Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Natural History Along the Hudson River

For several years I have been a contributor to the Hudson River Almanac, a publication put out by the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Hudson River Estuary Program that follows the changes of the seasons all along the 315 miles of the Hudson River, from its headwaters here in Essex County to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s an impressive collection of natural history observations made by scientists and laypeople alike. For a naturalist, this is a fascinating journal. If these waters could talk, what a tale they could tell!

Spring and summer arrive downstate much sooner than they do in the High Peaks, and one can follow their journey in the entries of the Almanac. The disparity of the extremes at each end of the river is reflected in these classic examples, one day apart, from May 2000 (HRM = Hudson River Mile):

5/6 Calamity Brook, HRM 306-311: On a cloudy afternoon, 63°F with sprinkles, our group of Hudson Headwaters Hikers started up the trial from the Tahawus Upper Works Trail head. We passed the outlet from Henderson Lake, running fast, high and 46°F. One hundred yards down stream the outlet joins Calamity Brook and the Hudson begins by name. The highest pond source is Lake Tear-of-the-Clouds, at 4,346 feet above sea level, and our destination nine miles up the trail. A mile up the trail at the first footbridge, the water temperature had dropped to 42°F. A little further at the second bridge it was 39°F and we encountered our first signs of ice and snow on the trail. By the time we had reached Calamity Pond, another few miles ahead, the water temperature at the ice-covered edge had fallen to 36°F. Here, at an elevation of 2,500 feet, the trail was totally covered with snow and ice, but there was a warm breeze and we could hear the songs of white-throated sparrows, chickadees, and the call of ravens…
– Doug Reed and Students (studying water quality of the Hudson River)

5/7 Croton Point, HRM 34: By midday the air temperature was 92°F. Orioles were everywhere, singing and flashing color. Aldo Leopold described the oriole’s flash as “like a burst of fire.” – Tom Lake

Likewise, fall and winter arrive first in the North Country. Already we have had over two inches of snow at our elevation of 1,650 feet, and the mountain tops have had even more. Yet down in the lowlands the days remain mild. Here are a couple entries from October 2009:

10/1 Newcomb, HRM 302: We awoke to snow on the ground this morning. Not much, but it was still coming down at 8:30 AM. Large leaves and flower heads had a dusting of white, as did the pile of firewood out in the driveway. The High Peaks were quite pretty as they rose from the cauldron of fog that engulfed most of the wilderness area, with the morning sun glinting from their white shoulders.
– Ellen Rathbone

10/2 Red Oaks Mill, Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 74: We were surprised to see two lightning bugs outside this evening. One was flying about, the other hovering for a while above the grass. I never knew them to be out so late in the year, but these two stalwarts of summer were still hanging in there. – Donna and Bill Lenhart

While the entries from the North Country abound with tales of bears and turkeys, moose and frazil ice, those from down below reflect the saltier nature of the river with stories of striped bass and dolphins, glass eels and mitten crabs. Although the time I’ve spent at the ocean can be counted in days on one hand (not counting the two or so years we lived on Guam), I feel I know an awful lot about the Hudson River Estuary thanks to the entries of the fisherfolk, birdwatchers and paddlers who live at the river’s terminus.

Every year I meet many people who know the Hudson River in all its glorious width and might 300 miles away, but when they see the Hudson up here at its headwaters, they often cannot believe it is the same river. I like to send these folks up to Tahawus to the Swinging Bridge, which crosses the river at a spot where in the summer, if the season has been dry, you can almost straddle the stream, one foot on each bank of The River.

One of the stars of the Hudson River Almanac is the American bald eagle. The eagle’s return to New York State has been tracked annually in the pages of the journal, from sightings of birds on deer carcasses along Route 28N near North Creek to nest observations in Poughkeepsie and views of eagles riding ice floes near New York City. Train-riding commuters report sightings of the raptors as they roll down the tracks to Manhattan with as much enthusiasm and awe as fishermen in Long Lake who watch an eagle soar the length of the lake.

If you would like to send your nature observations from along the Hudson River to the Hudson River Almanac, contact Tom Lake, DEC Estuary Naturalist, at

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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.

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