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Hudson River Almanac July 16 - July 23, 2011

OVERVIEW

This was a week in which record high air temperatures were juxtaposed with a visit by a gray seal, a marine mammal far more common along the cold water coast of the Canadian Maritimes.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

7/21 - Fort Montgomery, HRM 46.5: I was kayaking in the river with my brother when a sturgeon came out of the water about six boat lengths away. Sometimes you catch them out of the corner of your eye, see something in the distance, or hear the splash, but I have never seen one like this - pure luck. I estimated the fish at about four feet long - probably an Atlantic sturgeon - as it came straight up out of the water. There was no arc to the jump; it went straight up and then fell back down. All this time on the river and I'd never seen anything like that.
- Scott Craven

[In terms of evolution, sturgeons are very ancient. They belong to a group of cartilaginous fishes whose ancestry dates back several hundred million years. One of their unusual behavioral traits is a predilection for jumping out of the water, similar to the breaching behavior common among large marine mammals. Sturgeon can leap several feet out of the water and then land with a large and loud splash. There are Hudson River records of sturgeon leaping and landing in canoes and fishing boats. While drift-netting for American shad twenty years ago, Chris Lake and I had a four-footer leap, land on the gunwale of our boat, teeter, and then topple back into the river. Why they leap is a mystery. It may be a way to rid themselves of external parasites or to take in air to fill their swim bladder. Biologists are unsure. This area of the Hudson Highlands, from West Point south to Bear Mountain, is thought to be a summer nursery for Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon. Tom Lake.]

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

7/16 - Staatsburg, HRM 86: I was outside early this week, painting. Being out for a few hours every morning gave me some insight into patterns in the natural world that I wouldn't normally get. Perhaps the most interesting is that every morning, just after 7:00 AM, a pair of great blue herons fly over Staatsburg heading southwest in the general direction of Norrie Point. They are definitely a pair, as they "grok" quietly back and forth; when the one in the lead changes course, the one following makes the same change. Our cliff swallows have mostly fledged. Last week there was constant feeding at all seven nests, with much twittering from the nestlings. Today there was feeding activity at only two nests. I saw a house sparrow carrying nesting material into one of the empty nests.
- David Lund

7/16 - Ulster County, HRM 78: It was a great day on the Millbrook Mountain overlook. There was seemingly an endless stream of turkey and black vultures parading back and forth both above and below us with an occasional raven fly-by. Then a peregrine falcon showed up, selected a black vulture seemingly at random, and dived on it until it was forced into the trees way below us. Why would an animal that lives on a thin line of energy expenditure versus energy consumption waste time on what looked like something that wasn't necessary? I have never understood this.
- Scott Craven

[Ravens and crows seem to find much recreational value in these theatrics. Being more maneuverable, they also pester because they can. Tom Lake.]

7/16 - Poughkeepsie, HRM 74: I went into the backyard an hour after dark to look at the stars and heard my first katydid of the season, that sublime scratching sound of summer. Adding a bass bullfrog croaking from a pond off in the distance in the wakeful hours at 2:00 AM on a sweltering night, and the chorus filled the room.
- John Mylod

7/16 - Kowawese, HRM 59: This is a sample of poetry from sixth graders Vail's Gate Tech Magnet School from a field trip taken in February 2011. The poems were entered in a River of Words competition and just now have become available. The ice is gone, the students have moved on, but the spirit of their words linger.
- Tom Lake

__The Wind__
I hear the crow peck on the ice,
Underneath, the water moves quickly.
The wind blows through the trees, making a sound like leaves crumbling in your hand.
Suddenly a rush of wind hits my face,
My cheeks are red as a rose.
As a cold chill runs down my back,
I finally see the beauty.
- Cassidy Gotay

7/16 - Cortlandt, HRM 38: As we were driving along, we were surprised to see a great egret on the rocks at the edge of Colabaugh Pond. Its neck was fully extended as it looked out over the pond. We've seen great blue herons there before, but never an egret.
- Dorothy Ferguson, Bob Ferguson

7/16 - Haverstraw Bay, HRM 37: The salt front was moving farther upriver as the River Summer group headed downriver. We did a final trawl and our net scooped eels, white perch, Atlantic tomcod, hogchoker, small catfish, blue crabs and a mix of Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon, promptly released.
- Margie Turrin, Tim Kenna, River Summer team from Module 2

7/17 - Millbrook, HRM 82: A black bear, apparently an adult - he stood all of six feet tall - meandered through our yard today as though on a mission. His destination may have been the many ripe berry patches in the area.
- William Jackson

7/17 - Crugers, HRM 39: We decided to check out Ogilvie's Pond for the resident great blue heron. Instead, however, we were treated to the sight of a juvenile great blue as it flew into a clear patch of water near the edge of the pond. With no visible crest and stripes down its chest, it stood very still and eventually picked off an insect that flew too close.
- Dorothy Ferguson, Bob Ferguson

7/18 - Red Hook, HRM 96.5: In the dim evening light, a large shadow glided across the pond to land above my house. As it grew darker, the trees erupted with screeching whistles. With flashlights in hand, my family and I lit up the trees. Perched atop the TV antenna was a young barred owl. After a while it flew back to a limb to join two siblings. All three perched side-by-side practicing the juvenile whistling screech soon to be an adult hoot. We first noticed the silhouettes and whistles last evening. We will be ready tonight to see if there are more; I suspect there may be a total family of five.
- Erin Millus

7/18 - Wappinger Creek, HRM 67.5: I searched inland over the first mile of tidewater and counted seven great blue herons, four great egrets, two green herons, and one black-crowned night heron perched over, on, or in the incredibly thick mats of water chestnut. The only open water, a narrow band, snaked downstream in what still passes for a channel.
- Tom Lake

7/18 - Croton Point, HRM 35-34: In the oppressive heat and humidity, my morning hikes have not been very productive. My "bird of the day?" Probably a house wren, or maybe the rooster down the street.
- Christopher Letts

7/19 - Hyde Point, HRM 82: I have been watching a seal in the river hanging out around my boat, seeming to be playful, even friendly.
- Robert Sage

7/19 - Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 68.5: On a hike near the river in Bowdoin Park, an adult coyote chased two smaller ones into the brush as I inadvertently came within their fight-or-flight distance - maybe 200 feet. The pups were somewhat reluctant to leave, not yet fully aware of the danger that humans represent.
- Tom Lake

7/20 - Hyde Park, HRM 82: The seal was hauled out this morning on the rocks. Boat club members think it is a harbor seal and some have named it "Harbie."
- Robert Sage

[Upon investigation, it was identified as an immature male gray seal. Since gray seals are rare in the estuary, positive identification was made primarily by the process of elimination. Among the relatively common seals we see, it was apparent that it was not a harbor seal, nor a harp seal or hooded seal. The color of its coat, light chocolate brown with white splotches, indicated a male (females tend to be more silvery with dark splotches), and the small size indicated it to be a juvenile. Examination of digital photos by Kim Durham of The Riverhead Foundation provided confirmation. Tom Lake.]

[To report a marine mammal sighting, call The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation's 24-hour Hotline, (631) 369-9829.]

7/20 - Cornwall, HRM 57: In the treetops, a band of three or four katydids was heard tuning up on this summertime evening.
- Bob Kakerbeck

7/21 - Albany, HRM 145: According to an Internet search, I had a dead cicada killer wasp in my hand. I was walking around the track at University Heights when I found it on the ground. This was the biggest wasp I had ever seen (female cicada killer wasps can reach at least 50 millimeters [mm] in length). I tucked it into a large plastic test tube with some ethanol to preserve it.
- Larry Roth

7/21 - Town of Knox, Albany County, HRM 143: This morning we had the great pleasure of watching a great blue heron standing on a large flat rock at the near edge of our pond 45 feet from the back of our home. After standing quite still for at least 10 minutes, the bird lunged and came up with an eight-inch-long catfish. It then spent the next 15 minutes tossing the fish about in its bill, while wandering off to get away from the flock of 15 Canada geese that walked through the raised-bed garden area for some practice flying lessons in the pond. Finally, the heron got the fish oriented properly and swallowed it, thereby providing an early morning feast that must have lasted most of the day.
- Pat and Bob Price

7/21 - Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 68.5: On a sultry morning we were looking for a breeze off the river and finding none. At 8:00 AM it was already in the mid-80s (it would later reach 97 degrees Fahrenheit). Without a sound, TR pointed skyward over my shoulder. There, in the top of a tamarack, not 100 feet away, was an immature bald eagle. It seemed a very odd choice; tamaracks are not thought of as good "eagle trees" as they are not well suited for perching. This was likely one of the two newly fledged birds from the nearby eagle nest (NY62C).
- Tom Lake, TR Jackson

[Eagle trees are easy to spot, even when eagles are not in them. They are large, open canopy trees, like cottonwoods, oaks, tuliptrees, sycamores, and white pines, on or near the river or a tributary, with a view of the water. Some of them have large horizontal limbs that make perfect feeding perches. Many are in sheltered locations, out of the prevailing wind, with a sunny exposure. The formula for a good eagle tree is "easy in, easy out." White pines are favored as night roosts in winter as their foliage affords shelter from the wind. Tom Lake.]

7/22 - Saw Kill, HRM 98.5: We checked out the eel ladder on the Saw Kill today (no eels). We did find a large ichneumon wasp that had drowned in our bucket and a large wolf spider quite alive. The ichneumon wasp body was 45 mm long with a 98 mm long black ovipositor. The wasp was quite brightly colored in oranges, reds, and blacks. With a little effort, we found that the wasp was a giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa mutator), a native and supposedly common species. It parasitizes wood-boring larvae of the pigeon horntail, another native wasp that attacks dead or dying tree branches.
- Bob Schmidt

7/22 - Hyde Park, HRM 82: I arrived early and found the gray seal swimming in the slough between the floating docks of the Rogers Point Boat Club and shoreline rip-rap. After a while it hauled out on a rock; he appeared to be about five feet long, 70-75 lb, and fine physically (males can reach 10 feet and weigh 880 lb). Unlike the head of a harbor seal with a flat "puppy dog" look, the gray seal has a "hang dog" expression, and a longer snout not unlike a golden retriever. He settled in for the time and tide and the best I could do was leave him alone.
- Tom Lake

[The gray seal's scientific name is Halichoerus grypus. The genus name translates from Greek as "sea pig," an odd label for such a handsome animal. Although a variation of its specific name (grypos) is sometimes translated from Latin as "hook-nosed," the more accurate "grypus" translates as "half lion-half eagle," a much more fitting description. Tom Lake.]

7/22 - Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 75: Although in several areas the air temperature reached 101 degrees F, the official air temperature was 97 degrees, a record high for the date. The old record was 96.
- National Weather Service

7/22 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: At 6:30 AM it was it was already 85 degrees F in the shade and oppressive in the sun. With nary a red-tailed hawk, great horned owl, or coyote in sight, we watched four cottontail rabbits hop around the edge of the woodlands, even daring to dash out into the dew-damp grass for a quick feed. We had not seen cottontails at all for as long as we could remember. This late spring they showed up. When I was a child, there seemed to be many more of them. It could be another result chalked up to habitat loss, or a cycle of abundance and scarcity based on predator density.
- Tom Lake, TRJackson

7/22 - Cortlandt, HRM 38: It was late afternoon on the hottest day of the year as we visited Colabaugh Pond hoping to get another glimpse of the great egret that we had seen there last week. Not only was the egret there, perched on the same branch over the pond, but a great blue heron was standing in the water a few feet away. Neither seemed to mind the scorching heat as they stood, motionless, quietly surveying the water.
- Dorothy Ferguson, Bob Ferguson

7/22 - Manhattan, HRM 5: The air temperature reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit today, with a heat index of 115 (factoring the relative humidity into the air temperature to arrive at what it truly "feels" like). The old record was 101.
- National Weather Service

7/23 - Hyde Park, HRM 82: During the hour I watched, the gray seal foraged along the shallows among the beds of wild celery looking for prey. While I could not see what he may have been catching, I did glimpse several catfish, possibly a few white perch, and several sunfish darting away in his wake.
- Tom Lake

[The list of Hudson River marine mammals is lengthy and includes seals, dolphins, porpoises, and even a one-time visit from a manatee in summer 2006. Among the seals we've recorded in the estuary - harbor, hooded and harp seals - the overwhelming majority of sightings, perhaps as high as 98%, are harbor seals, with Almanac records as far upriver as Albany (river mile 145). The only previous gray seal report for the Hudson was in March 2004 in the Upper Bay of New York Harbor under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. That is not to say that have not been others. It is possible that some Hudson River gray seals have been mistakenly identified as harbor seals. Tom Lake.]

7/23 - Pleasant Valley, HRM 75: This morning I glanced at the bird feeder to see a solid black squirrel feeding on seeds. I wonder if it's the same one I saw last summer? He did not seem to be around all winter. It was a nice change from the numerous gray squirrels.
- Kathy Kraft

[Black squirrels - the scientific term is melanistic - are genetic variants of the eastern gray squirrel. Biologists have suggested that black squirrels may have a selective advantage over gray squirrels due to increased cold tolerance. While they are not particularly rare, it is estimated that only about one in 10,000 gray squirrels is melanistic. Tom Lake.]

7/23 - Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 75: The air temperature reached 101 degrees Fahrenheit today, a record high for the date.
- National Weather Service

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