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Hudson River Almanac May 18 - May 25, 2009

OVERVIEW

Every once in a while a series of sightings occur that allow us to follow an ongoing event across a broad reach of the Hudson Valley. A decade ago we followed white pelicans from the Mohawk River, down the Hudson River, and over to coastal Connecticut. This week we followed hundreds of brant in migration on their way to breeding grounds in the Arctic. Was this one flight seen again and again? It makes for a good story even if it was not.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

5/23 - Alpine, HRM 18: My wife and I frequently paddle our double kayak on the Hudson on our anniversary (5/23). Three years ago we spied the carcass of a dead Atlantic sturgeon on the Yonkers shore. At 40 inches long, minus its head, it was impressive. This year, we paddled on the New Jersey side just south of the Alpine marina. We again came upon a sturgeon carcass of about the same size, headless and beached.
- Bob Morrow

[The two instances of a headless sturgeon are a mystery. Scutes (modified scales) are sometimes scavenged by beachcombers. Shoreline abrasion as well as scavenger birds might eviscerate the body cavity, but the missing head is a mystery. Tom Lake.]

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

5/18 - RamsHorn Creek, HRM 112.3: With the passing of Bob Gabrielson (see 5/11) the era of Hudson River commercial fishing that has endured since colonial days moved a bit closer to extinction. This fraternity of commercial fishermen has operated from the Upper Bay of New York Harbor to northern Columbia and Greene counties, a reach of more than 110 miles. Fishing gear and techniques have varied from place to place, with haul seines, drift nets, anchor nets, and stake nets, depending on the depth of the river, the force of the current, and management regulations. While the fishermen have been kindred spirits in their endeavor, they rarely mingled; the upriver and downriver contingents, possibly due to the competitive nature and their serious approach to the work, kept to themselves. As a result, it was up to the next generation of rivermen to foster some interaction.

One of my fondest memories was a day in spring of 1993, when Christopher Letts and I got Everett Nack and Bob Gabrielson in Everett's jon boat out of the Ro-Jan Boat Club in Columbia County and we motored up the RamsHorn Creek. For three straight hours they exchanged whoppers - stories that may have been based on fact - but the years had certainly gilded the edges. It was a friendly contest of upriver vs. downriver (their operations were 90 miles apart), incredible feats, a competitive one-ups-manship that was far more humorous than factual. Then we went to Everett's house and drank his homemade dandelion and strawberry wine until we could hardly stand. We do not have days like those anymore.
- Tom Lake

5/18 - Staten Island, New York City: A large bird quickly evacuated the Civil War constructed Fort Tompkins through a slit that once harbored guns. When Fort Wadsworth park ranger William Parker described this to me, I thought he might be describing a barn owl. But what Bill saw was a nesting turkey vulture, a record for the park, and an explanation for why I keep seeing turkey vultures on the ridge facing the old fort. The updrafts here must suit them nicely.
- Dave Taft

5/19 - Newcomb, HRM 302: There was a hard frost overnight and it was 28 degrees Fahrenheit this morning. I just hope the buds on my crabapples and apple trees survived! Later the hummingbirds were mobbing the feeders; they must have needed an extra boost after a night of torpor.
- Ellen Rathbone

5/19 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: From the sky to the southeast in early evening I heard what sounded like soft barking from a hundred puppies. Within half a minute, a large flock of brant, several hundred birds, went over heading north, high up. Their formation was a broad, ragged assemblage of staggering lines diagnostic of brant.
- Tom Lake

5/19 - Catskill, HRM 113: I was driving west on route 23A this evening, between the Village of Catskill and the New York State Thruway overpass when I spotted a large flock of brant, numbering close to 300 birds, passing over heading north-northwest. Their call is distinctive, a sound I liken to that of wood frogs.
- Larry Federman

5/19 - Knox, Albany County, HRM 153: As my wife and I sat overlooking our pond in the Heldeberg Mountains, enjoying a glass of wine in the gathering darkness, we waited, listened and watched. The tally: countless spring peepers, zero bats (disturbing), one displaying male ovenbird, and two flocks of brant, numbering about 150 birds each, flying north with the spring. Just a hundred feet above the treetops, their barking calls, erratic V formation, and rushed appearance gave them away.
- Dave Nelson

[Brant are a small goose closely related to the Canada goose. Like Canadas, brant will fly at night and seasonally migrate to the Arctic Circle to breed. Haverstraw Bay riverman Cal Greenberg recalls that in springs past, he would see almost unbroken lines of brant flocks passing over for hours at a time. Tom Lake.]

5/20 - Beacon, HRM 61: A great day of carp fishing at Long Dock, catching and releasing five fish. The largest weighted 8 lb. 11 oz. The others ranged from an estimated 7 lb. down to 3 lb. Carp, some of them larger than the ones I caught, were crashing the surface in the river and bay all day long. Soon the carp spawning will start, during which time they may not feed as readily, so the fishing might drop off. While some anglers were talking about a 43 lb. striped bass caught from the Long Dock Pier three days ago, there was no striper action today. A couple of tiger swallowtail butterflies showed up, spent a few moments on the muddy shore to get a drink, and then took off.
- Bill Greene

5/20 - Town of Wallkill, HRM 57: On another oriental weatherfish exploration (see May 5), we found them at four more sites in the Dwaarkill, very widely distributed in that system, well down into Orange County. (The Dwaarkill is a tributary of the Wallkill River, flows northeastward toward the Hudson River via Rondout Creek.) We sampled with a backpack shocker and found them in silty backwaters from almost the mouth of the Dwaarkill back up into the headwaters in Orange County. My guess is that they have been in the system for some time. The last recorded sampling in the Dwaarkill was 1981 with no weatherfish reported. These fish are available in the aquarium trade and perhaps a small release in the 1980s has led to a widespread infestation. The Oriental weatherfish became fish species number 216 for the Hudson River and its watershed.
-Bob Schmidt, Alec Schmidt

5/20- Staten Island, New York City: Sitting under a manicured pine, on a newly mowed lawn at Fort Wadsworth, was an "undertaker," a black-crowned night heron waiting patiently for a meal to appear in the now shortened grass.
- Dave Taft

5/20 - Dobbs Ferry, HRM 23: We have two white fringetrees (Chionanthus virginica) near the Masters School in bloom. This is a native tree but mostly seen from southern New Jersey to Florida. It has very narrow unusual fringe-like, fragrant petals. More abundant all around here is the royal paulownia, an introduced tree from China. The tree, which blossoms before leaves emerge, is covered in purple flowers visible from a distance.
- Dave Wood

5/21 - Hastings-on-Hudson, HRM 21.5: Baltimore orioles are nesting near the public library. They were there two years ago, so we are glad to see them back. Mama is barely visible on the nest with just her tail showing. The black locust trees are blooming and are very fragrant. Their large white pea-like clusters of flowers are visible all around and the aroma fills the air.
- Dave Wood

5/21 - Black Creek, Ulster County, HRM 85: Two weeks ago, as I approached Black Creek to monitor the river herring, I could hear splashing and saw that the stream was thick with spawning herring. They were darting everywhere, and more were pushing hard against the current to get to the calm shallow area, above a riffle and tree snag, where the spawning was taking place. Again today the herring were running great. I did my monitoring standing by a fisherman who caught at least 50 in my 15 minute observation time, with many more passing that escaped his small landing net. We agreed that there was no better place to be on this glorious day than sitting in the sun on the banks of a fresh clean stream.
- Jude Holdsworth

5/21 - Kowawese, HRM 59:
- A Beat at the River
As the water flows down the river,
I hear birds singling lovely songs.
I hear the river making a beat.
It is strong, I feel alive,
I wish I could stay here forever.
- Alex Zavala
Sixth Grade, Vails Gate Tech Magnet School

5/22 - Hyde Park area, HRM 82: I saw the first nesting turtles of the season digging this evening after a very warm sunny day. A painted turtle dug in a sparse weedy meadow, and a wood turtle dug on an exposed bank above a stream. This marks the beginning of a dangerous time for turtles as they cross roads on migrations to upland nesting berms and then return to their habitats.
- Jude Holdsworth

5/22 - Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 68.5: A pair of adult bald eagles has been frequenting Bowdoin Park over the last month or so. Today they were perched in a tall tuliptree. This is the second or third year that a pair of adult eagles, presumably this pair, has been hanging out in the park. I had thought it was just a preferred perching location, but there were reports of eagles carrying large sticks last week perhaps signaling a nest being built.
- Garrick Bryant

[This could be the pair from a mile-and-a-half downriver (NY62) in the Town of Wappinger whose nest failed this spring. Eagles will change nest location for reason that are poorly understood, and with nest failures two years in a row, it may be that they are moving to try and make a difference. This possibility will be investigated. Tom Lake.]

5/22 - Hunter's Brook, HRM 67.5: Walking through the woods at first light was a mixed blessing: the air had an intoxicating aroma of honeysuckle and Dame's rocket, but the biting bugs, blackflies and mosquitoes, were difficult to ignore. A few glass eels were still coming in from the river but not the enormous numbers of a month ago. If this season is like years past, in a week or so they will stop as the water temperature reaches the high 60s. The songbirds were waking up and in the scrambled soundtrack I could make out orioles, robins, and a lone olive-sided flycatcher: "Quick, three beers!"
- Tom Lake

5/22 - Manhattan, HRM 2: This morning I spotted my first painted lady butterfly of the season resting in the grass in Hudson River Park at Greenwich Village. From there it went to feed on the salvia, now in full bloom, and basked in the sun on the wood-chip mulch. Later I saw my first eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly flying along the walkway beside the river, stopping at puddles for a drink. Eventually it flew over the edge of the river wall to perch on the damp algae growing there.
- Walter Laufer

5/22 - Brooklyn, New York City: The Belt Parkway in Canarsie was actually moving this morning. More's the pity, as I had to zip past an common egret making fast work of a garter snake. When last I looked in the rear view mirror, the snake had wrapped itself around the bird's bill and the egret made motions like any frustrated diner with an errant strand of spaghetti.
- Dave Taft

5/22 - Staten Island, New York City: If I were a different sort, I might have worried about the catbird's head, left neatly clipped from its torso and lying at the driver's side door of the superintendent's sedan at Fort Wadsworth. Perhaps some Staten Island peregrine falcon was making me an offer I couldn't refuse.
- Dave Taft

5/23 - Wappinger Creek, HRM 67.5: Low tide in this tributary exposes a "forest" of downed trees, logs, and deadfalls. Along a one-mile reach of tidewater, a half dozen perches were occupied by great blue herons surveying the shallows for opportunities. The seventh stump, however, held a black-crowned night heron, hunched over in the shadows near the shore. While not nearly as common as the great blues, black-crowns are seen along the estuary from April through late autumn.
- Tom Lake

5/24 - Winnisook Lake, Town of Shandakan, HRM 90: The American toads were courting in the lake; hundreds were trilling, crashing about in the water, laying and fertilizing eggs.
- Vivian Yess Wadlin

5/24 - Farmer's Landing, Town of Wappinger, HRM 68: Perhaps I'm biased since my birthday is in May, but there is nothing to compare to first light on a May morning, a spring dawn, so full of potential, a season of renewal. At 5:00 AM, the nearly deafening chatter of birdsong resisted my attempts to hear individual singers and the mockingbirds were doing their best to confuse matters. This is the season when vocalization is often the best means of identifying birds since the new green foliage offers concealment. The feeling of frustration melted way, however, as a gorgeous male scarlet tanager paused in flight to land on an ailanthus branch. Once the sun peeked over the hills to the east, the birdsong stopped and I was left with just a few chatty fish crows.
- Tom Lake

5/24 - Croton River, HRM 34: A common loon in breeding plumage has been poking around at the mouth of the Croton River for several days.
- Christopher Letts

5/25 - Saw Kill, HRM 98.5: We were setting drift nets for fish larvae after sunset on May 25. In the mouth of the Saw Kill, we found a very small map turtle (about 1.25 inches carapace length). This is certainly the smallest we have seen although we caught another small one in midsummer several years ago in Tivoli South Bay. When we reached the mouth of Stony Creek, fireflies were lighting up the estuary. We spent time watching them with our lights off. There was a huge midge hatch going on and we were mobbed every time we turned our flashlights on.
- Bob Schmidt, Kathy Schmidt

[The drift nets in this observation are not the same as drift gill nets. While drift gill nets "drift" in the current - for example, those used to catch American shad - larvae drift nets are anchored and collect fish larvae that are drifting in the current. Tom Lake.]

5/25 - Mid-Hudson Valley, HRM 68-58: For me, a recurring theme of spring is my annual amazement at how many black locust trees are in the Mid-Hudson Valley. For the rest of the year, these hardwoods tend to blend in with the forests. Each May, however, they bloom in such profusion that stands and rows of them are instantly recognizable. Often their flowers are too high to reach so I purposely searched for low branches this morning to reacquaint myself. Black locust flowers have a sweet, delicate fragrance, almost a buttery flavor. That might be influenced by the feeling I get that someone has strung buttered popcorn all over the branches.
- Tom Lake

5/25 - Kowawese, HRM 59:
- What I Heard From the River
What I heard were sounds from the river.
When I heard the river, I thought it was talking.
When I heard the river, I thought that it was singing.
When I heard the river singing, I liked it.
I had never heard the river make sounds before.
- Keith Leszczynski, 6th grade, Vails Gate Tech Magnet School

5/25 - Furnace Woods, HRM 38.5: A continuing odd aspect of this spring: I still have pine siskins at my feeders. Even in past winters when I had a few, they would long gone by now.
- Christopher Letts

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