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Hudson River Almanac January 8 - January 15, 2012

OVERVIEW

The annual Mid-Winter Bald Eagle Census numbers confirmed what we have - or rather - have not been seeing. The lower Hudson estuary, especially the stretch from Bear Mountain Bridge south, often attracts eagles in winter as it remains largely ice-free while smaller and more northerly water bodies freeze over. Given this winter's mildness to date, the birds have not had to travel too far south to find open water. Spring flowers were poking up, late-winter snowdrops were out and by most accounts we could use a good winter snowstorm.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

1/11 - Staten Island, New York City: Persistence pays. It was my sixth or seventh visit to a woodland that simply "smelled" of orchids, but had offered me nothing but pleasant woodland walks until today. Even I was beginning to doubt my suspicions until I noted an odd seed head emerging from the thick oak duff. The reward for my perseverance was a lovely group of rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens), the leaves of the plant bundled up under a blanket of forest litter. Previously undocumented for this area of the island, it is the largest group I've seen within New York City.

- Dave Taft

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

1/8 - Ulster Landing, HRM 97: Geo-caching with the kids in Ulster Landing Park was made difficult by the many downed trees from August's tropical storm Irene still blocking the trails. The unseasonably warm weather was nice for walking but all of us picked up deer ticks that were still active.

- Steven H. Schimmrich

[Geocaching is a real-world, outdoor treasure hunting game using GPS-enabled devices. Participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find the "geocache" (container) hidden at that location - think high-tech Easter egg hunt. Tom Lake.]

1/8 - Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 67.5: Heading home we spied a small raptor sitting on a wire over the road near Wappinger Creek. We circled back for two more passes to be certain. Sure enough, it was a female merlin, intermittently scoping the creek and the road. Her diminutive size didn't fool us; we knew we were looking at a skilled and fierce hunter.

- Donna Lenhart, Bill Lenhart

1/8 - Mid-Hudson Valley: Our Bald Eagle Night Roost Survey numbers were low with only 27 birds counted at six roost sites. Recent years have usually produced 60-100 eagles in early January; our record low was just 4 birds in 2007. No doubt the mild conditions have allowed the eagles to remain dispersed across the landscape.

- Ed McGowan

1/8 - Croton Point, HRM 35: For three days there have been ice chunks stranded on or floating just off the north shore of Croton Point. They were becoming fewer and smaller with the passing days. The first day there were more than 100, a few the size of a dining room table and weighing several hundred pounds. What was their origin? How far did they have to drift to make landfall here? I have seen no other ice anywhere in the estuary this season.

- Christopher Letts

[Ice tends to form first in quiet tributaries, still-water marshes, and backwaters. When warmer air temperatures loosen the icy grip, the ebb tide current draws the ice out into the mainstem river. Tom Lake.]

1/8 - Manhattan, HRM 8: Walking north to exit the park at 103rd Street, we spotted a juvenile red-tailed hawk sitting totally exposed on a low branch of a leafless tree, feasting on whatever it had caught and killed - reckless youth!

- Ettie Shapiro

1/8 - Queens, New York City: Cleaning up our coop in Forest Hills that we had not actively lived in for some time, a large lump of "something" caught my eye. The lump was affixed to an elaborate card that my wife had made for me before we were married. Taking it down from the shelf I discovered a large mud dauber wasp nest clinging to the upper back page. How and when these wasps had gotten into the apartment to create it, and where they got the mud to fly up to the seventh floor through our window, remains a mystery. I took the nest to a window and, with a paint scraper, scraped it from the card, chiseling my way in. Within was a strange story: Several chambers held dried wasp remains that seemed not to have made it to maturity. But one, a straw-colored three-quarter-inch larva, was still wriggling, though weakly. Later, as we left, we happened to look up just in time to spot a peregrine falcon fold its wings and stoop, ever so briefly, before losing sight of the bird behind a neighboring building.

- Dave Taft, Debbie Morrison

1/9 - Schodack Island, HRM 135: On my drive home from work this morning, I counted six bald eagles along Route 9J. There were three pairs of adults from the beginning of the Schodack Island inlet to just north of Schodack Island. The first pair were swooping low and harassing a flock of about 50 common mergansers. The mergansers would dive as soon as the eagles got close, and it was difficult to tell if the raptors were trying to get the mergansers or the fish that the ducks had caught. There was a second pair perched in a tree along the road further along and another pair across the river, perched just north of Schodack Island. I see at least one pair many mornings when I am coming home but this is the first time I had three separate pairs. Also, for the first time ever, there was a bluebird at my feeders in Slingerlands (river mile 145).

- Steve Mesick

1/9 - New Hamburg, HRM 67.5: The Hudson was so slick - not a ripple on the river - that a small raft of canvasbacks (20+ birds) looked like waterfowl decoys. After looking up my notes I discovered that these were the first I'd seen at New Hamburg in 26 years.

- Tom Lake, TR Jackson

1/9 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: Full moon rise can be spectacular on cold winter nights and this evening's was no exception. The moon looked larger and closer, with its surface features in greater relief than I had seen in many years. A flock of Canada geese flew toward the horizon, nearly eclipsing the moon.

- Tom Lake

1/9 - Bear Mountain, HRM 46: I was walking behind the Historical Museum of the Trailside Museums this morning to unlock the gate for the trail to Fort Montgomery when a familiar, loud and repetitive screeching came to me from near the Bear Mountain Bridge. Against the backdrop of the Hudson River Highlands and the sky, I was able to pick out the peregrine falcon as it came into view above the suspended roadway in the foreground. After a minute or so of furious zipping through a succession of wide arcs, it broke off, circled overhead and then climbed for the top of the west tower. It seamlessly stalled to a landing on the north support cable. Still vocalizing, it perched facing south. Directly across from it on the south support cable was another peregrine falcon. I rubbed my eyes. Yes, they were both still there. Not bad for a Monday!

- Christopher O'Sullivan

1/10 - New Baltimore, HRM 131.5: I spotted three bald eagles this morning: one adult; one immature, and one of unknown age (too distant to tell).

- Rich Guthrie

1/10 - Mid-Hudson Valley, HRM 70-45: The thermometer read 31 degrees Fahrenheit at dawn for the thirty-fourth annual New York State Mid-Winter Bald Eagle Census. The sky was overcast and viewing conditions for eagles appeared to be perfect, if any were there.

Brockway, HRM 62: From Balmville, just north of Newburgh, we found one adult perched in a hardwood at Brockway directly across the river just north of Beacon. While Brockway was a brick-making factory in the nineteenth century, it has been abandoned for nearly a hundred years and nature has reclaimed the area.

Beacon, HRM 60.5: From the Newburgh waterfront we were able to spot two adults perched in a stark white sycamore across the river at the head of Denning's Point. While looking for eagles, a black scoter took off from the river no more than 200 feet away and flew south.

By the end of our circuit, 50 miles of shoreline, the air temperature had reached 49 degrees and it felt like early April. There was not an ounce of winter "urgency" in the air for these birds. The three adult eagles were likely residents, with nests only a few minutes flight from where they were sighted.

- Tom Lake, Akiko Busch

1/10 - Haverstraw Bay-Tappan Zee, HRM 44-33: For the fourteenth year, I covered the east bank of the lower estuary for the annual DEC Mid-Winter Bald Eagle Census. Completing the end-of-count paperwork was easy this year: no snow, no ice, and only one eagle across eleven miles of shoreline. The count for the season to date: nine birds. I'm pretty sure that these are all local birds from our local breeding pairs. A lot of people are eagerly waiting for the northern wintering population, but there is nothing encouraging on the horizon. With no frost in the ground, spring flowers pushing up, and fresh road-killed raccoons, possums, and skunks every night, the impetus for more northerly birds to move into the lower Hudson Valley just isn't there.

- Christopher Letts.

1/10 - Croton-on-Hudson, HRM 35: As I was walking to the train station, an immature bald eagle flew only fifteen feet over my head as it traveled south toward the confluence of the Croton and Hudson rivers. It had a mottled body with a mostly white head and the classic stiff-winged flap.

- Hugh L. McLean

1/11 - Mohawk River to the Tappan Zee, HRM 159-34: Rough numbers for the 125-mile reach from the Mohawk/Hudson River confluence down to Croton Point on our January 9 flyover was about 30 eagles. Our count for the entire day was low. Eagles this year are still quite dispersed throughout the state. I am getting reports from places this time of year that I would not expect.

- Glenn Hewitt, NYSDEC

1/12 - Furnace Woods, HRM 38.5: I have mentioned the unseasonal appearance of some spring flower shoots such as daffodils, tulips, and crocus. Yesterday, my wife pointed out to me that some iris shoots were up several inches. Still, it was shocking this morning to see small clusters of snowdrops blooming at the back door, and hundreds more poking up an inch or two.

- Christopher Letts

1/13 - Wappinger Falls, HRM 68: There were four American coot on Wappinger Lake today. I stopped by the lake to see what was still around among the whitecaps and waves and spotted the coot. There also were some common mergansers, mute swans, and a small group of mallards on the lake.

- Terry Hardy

[The American coot is a member of the rail family (Gallinule). Rather than webbed feet, they have lobed toes that open and fold when the coot is paddling in the water. They are duck-like, can dabble like a mallard and dive like a bufflehead, yet they are not ducks. They swim well underwater, a strategy that frequently allows them to evade bald eagles. They once nested on Long Island but nearly disappeared from there as a breeder after the mid 1980s. They do nest in the wildlife refuges in western New York such as Montezuma. They winter in ice-free ponds, lakes and rivers of the Mid-Atlantic including the Hudson. They have stately black plumage, a distinct ivory white bill, and shiny red eyes. Rich Guthrie.]

1/13 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: A cold front was moving through and high wind warnings were up for the Hudson Valley and most of southeast New York. By mid-afternoon, the down tide had begun and the ebb current was met by stiff westerlies to 35 mph. A small raft of black ducks well offshore began to intermittently disappear in the troughs of chop-turned-to-waves.

- Tom Lake

1/13 - Furnace Woods, HRM 38.5: When I left for a walk before sunrise, the thermometer read 52 degrees. Feeder activity was sparse. Less than three hours later it was down to 37 and a wild west wind had come up, accompanied by snow squalls. The feeders were now mobbed, every seat taken. I counted 15 species and dozens of birds.

- Christopher Letts

1/14 - Tivoli South Bay, HRM 99: A near blowout tide had much of the bottom exposed at midday. The low sun glistened off the thin skim of ice that coated the mud while a dozen gulls worked the soft edge around the deep inlet pool in front of the railroad bridge. It's been hard to build enough ice to walk, skate, or sail on in the bay this winter- there is no water to be frozen for half the tidal cycle no matter how cold it gets, while the incoming river temperature is still above freezing and slowly erodes away what little ice forms during the previous cycle.

- John A Sperr

1/14 - Wappinger Creek, HRM 67.5: Yesterday's high winds created today's blowout tide in Wappinger Creek. The mile-and-a-quarter-long tidewater reach seemed barely wet at the mid-morning low tide. The mud flats were covered with ice and the tide pools were frozen.

- Tom Lake

[The Almanac finds "blowout tides" to be a compelling phenomenon. We encourage readers to send us their observations of these infrequent yet often impressive events, during which the estuarine shallows seem to be drained away. We're also interested in stories of the opposite phenomenon - unusually high tides caused by coastal storm surge. Tom Lake.]

1/15 - Germantown, HRM 108: Late this morning we had a very brief glimpse of a mammal in our driveway. This was almost the exact spot where I saw a bobcat last November. In the excitement of the moment, I hurriedly took a picture. It was a fisher.

- Cynthia Reichman

[Fishers are our largest weasel, reaching over forty inches in length. While they are seen periodically in the Catskills and Adirondacks, they are uncommon in the Mid-Hudson Valley. While the name of this fur bearer suggests an aquatic habitat and diet, they actually much prefer dense forests and porcupines. One of the colloquial names for fisher is fisher-cat. Other weasels in our area include the least, shorttail and longtail weasels as well as mink, river otter, striped skunk, and - in the Adirondacks - marten. The fisher has re-established populations in other parts of the state outside the Adirondack Park; many reported sightings of black panthers have been confirmed as fishers. A stuffed fisher on display at the former Adirondack Park Visitors Interpretive Center in Newcomb was huge, originally a 19 lb. animal. Ellen Rathbone.]

1/15 - Tivoli South Bay, HRM 99: The thermometer dropped to 4 degrees F this morning and the mud flats were now fully coated with a half-inch of fresh ice. In the south end of the bay, I was finally able to venture out across the frozen beach onto the new ice for a few pictures. The soft sediments brought in by Irene and Lee had yet to decompose and consolidate, so the ice was like a rink that had been built on a 6" thick foam pad. Navigating the thicker areas of clear ice proved to be the route of choice; however, if I slowed my pace or paused to glance in my viewfinder, the thin layers of weaker white shell ice quickly cracked and oozed into the soggy half frozen mush. Back at the top of the hill, the local breeding pair of bald eagles was soaring 1500 feet overhead, executing an aerial love tango. They will probably be sitting on eggs in six weeks.

- John A Sperr

1/15 - Oscawana Point, HRM 38.5: This was the coldest day of the year. When we left to search for eagles, it was 19 degrees F and the river was dark gray and covered with whitecaps. We'd been looking for bald eagles at Oscawana for the last month, since this is one of their favorite spots, but hadn't seen any. Today we spotted a large, dark silhouette against the blue sky on a limb out on the point - finally! It was an immature eagle, almost eclipsed to its adult plumage. Hopefully, this is the start of the influx of eagles from the north that we eagerly await each winter.

- Dorothy Ferguson, Bob Ferguson


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