Sunday, February 20, 2011

Strictly For the Birds

February 1 and  2, 2011
Close to Home

If the race had never lived through a winter,
what would they think was coming?

HDT Journal, 1850

On the last day of January, I took a short walk along the river on the Betar Path. It was so cold that tears were streaming down my cheeks, though the air itself was still.
There's no way I could have been more bundled up, and still able to walk. We are usually experiencing a January thaw by now – where is it?

The little brooks that cross the path were still in the icy jaws of winter, as was the River, which has thawed and refrozen several times now.

It was the sort of day to walk briskly, just to avoid freezing in place. Stopping at a river overlook, I turned to face the sun, and became a windowsill cat, happy to feel the sun.

 The forecast for the next two days was for a large winter storm to come barreling up from the south.

With that in mind, I went a-walking on that cold – but sunny ! – day.

Not much company today on the path -- not even the usual dog-walkers. (and windowsill cats are smart enough to have trained humans to set up litter-boxes !)

Not a good day for a picnic, either.

So I strode along, swinging arms and legs, knowing I’d be hobbled indoors for the next day or two.


The first day of February began with dark clouds and freezing-rain.
“A louring sky,” Thoreau would have called it. The day was more dreary than bad, but this was just the precursor to the bigger storm.

The radio and tv had been blatting about it constantly, calling the coming storm a “potential snow-i-cane.” As if we had never seen a snowstorm before.

“Oh, all that hype is strictly for the birds,” my Mom would say.

(I had never thought twice about this frequent family expression, but here’s some interesting history on it.)

Speaking of the birds, we were concerned about them finding food on this sleety day and the days to follow.

Mom and I been putting out suet for the birds on our little apartment balcony, and leftover popcorn when we have it. We’re not supposed to have bird feeders, according to my lease, but we can’t resist hanging one little suet cage in the winter. The birds who visit us provide endless entertainment. We call it The Bird Channel.

Today we had nothing but odd leftover pieces of various loaves of bread – so I came up with an experiment, to while away the time indoors.

It was not especially scientific.
(hey, it’s been many moons since Biology 101)
(and I was a Fine Arts Major, anyway).
There were tons of variables (noted in retrospect) that were not accounted for.

But here’s what I did – I put out samples of three types of bread, cut into small squares:

Hannaford in-store bakery marble rye

Panera sourdough,

And Arnold country oat bread.

[Let it be hereby noted that I did not, nor shall ever receive, any payments or compensation of any kind for the perceived avian endorsements or pseudoscientific analysis to follow.]

There was a lull in the precipitation, and so I popped out onto the balcony, and set out the specimens.

Which sample would be consumed first?

The hardy juncos – true snowbirds – stood before these offerings for a while, deciding. Perhaps the pieces were too large for them.

Down swooped a bluejay, who had no problem loading up five pieces at a time and jetting back to the woods’ edge.

After only ten minutes, it was apparent that the Hannaford bread just wasn’t cuttin’ it with any of the birds.

Quite unscientifically, I changed the position of the samples, thinking that the position relative to the usual food source might be affecting the results.

Nope. Same trend continued.

The Panera was gone in about 20 minutes.
The Arnold came in second,
and the Hannaford bread was still there an hour and a half later,
when the snow began to come down in earnest
And some visiting sparrows decided they’d rather have the good ol’ suet.

Draw your own conclusions. Birds, after all, have different food preferences than we do.
But I know which bread I’ll be buying more regularly in the future…

Friday, February 11, 2011

The January Sunsets

January 30, 2011
Ice Meadows on Hudson River

Today I went with Jackie and Marie upriver to the Ice Meadows. They are marvelous places to explore and botanize in the summer, but it’s this time of year that they earned their name. For here is where the combination of terrain, waterflow and climate all combine to allow formation of frazil ice.

I’m still not exactly sure what it is; it’s a type of ice that flows like a liquid and seems to congeal and break up at a whim. Unfortunately, I was about 2 weeks too late to see the fresh crop of it this year. It has snowed heavily since then. Still, you could see the wrinkles and folds in the river created by this frazil backing up and reflowing.

The trail there is well-trodden at this time of year, making snowshoeing fairly easy.

Unless you try bushwacking it out to the river's edge...

Marie came along because one of her archaeology buddies had sent her a pretty cool video about frazil ice. (google "Yosemite Frazil" to find it on YouTube.)

We all made another stop upriver at The Glen, where we walked out on a bridge where the road crosses the Hudson. Here is the Frazil Factory of the river.

The bridge vibrated as Sunday ski-traffic went whizzing by, and I didn’t linger there!

Later on, Jackie and I rode north, looking for other river vantage points. Clouds came in, the road began to whiten, and we were running out of daylight.  I suggested we head back. We pulled over onto a side road to turn around.

The first unusual sight was a phone booth. Wow, haven’t seen one in so long … must record for posterity …

Across the street was a small lane. It led down to what looked like a millpond.

All at once, the sun came out, though snow was still falling –
without a word,

we both jumped out of the car and walked down the lane,
cameras in hand.

It was a charming sight. We stood on a much smaller bridge this time,
no cars whizzing by,
just the sound of snowflakes falling.

After some time just gazing at this scene, we headed home.
Even from the Northway, the sunset was something to behold.

Jackie was snapping photos out the windshield
while I gamely kept the car between the lines,
catching only glimpses of the colors of the west.

The sunsets, I think, are now particularly interesting.
The colors of the west seem more than unusually warm,
perhaps by contrast with this simple snow-clad earth
over which we look and the clear cold sky, --
a sober but extensive redness,
almost every night passing into a dun.

There is nothing to distract our attention from it.
…The January Sunsets.

HDT Journal, January 11, 1856

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The White-Headed Eagle

January 28, 2011
Moreau Lake State Park

I bought me a spy-glass some weeks since... I buy but few things, and those not till long after I begin to want them, so that when I do get them I am prepared to make a perfect use of them and extract their whole sweet.

HDT Journal, April 10, 1854

[Note: Thoreau had worked himself up to spend the princely sum of eight dollars for this spy-glass.]

I think I have got the worth of my glass
now that it has revealed to me the white-headed eagle.

Journal, April 23, 1854

For a few months in winter, Moreau Park participates in a weekly Eagle Watch. It takes about 2 hours to make 4 or 5 stops along the Hudson River and make 10-minute observations at each spot. Results are reported to the DEC. The state agency has been tracking these birds, which come down from Canada at this time of year. When the northern rivers starting freezing up, the eagles come south, to fish here at open spots on the river near the dams.

It’s a Friday morning activity that is a good way to get outdoors in winter, although it involves a lot of standing still, which on a cold day can be pretty chilling. Sometimes no one signs up, sometimes there a big crowd. Gary, the park naturalist, usually leads these watches. I’ve been tagging along for several years, going when I can.

One time it was just me and Gary, standing in cold cold rain along the river’s edge, scanning the sky in vain. Another time, twenty people showed up, endured the two-hour stint, and saw no birds of ANY kind. That's when you realize that one of the requirements for any naturalist is lots and lots of patience.
Today was cold and overcast, yet a fairly enthusiastic bunch showed up.
We start at Sherman Island Boat Launch, one of my favorite views of the river, any time of year.

At other stops nearer the dam, we observed black ducks, mallards and mergansers, sporting fearlessly in the wide-open water. Here’s Mary checking the treeline. You have to look carefully since all the trees have snow in the branches that could be the "white-headed eagle."  Hmm, no eagles here either.

It’s usually at the last stop, Spier Falls Boat Launch, that we see an eagle. We were cold and tired, and about to call it a day.

Suddenly Mary (henceforth to be known as Eagle-Eye Mary), asked me to look waaaaay upriver, to confirm something she had spotted. With my small binocs, I saw, perched in the farthest pine along the farthest shore as the river bent to the left, a tiny blob topped with white. It was indeed an eagle ! (You'll have to click to enlarge this photo, which was taken at full zoom on my camera.)

I have no idea how she saw it in the first place. The rest of us checked it out after Gary set up the spotting scope. THEN it was definite.

The observers were jumping for joy, even to see this tiny vision so far away.

On the way back along the river road, we saw another eagle rise up from the river ice, and perch in a maple across the river. So that made it a two-eagle day.

It’s a thrill that never gets old. There’s always someone along who has never seen one before. And I realize how lucky we are to see them so regularly. When I was growing up, they were considered almost extinct in the lower 48.


On one particular Watch a few years ago, we had seen an eagle across the river on a beautiful sunny day, but I could not get a good photo of it. Man was I frustrated. Gary would have liked some “evidence” of our sighting. So later that day, I sent Gary this "improved" photo – of what it feels like when you see one – even though in reality, it was just a tiny speck. He laughed for a long time when he saw it. Huzzah for PhotoShop !