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Hudson River Almanac April 16 - April 23, 2011

OVERVIEW

Moments that define the season were abundant this week, including a new fish species for the river, finding an old friend in a new bald eagle nest, and the haunting calls of the common loon.

HIGHLIGHT OF A PREVIOUS WEEK

4/13 - Manhattan, HRM 2: An intern and I were going through our oysters from The River Project and found a fish that we did not recognize. We keyed it out and I believe it to be a skilletfish. The River Project has never caught one of these before so it's not on our fish lists.
- Nina Zain

[From the excellent digital images supplied by Nina Zain, as well as dichotomous keys, it was determined that this was a skilletfish, 52 millimeters (mm) long, species number 218 for the Hudson River watershed. The skilletfish is a member of the oyster reef community along with blennies and gobies. Although this is the first skilletfish recorded for the estuary, there is little doubt that they have been around since the oyster beds of the lower estuary first formed, reaching back in time at least 7,000 years, and they have just escaped detection. Tom Lake.]

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

4/16 - Pleasant Valley, HRM 76: What is usually the earliest butterfly species, the mourning cloak, one I'd often spot even with the last of the winter's snow cover still on the ground, is one that I've not seen in several years, including this one. I never found them to be very common in the Hudson Valley but I'd always have a few sightings every year. In fact, it was a mourning cloak that started my collection in the mid-1960s. I can't remember the last time I saw one here. Although the name reflects its appearance, you'd think that a far more cheerful name would have been more appropriate for this spring messenger.
- Don Pizzuto

4/16 - Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 74: On a walk at Vassar Farm, a huge ruckus in the pond next to us alerted me to a pair of very large (at least two feet in length) snapping turtles engaged in a mating battle. The thrashing and pushing lasted several minutes, with the victorious male ending up on top, craning his prehistoric neck towards the sky.
- Lia Harris

4/16 - Hammond's Point, HRM 60: An immature eagle repeatedly stooped unsuccessfully on a school of fish at the mouth of Fishkill Creek. Our best guess was that these were alewives, river herring, in from the sea to spawn in the tidal tributary.
- Tom Lake, Phyllis Lake

4/16 - Town of Warwick, HRM 44: The cool spring air was heavy with humidity and that was not helping a half a dozen black vultures get lift. As they rose, flapping furiously from the black dirt of the produce fields, it appeared as though the land was giving birth to these gangly black birds.
- Tom Lake

4/16 - Warwick, HRM 43: Forty black ducks in a flooded field appeared to be taking a break from their migratory flight. Almost directly overhead, perched in the crown of basswood tree, was an adult bald eagle.
- Tom Lake

[This is an enduring mystery of avian predator-prey behavior. There are times when pandemonium will break out in flocks of waterfowl with even the suggestion of an eagle's presence. Then there are times when ducks and geese will show no signs of agitation with an eagle close at hand. There must be some form of "non-verbal" communication indicating a well-fed raptor. Tom Lake.]

4/16 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: The lovely lacy foliage of Dutchmen's breeches held up delicate bloom stalks. This was a blissful scene and a true harbinger of the season but for a detail: these native wildflowers were blooming two weeks earlier than they had two decades ago. Several hermit thrushes were scratching for breakfast. As I ascended the service road I wondered, as I have for many years, who planted the daffodils and forsythia that yellow the drab woodlands at this time. I think of the bungalow colony that existed here a century ago, and wish I had known the housewife who brought spring and summer flowers here to enrich their lives. There had been the old fashioned lilacs, too, until a few years ago. On the face of the upriver bluff, they gave me a few sprigs of party-colored, fragrant stems for many years. A dozen years ago I watched as another patch of Croton Point slid down the slope and into the Hudson, taking with it the last of the lilacs. That year I took a bouquet home to my wife. A month later, the remnants of that piece of Croton Point were roiling the surf beneath.
- Christopher Letts

[Shoreline erosion has been a major problem at Croton Point for as long as vessels have left huge and powerful breakers in their wake. The northwest point at Croton, known as Enoch's Neck, has lost fifty feet of shoreline in the last fifty years. An archaeological site discovered by Louis Brennan in the early 1960s, dating to more than 6,000 years ago, is now largely underwater and destroyed. Tom Lake.]

4/16 - Irvington-on-Hudson, HRM 24.5: A small flock of brant, 20-25 birds, had set down in the lee of a jetty, safe from a strong northeast wind from an approaching storm. The storm hit in late afternoon with wind gusts to 50 mph and torrential rain (2.2 inches).
- Tom Lake

4/17 - Croton Point, HRM 34: The rain gauge read 3" following yesterday's storm and the winds had been commensurate. On the Point I looked for the storm-blown waifs that often appear here after big weather events. Half a dozen kestrels, mostly bright males, were hunting on the landfill. Tree swallows had forsaken the white-capped waves of Croton Bay and were feeding on the sheltered Croton River. In the several acres of shallow ponds that appeared overnight on the picnic grounds a solitary snow goose rooted in the grass while three greater yellowlegs trailed behind, probing for whatever invertebrate snacks they could find.
- Christopher Letts

2011 - Kowawese, HRM 59:
Kowawese's Nature
The road was icy
Ice follows me on my path.
Animals travel over night
They lurk in the thick woods.
Their tracks amaze me.
Snow chills my hand
Bald Eagles roam free
Across nature's most
Beautiful creation
Kowawese's nature.
It's just as if it seems
Animals care for
This peaceful forest
They call home.
- Miguel Quintero, 6th Grade, Vails Gate Tech Magnet School

4/18 - Milan, HRM 90: I had a very good look at a healthy and beautifully-colored red fox as it passed through the meadow behind my home. I had binoculars on it for several minutes. It didn't seem interested in hunting as it passed slowly through the meadow on its way to the woods.
- Frank Margiotta

4/18 - Ulster Park, HRM 85: We are used to seeing Vs in our pond, from geese, ducks, even an occasional muskrat. But this one was different: a beaver. It stayed for only a day, but we were able to enjoy seeing it swimming around and occasionally taking a break out of the water.
- Peter Relson, Carol Anderson

4/18 - Ulster County, HRM 84: An adult wood thrush was perched on the stone wall outside my kitchen window in Tillson this morning, apparently attracted by the activity at our bird feeder and perhaps disappointed to discover it filled with seed, not grasshoppers! I have yet to hear any wood thrush song, however.
- Jason Taylor

4/18 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: This has been a spring of mixed messages: the magnolia were in full bloom, the goldfinches were winning the "brightest yellow" battle with the forsythia, yet white-throated sparrows and juncos continued to be everywhere, winter birds that have not yet decided to head north.
- Tom Lake

4/18 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: Perhaps this was a big flight day for raptors: I saw turkey vultures, Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks, more than a dozen kestrels, and more red-tailed hawks than our resident pair might explain. The snow goose of yesterday had moved on but the greater yellowlegs were still probing the rainwater pools. A group of striped bass anglers treading the rocky shore disturbed a tree full of great blue herons; five of them flapped off to the north, assuming a V-formation before they passed from view. I have seen migrating great blue herons almost every day for the past week. Flocks of cormorants continue to stream north and east. It has been several years since I knew of nesting brown thrashers on this peninsula. A favorite singing perch for the male has been the top of a large white oak on the riverbank at the entrance to the service road. Today a brown thrasher was perched in the very tree, not yet singing, but I can hope.
- Christopher Letts

4/18 - Crugers, HRM 39: An eastern towhee (formerly a rufous-sided towhee) has become a regular feeder on the ground below the bird feeder.
- Jim Grefig

[The rufous-sided towhee has been split into two species, the eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) and the spotted towhee (Pipilo maculatus) of the west. Steve Stanne.]

4/19 - Newcomb, HRM 302: There were two common loons on Rich Lake in a small patch of open water at the west end of the lake. These were most likely two males as they usually precede the females by a few days. They were not feeding together and one bird gave a tremolo call. Other waterfowl on the lake and in the marsh included green-winged teal, wood duck, and Canada geese. About a dozen tree swallows were also flying over the open water. Coltsfoot was providing some much needed color in open, disturbed areas and the skunk cabbage was up in the wet areas along the streams and seeps.
- Charlotte Demers

[The loon's tremolo has been described by many as sounding like "insane laughter." For a wonderful account of loons and their calls, see John McPhee's "The Survival of the Bark Canoe." Tom Lake.]

4/19 - Milan HRM 90: I saw a piebald robin today. Its breast was normal with the rest of the body splashed with white. It reminded me of a "paint" horse.
- Marty Otter

4/19 - Ulster Landing, HRM 97: I thought I heard a loon calling out on the river at 3:00 AM! Is that possible?
- Peg Duke

[Yes. Common loons in are migration. From the late 1980s through the early 2000s, when I'd be out in the dark of night drifting for shad, I would hear, time-to-time each April, common loons communicating with their hoots, wails, yodels, and tremolos. It was eerie and at the same time exhilarating. They are a genuine "call of the wild." Tom Lake.]

4/19 - Croton-on-Hudson, HRM 35: The hanging feeder at the back door was a busy place. A handsome, brown-headed cowbird was on one side, facing two brilliant goldfinches. Swinging on a twig nearby, waiting a turn at the seed supply was a large, plump red-breasted woodpecker.
- Robin Fox

4/19 - Croton Point, HRM 35-34: Perhaps a dozen kestrels were scattered across the Point, some of them hunting hard, penetrating the woodlands and marsh, diving into treetops, on the hunt for sure. Recent arrivals? I usually see them on the landfill, perched on the well markers. A common yellowthroat was singing, and I had a good listen to the first I have heard this season.
- Christopher Letts

4/20 - New Hamburg, HRM 67.5: Looking out at the gray Hudson, who would know that there was a river of American shad heading north to spawn, their zig-zag route allowing for acclimation to salinity, water temperature, and the flow of the current? Without the collective memory of seasons past, hundreds of years of commercial and subsistence fishermen reaching back into prehistory, their passage might go unnoticed.
- Tom Lake

4/20 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: I was preparing for my morning walk when a kestrel flew up from the landfill chased by three crows. The kestrel flew high with the crows in close pursuit. I could see that the kestrel was carrying prey. The falcon dropped its prey and flew off. The crows dove after the falling prey, but came up empty. A couple of minutes later I walked to the spot, wondering what I might find. What I found was a red-tailed hawk sitting on a limb, plucking a small bird, right where I judged the dropped prey would have fallen. Who knows?
- Christopher Letts

4/21 - Rhinebeck, HRM 90: A male rose-breasted grosbeak was perched in a tree just beyond my deck this morning. In the sunlight, its breast looked more like hot pink than rose. It seemed early for one to be this far north.
- Phyllis Marsteller

4/21 - Croton River, HRM 34: Half a dozen of us were hunkered down enjoying the sun but avoiding the wind. A great egret labored in from Haverstraw Bay and settled in a sunny calm spot, just about what we were doing.
- Christopher Letts

4/22 - Newcomb, HRM 302: The new arrivals at the bird feeder today were a chipping sparrow and a white-crowned sparrow. I have started to bring the feeders in at night as the deer and raccoons empty it out every evening and the search for the suet feeder in the mornings is getting bothersome. I'll stop feeding soon to avoid enticing the black bears to the yard but it is hard to see the birds searching for food during the snow flurries that we have had all week.
- Charlotte Demers

4/22 - Columbia County to Dutchess County, HRM 126-90: In the Hudson Valley, we know it is spring when we walk in the woods and find the leaves of the trout lily, sometimes called "adder's tongue" since the leaves kind of look like a serpent's tongue, sticking up out of the ground. I prefer trout lily since the speckled leaves resemble the trout that my father was so skilled at catching. Trout season opened on April 1 and it's usually about then that I find the forest floor, from Borden's Pond in Chatham to Poet's Walk in Red Hook, covered with trout lily sprouting up. Most people are attracted to their beautiful yellow flower heads that nod in the sunlight. But it's the leaves that I enjoy seeing because they remind me of trout fishing with my Dad.
- Fran Martino

4/22 - Town of Poughkeepsie: Thanks to some wonderful digital images taken by Terry Hardy we now know that the female in eagle nest NY225 is a familiar friend, N42. This is the same female that has been nesting in the Town of Wappinger NY62 nests for a decade. She was one of three nestlings fledged from a nest on the Delaware River in Sullivan County, just below Narrowsburg, in 1995. She is sixteen years old this month, middle age for an eagle in the wild. If she remains healthy, she can live to be in her 30s and produce young for another ten years or so.
- Tom Lake

4/22 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: Each spring at this time we see a variety of returning songbirds, low on energy from their flight north and in need of sustenance. It seems that you cannot put out enough seed for them. Since the conventional feeders limit the number of participants, I spread a few pounds of mixed seed along the railings of my deck. Immediately, four chipping sparrows and two purple finches joined the usual flock. An odd pair shared the thistle feeder: a red-breasted nuthatch on one side and a downy woodpecker on the other, an uncommon pairing. The fully-in-bloom magnolia, complete with goldfinches, looked like a lemon tree.
- Tom Lake

4/23 - Newcomb, HRM 302: I woke up to just under an inch of snow and sleet covering the ground. It was not a very spring-like day, with air temperatures in the high 30s. The snow/sleet slop had melted by nightfall but it was not a welcomed sight and I hoped that it was winter's last gasp. I did get a quick view of a hermit thrush flying across the road - another new arrival.
- Charlotte Demers

4/23 - Columbia County, HRM 118: We drove past the heron rookery in Hillsdale this morning. Actually, with two nests, it may not qualify as a rookery. I thought I saw birds in both nests but, being unprepared, had no binoculars. We returned later, prepared this time. The first nest had a great blue heron lying down, presumably brooding eggs in the cold drizzle. The second nest held a surprise: a Canada goose. We have never seen a Canada goose nesting in a tree, let alone twenty feet up in an abandoned heron nest. Has anyone else seen anything like this?
- Bob Schmidt, Kathy Schmidt

4/23 - Green Island, HRM 153: Heavy rain (0.8") and a strong east wind were pushing the river onto the beach. We were there to "listen" for river herring but the background noise was too much for conversation let alone the subtle rustling of fish in migration along the shoreline. There was a strong flow over the federal dam carrying Adirondack snow melt. The river was 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7.2 C).
- Tom Lake, Lance Biesele, Antonella Mastropierro

4/23 - Town of Poughkeepsie: With the revelation that the female in NY225 (N42) is the same eagle that has been nesting for ten years in the Town of Wappinger NY62 nests, a decision has been made to renumber the nest to NY62C.
- Tom Lake

[The original NY62 (NY62A) nest was built in 2001, in the top of a 100-foot-tall white pine in the Town of Wappinger. There was no incubating of eggs that first year. From 2002 through 2007 the nest produced four male and three female fledglings. In winter 2007-2008 part of the nest fell, so the eagles relocated nearby in a tuliptree (NY62B), where they nested from 2008 through 2010 with no success. I still wonder if the location was too exposed to the wind and storms. After 2010's failure, the female hung around through early winter 2010-2011 before leaving altogether. A mile north in the Town of Poughkeepsie, in another tuliptree, an unknown pair of eagles built a small nest in 2009 but did not incubate. In 2010, possibly the same pair enlarged the nest and might have begun to incubate, but the nest was abandoned by late April. It is unknown if this pair was the NY62B pair. This year a mated pair arrived in January 2011 and began to enlarge the nest. On February 28 - March 1, the female laid what we now know were two eggs. We gave the nest an official number of NY225. On or about March 31 there was a hatch; food was brought to the nest for the first time. On April 14, we confirmed that there were two nestlings. On April 22, we positively identified the female as N42, from the NY62 nests. This was her third nest in eleven years. Tom Lake.]

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