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Hudson River Almanac February 10 - February 16, 2013

OVERVIEW

A red-shouldered hawk stealing suet out of a bird feeder

The diversity of natural history sightings is somewhat limited in winter with much of the wildlife having either migrated, disappeared under the ice, or burrowed underground. As a result, the increased presence of wintering bald eagles looms larger in our daily scan of the landscape.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

2/16 - Wappinger Falls, HRM 67.5: An adult red-shouldered hawk has been stealing suet out of a bird feeder that is only a few feet from our kitchen windows. [Photo by Rich Tallman.]

- Rich Tallman

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

2/10 - West Point, HRM 52: I put on my snowshoes today and went for a walk along a stream. Along the way, I came upon small insects, snow fleas, on the snow - another sign that winter is coming to a close and spring is on the way.

- Doug Gallagher

2/10 - Newburgh, HRM 61: We stopped at the Hudson River along the Newburgh waterfront today to check on the gulls. We were not disappointed. Our best guess at the number of gulls was about 7,500 birds, riding the ice floes down to Cornwall Bay and then flying back to Newburgh to start the ride over again. The highlight was three adult lesser black-backed gulls. The number of gulls was so great that we were sure that we missed some immature lesser black-backed gulls as well.

- Curt McDermott, Clara Montenegro

2/10 - Westchester County, HRM 39: As we were snowshoeing at Blue Mountain Reservation in the Town of Cortlandt, we came upon the largest and loudest pileated woodpecker we've ever seen. Down at the river at George's Island, as the sun began to set, we counted eight immature and one adult bald eagle in the trees at Dogan Point, with several more out on ice floes.

- Andrea Schechter, Herb Chong

2/10 - Westchester County, HRM 39-35: Despite the heavy overnight snow, my kayak was able to break through a light crust of ice on the water leading to the river at George's Island. As I paddled south, I spotted two adult bald eagles perched on Oscawana Point. As I passed, one of them flew over my kayak headed for the open water.

- Stephen Butterfass

2/11 - Milan HRM 90: I saw my first red-winged blackbird today at my feeder, followed closely by a female brown-headed cowbird.

- Marty Otter

2/12 - Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 74: Driving home today I spotted three vultures riding on the wind. I stopped my car to get a better look and saw that they were black vultures. There were the first black vultures I had seen in this area. I stopped at the nearby Millbank Town Park and again the three black vultures were circling overhead as well as two red-tailed hawks that appeared to be courting. It was here that I also spotted a red-shouldered hawk perched in a tree.

- Maha Katnani

[The black vulture was virtually unknown in New York State only a few decades ago. It, like so many other southerners, moved northward. It is now fairly common in the lower Hudson Valley. At times they can outnumber the more familiar turkey vulture which, itself, preceded the black vultures in moving northward. I remember reading in Henry Hill Collins' book Wildlife of North America that you knew you were crossing the Mason-Dixon Line when you looked up and saw turkey vultures. Now, we can see them while crossing the Canadian border. Rich Guthrie]

2/12 - Wappinger Creek, HRM 67.5: With no expectations of seeing much, we drove slowly along the frozen-over Wappinger Creek tidewater. Then, between the trees, we saw them: two eagles, an adult and an immature, scavenging a dead white-tailed deer, frozen half-in and half-out of the ice.

- Tom Lake, T.R. Jackson

2/12 - Orange County, HRM 56: From the Route 9W parking lot, halfway across Storm King Mountain, we spotted two golden eagles perched on the hillside.

- Gerhard Patsch, Jesse Jaycox

2/12 - Croton-on-Hudson, HRM 35: There was a whole new crowd at the feeders this morning, a mob scene of blue jays and one red-winged blackbird. We could also hear spring peepers in the swamp nearby.

- Mimi Rosenwald

2/13 - Columbia County, HRM 122: On such a warm and sunny day, I thought I'd see some springtails dancing on the snow near the Kline Kill. Instead, I was treated to three male bluebirds that must have been able to find enough to eat during our mild winter. Maybe they were looking for springtails as well.

- Fran Martino

2/13 - Catskill, HRM 113: It was a late morning ebb tide and the current was racing downriver - a conveyor of ice in blocks and sheets, flat and on end, accompanied by a symphony of grunts, grinds, groans, and high pitched squeals. In the few open leads, a handful of common goldeneyes and greater scaup kept pace with the flow.

- Tom Lake

2/13 - North Germantown, HRM 109: In a replay of two weeks ago (see 1/29 - Chelsea) the inshore current had turned to flood while in mid-river the ebb current still raced furiously seaward. The point where they sheared was not well defined but rather a collection of ice floes rotating in place. In the backdrop were six immature bald eagles, three in the air and three in the trees across on Inbocht Bay.

- Tom Lake

2/13 - Saugerties, HRM 102: With recent "on-winters," ice fishing on tidewater has been a tricky proposition. The midday tide was near low and the ice had settled on the lower Esopus affording easy-on and easy-off. Alternating between a half-dozen holes cut in the six inches of hard ice, I hooked and landed seven yellow perch, only two of which were of a size worth keeping. Looking toward the mouth of the creek I counted seven other anglers all eagerly engaged.

- Tom Lake

2/13 - Town of Clinton, HRM 82.5: While walking in our backyard our son, Nathan, noticed a spotted salamander crawling across our snowy field (eight inches of snow). There are woodland pools nearby but we are not sure why the salamander was out in February, though it was a rather warm day (40 degrees Fahrenheit).

- The Burger Family: Sarah, Glen, Nathan, Dan, Laura Burger

2/13 - Hudson River, HRM 76-34: I took the 8:47 Metro North this morning from Poughkeepsie to Manhattan and counted a group of thirteen bald eagles half way between Beacon and Cold Spring, another group of fifteen between Garrison and Peekskill, and eight more between Peekskill and Croton. The first two groups were on a few acres of ice or perched along the shore. The total was 35 eagles, all ages, and I'm sure I missed some.

- Allan Bowdery

2/13 - Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 68: The Waterman Bird Club had a walk at Bowdoin Park today and we were fortunate enough to see a pair of adult bald eagles mating. Altogether we counted six eagles soaring overhead.

- Maha Katnani

2/13 - Newburgh, HRM 61: The gull count along the Newburgh waterfront today was estimated at 4,000 birds. They included two adult lesser black-backed gulls and a first-year Iceland gull.

- Curt McDermott

2/13 - Peekskill to Croton River, HRM 43-34: I wanted to see some eagles before the great spring "diaspora" began [wintering birds tend to start heading north by late February-early March]. Visiting four sites between China Pier in Peekskill and the mouth of the Croton River, I counted 47 eagles. Most were on the ice, flying close above it or squabbling in knots of two to five over who knows what. Adults outnumbered immature two to one. This is a savory time of year for eagle lovers. As the pulse of approaching spring beats more strongly, the birds become more interactive and so much more rewarding to the observer than eagles sitting on a perch for long periods. On one small floe off Verplanck, fourteen birds were squeezed close together. I always have to wonder, what is on the ice in all those miles of river that I cannot see.

- Christopher Letts

2/14 - New Hamburg, HRM 67.5: I've been accused of being a silly romantic when I relate stories of mated pairs of eagles "renewing their vows" in mid-February, particularly on Valentine's Day. And yet it recurs each year. Bald eagles mate for life and in the weeks before incubation begins, usually around March 1, the adults put on a show. The adult pair from eagle nest NY62 spent more than half an hour this afternoon cavorting in the air over the river in a display that could only be described as amorous.

- Tom Lake

[Eagle courtship is usually performed by breeding pairs in the days or weeks before the spring nesting season. Christopher Letts calls this aerial performance of grace and symmetry "sky dancing." Once, at Verplanck, we watched a courtship display over the river in a snow squall. Through a small break in the clouds came a shaft of sunlight and we watched that pair perform as though they were dancing on a sunbeam. On a Valentine's Day dawn at New Hamburg a decade ago, I watched a pair of eagles shadow each other over the ice with loop-de-loops and wing-touches. At the apex of a long arc in the sky they locked talons - one turned on its back in the air, the other mirrored it from above - and they went into a free-fall for more than a hundred feet before releasing and flaring out over the ice. At the climax of each acrobatic move they fell away in synchronized flight - flap-flap-glide - both wheeling and banking away in perfect form. It was like an exquisite ballet. At times they flew so close to each other that they cast only one shadow, drifting across the limestone face of Cedarcliff. Their effortless yet powerful wing beats moved them through the air as a single bird, communicating more through instinct than any utterance. Tom Lake.]

2/15 - Saratoga County, HRM 214: While conducting an eagle watch on the Hudson River near the Spier Falls dam in the Town of Moreau, we spotted two adult bald eagles. One had a transmitter antenna on it. It may have been the same eagle, banded bird E50, which I saw last year in the same tree.

- Gary Hill

[In the 1990s, DEC captured, fitted with a small radio transmitter, and released a number of wintering bald eagles in the Hudson Valley. The migration of these birds was tracked by satellite providing very detailed data of late-fall to early spring journeys from wintering locations in the Hudson Valley to breeding areas to the north and east, some as far away as northern Ontario, Quebec, and the Canadian Maritimes. The antennas and accompanying battery packs were very small and considered not to be a hindrance to the birds. However, battery life was limited and most if not all are now inactive. Tom Lake.]

2/15 - Chelsea, HRM 65.2: We counted six eagles, four adults and two immatures, out on the ice, drifting slowly upriver. Each of the six, on their own floe, was heads down and engaged in tearing up a fresh fish. These were "fish of a size," meaning they were not small white perch, eels, or bullhead catfish, the usual fare. We guessed they were gizzard shad. The eagles and fish had attracted dozens of ring-billed and black-backed gulls.

- Tom Lake, T.R. Jackson

[Gizzard shad are a favorite and readily available forage of wintering eagles. They are well known as a frequent victim of a phenomenon known as "winter kill" in the northern extent of their range. Studies have shown high mortality rates at water temperatures below 36 degrees F. Gizzard shad are not thought to be native to the Hudson River. They may have been introduced in the last half of the twentieth century either by immigration through the New York State canal system from the Midwest where they are native or inland from coastal waters. They are common in the Delaware River. J.R. Greeley of the New York State Conservation Department did not find them in the Hudson estuary during his 1936 biological survey. Tom Lake.]

2/15 - Newburgh, HRM 61: Gull numbers increased today to an estimated 10,000 birds. Floe ice made up about 65 percent of the river's surface. In late afternoon the incoming tide made conditions perfect, pulling the ice inshore with most birds on the edge of the ice. We identified an adult lesser black-backed gull and a first-year Iceland gull, possibly the same ones I saw a couple of days ago.

- Curt McDermott, Ken McDermott, Ajit Antony

2/15 - Orange County, HRM 56: Two golden eagles put on a magnificent aerial display this afternoon over Storm King Mountain and the Hudson River. I watched the eagles make several steep dives and sharp roller coaster upswings, followed by close acrobatic pairings and tumbling. The light of the setting sun and the snow-covered Hudson Highlands made for a memorable experience.

- Gerhard Patsch

2/15 - Croton River, HRM 34: It was a fantastic day, 54 degrees F and sunny. How can you beat a crystal-clear blue sky day while two adult bald eagles and one red-tailed hawk are riding the thermals overhead? And all of this as background to enjoying a walk along the Hudson River.

- Dianne Picciano

A bald eagle soaring in the blue sky with dried grass clasped in her talons

2/16 - Town of Poughkeepsie: This morning the mated pair at eagle nest NY62 was doing nest maintenance. The mating vocalizations had stopped and both were actively bringing in small twigs and dried grass. Unlike previous visits to the nest the female was now entering the nest and appeared content to just sit there. [Photo by Debra Tracy-Kral.]

- Tom McDowell

2/16 - Verplanck, HRM 40.5: I pulled over to the side of the road at Lake Meahagh to watch a beautiful adult bald eagle circle the lake twice and then head toward the Hudson.

- Susan Butterfass

2/16 - Crugers, HRM 39: I counted twelve red-winged blackbirds at the feeders this morning, a welcome sign of spring.

- Dianne Picciano

2/16 - Croton Point, HRM 35: We had a particularly nice encounter today at Croton Point. We spotted an adult bald eagle perched in a tree along the swimming beach. After a few minutes he started calling as a red-tailed hawk began its harassment. The hawk chased the eagle away and then perched on the same branch. We found the eagle again in a tree at the north point, Enoch's Neck. He took off, circled over our heads and out of sight, only to return followed by an immature. The two called and briefly interacted, grasping talons, before flying off.

- Sharon AvRutick, Joe Wallace

2/16 - Alpine, NJ, HRM 18: Twelve members the Hackensack River Canoe and Kayak Club hiked the Long Path atop the Palisades from Alpine to the State Line. The trail was packed snow, slush and mud but very passable. At Ruckman's Point we spotted a peregrine falcon flying out from the cliff top; it circled and returned to a perch at the point just north of us. After everyone got good looks at the peregrine, an immature bald eagle emerged from the woods, flew out over the peregrine and slowly circled the cliff's edge. Before the eagle was out of sight, three black vultures passed directly overhead and all landed on a common ledge about a third of the way down the cliff face. We also saw a sharp-shinned hawk, three red-tailed hawks, and multiple turkey vultures in the course of the afternoon.

- Bob Rancan, Herta Dousbout, Carole Baligh, Tom Babos, Joan Vieni

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