contributors have become such astute and long-term observers, we felt that it was time to introduce a few of them, from time to time, in a contributor profile. Tom Lake]

Ellen Rathbone is an environmental educator at the Adirondack Park Agency Visitor Interpretive Center in Newcomb, Essex County, near the High Peaks headwaters of the Hudson River. Ellen develops and leads the VIC school programs. She considers herself a generalist. Like her outdoor companion, Toby, she finds that there are too many fascinating things to study in nature to focus on just one.

9/24 - Plum Point, HRM 58.5: Sloop Hill is perched on the shoulder of Cornwall Bay just upstream of Moodna Creek. The forested ridge is at least a quarter-mile long and is dominated by oaks, tulip trees, sycamores, and cottonwoods. At low tide today the bay was empty and the skeletal deadfalls of old trees were exposed. There was an interesting collection of raptors, three of them, perched in the trees along Sloop Hill: an osprey, a red-tailed hawk, and an adult bald eagle. Out in the bay the dinner table had been set for the osprey and eagle and the red-tail might, sooner or later, spot the red squirrel (an uncommon sighting in itself) that I had spotted scampering along the beach a hundred feet below its perch. It was 399 years ago today that Henry Hudson and the Half Moon passed here on their way down river. Eagles, ospreys and hawks were watching then as well.
- Tom Lake

9/24 - Dobbs Ferry, HRM 23: We have a stand of milkweed in back of our house, and have enjoyed watching monarchs come each fall. Last week's post from Yonkers (see 9/15) reminded me that we have seen no monarchs at all this fall. In looking more closely at the plants, I found that none of them have seed pods, thus nothing to attract the butterflies. My question is why no pods? Perhaps the deer, of which we have many?
- Stephen Hunter

9/25 - Brooklyn, New York City: I had a nice early-morning view of a merlin as it zipped across the Belt Parkway at Rockaway Parkway. Merlins are so efficient
- Dave Taft

9/26 - New Hamburg, HRM 67.5: The vagaries of river life never get easier to figure out. With a state collector's permit, I keep several kinds of pots and traps in the Hudson collecting aquatic specimens for school and public river programs - we borrow them, show them, and return them. I had two eel pots set in the river thirty feet apart, both baited with whole American shad (no, these were not the last of their kind!). One pot held 40 eels, 3 brown bullheads, 2 blue crabs, and assorted sunfish. The other, less than thirty feet away, had nothing at all, not even a bluegill.
- Tom Lake

9/27 - Adirondack High Peaks (in response to recent wolverine sightings in Essex County, see 8/26 ):
As I recall, Dekay (1842) seems to assume they were present in the Adirondacks, but he had no first hand knowledge. Folks that he trusted said that they had been present and perhaps still were. I have seen references to only two animals taken in New York, a hide of one supposedly killed near Sackett's Harbor [Jefferson County, near Lake Ontario] that was examined by Bachman, and one that he himself killed along the Hoosic River [Washington County] around 1810. He did not even know what it was when he killed it. There are sporadic, and not necessarily verified, records from northern New Hampshire and Vermont, but nothing to suggest consistent occupation in any numbers. These critters can cover some ground, and the forests today are not what we had in the early 1800s. It would not surprise me if they were present in low numbers, at that time, or that they were irregular visitors. We will never know.
- Al Hicks, NYSDEC

9/28 - Catskill Creek, HRM 113: Mike Aguiar sets a crab pot this time of the year on the tidewater Catskill Creek looking for blue crabs. With the season about over, he was not expecting much, but since he had some herring he was using for catfish bait, he loaded the trap in the hope that there may be a stray blue-claw around. Today he found a single female Chinese mitten crab in the pot.
- Tom Lake

9/28 - Wappinger Creek, HRM 67.5: Over two inches of rain fell over two days and the midday near-new moon high tide had the tidal Wappinger over its banks and spilling into the flood plain. It is not unusual to see black-crowned night herons in the trees (there was one there today), but even the great blue herons (three of them) were perched on low limbs of tall trees above the rising creek. The water was muddied and turbid and dining would be a challenge for the these wading birds.
- Tom Lake

9/29 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 66-67: This was the night of the new moon, or no moon actually, perfect for a late night hike along the river, through a black forest, listening far more than looking. This trek was along a well-know coyote, fox, and white-tail trail. Five minutes of walking followed five minutes of standing and listening. After a few of these I got the distinct impression that the other creatures were doing the same. I could see their eyes, almost hear their breathing, and an occasional rustle and snap gave them away. Other than a poke in the eye by a branch, it was an hour and a few minutes well spent, full of sensory awareness of the type we rarely experience.
- Tom Lake

9/30 - Newcomb, HRM 302: The moose sightings are pouring in. A male was seen just down the road past the ski tow in Newcomb; another big male was seen near Long Lake; a cow near Raquette Lake; and over the last couple of days, moose were being tracked all over the riverbank in Lake Luzerne. The moose are on the move!
- Ellen Rathbone

9/30 - Green Island, HRM 153: It was one day after the new moon and the midday low tide had dropped as low as I had ever seen it. Stretches of rocky beach that rarely felt the air were drying in the sun. I met three anglers whose identity will remain anonymous (they were battling head colds that had kept them out of work). Taking their medicine, they were catching channel catfish on chicken livers, one of which was a 19" dandy. Right at their feet I reached down and picked a small, water-worn stone awl, a chert tool that had been used to drill holes in skins, pelts, maybe even wood. It was made of black Normanskill chert and could have been anywhere from 400 to 10,000 years old, the length of human presence on the river shore at Green Island.
- Tom Lake

9/30 - Saw Kill, HRM 98.5: We arrived early to check our trap-and-transfer eel ladder on the Saw Kill. Since it had rained in the previous days, we expected to see some eels and were not disappointed. In addition to the five eels in the trap, we removed a green frog (the third this year) and a live mitten crab (the fifth this year). We also found the shed exoskeleton of a second crab in the stream. While looking below the waterfall for more crabs (unsuccessful) we came across a pair of crayfish mating. I brought them home because one of my students is studying the small worms that live on crayfish. They were still mating five hours later. There was a panoply of white birds on Tivoli South Bay. They were pretty far away and I had no binoculars, but about a dozen were mute swans, another dozen were gulls and, while watching them, a great egret flew by. We think of things as slowing down in the fall, but the Saw Kill denizens were pretty active.
- Bob Schmidt

9/30 - Hyde Park, HRM 82: This was the 8th anniversary of the closing, after 392 days, of the Hyde Park mastodont site. The extinct "elephant" that emerged from an old oxbow of Fallkill Creek was estimated to have stood nearly 10' high at the shoulder and weighed almost 10,000 lb. It was the most complete skeleton of a mastodont ever unearthed in the Northeast. Because the excavation took 13 months, hundreds of students, from elementary school to graduate school, had the opportunity to enter a time machine back to a Dutchess County of 11,500 years ago. The site changed our view of the valley after the last ice age: A temperate environment with deciduous trees was established earlier than previously thought. While no direct evidence linked the mastodont to the first humans in the Hudson Valley, there is little doubt that they had crossed paths during the 34 years of the mastodont's life.
- Tom Lake

9/30 - Sandy Hook, NJ: Sandy Hook's Rhode Island Red rooster went to a good home on the mainland after a two-week stay (see 9/17).
- Dery Bennett

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