Hudson River Eagles Trip – Feb 8th

11 02 2009

On Sunday my ‘local’ walk took one of our few forays out of Connecticut for a trip over to the Hudson River looking ostensibly for both eagles and owls. I had done a little scouting on Friday and had been happy to find a host of Eagles but to my horror the roosting site of some of the sought after owls had a gaggle of workmen hammering away at something underneath them. Seeing me peer longingly into the pines one of the workmen chirped up with a ‘not here today’ obviously knowing what I was searching for. I tempered my reply avoiding the ‘you don’t say’ and just said thanks and moved on, praying that they would have returned by the Sunday.

Unfortunately for the sake of the tour the owls had obviously had enough and although we found plenty of pellets, whitewash and other roosting owl detritus from two different species we struck out on owls for the day. It’s hard not to feel a little disappointment as a tour leader when a place that you know can be so wonderful doesn’t quite meet up with your expectations for the day, although I always try to remember what a good friend of mine always says: ‘if you want guaranteed bird sightings you are better off going to the zoo.’

We did however do fairly nicely when it came to Eagles on the day, finding birds at Croton-Harmon Station soaring around the now open water. Thanks to a big thaw and temperatures in the high 40’s on the day things were quite different than Friday although honestly it was a blessed relief after so many frigid tours of late.

I have lead tours on the Connecticut River and still volunteer for the CAS Eagle Festival (sadly canceled this year) and have seen multitudes of Bald Eagles in that time. However it never ceases to give me a thrill seeing these magnificent birds. What is best about seeing all of these birds is knowing that with the help of conservationists and environmentalists we have managed to drag this species back from the brink of destruction after the dark days of DDT poisoning. Best of all is seeing all the young birds that will go on to secure the future generations of this species (I remember talking to old hands who said the most depressing thing in the late 60’s and early 70’s was seeing how few young birds were coming through each year.)

We then moved on to Croton Point Park proper . The park is the site of an old landfill (now grassland) and juts out into the mighty Hudson. The scenery there is beautiful and the birding can be sublime (in previous years I have been there when Short-eared Owls in large numbers have been actively hunting the site by day). Things were a little quieter than I had hoped but we still managed good looks at a number of Harriers which we discussed identifying to age and sex. Highlight was a particularly co-operative Grey Ghost, probably one of the more beautiful and graceful raptors in North America. Unfortunately no sign of a Roughie which can often be found here.

Exploring the park a little further we stumbled upon a large mixed flock of finches, but as hard as we searched we couldn’t find an Redpoll amongst them. Other highlights were 4 or 5 eagles sat on the ice almost playing with a few large fish that had washed up out of the river. I guess they had been feeding pretty well recently as these situations often lead to some scrapping. We talked about aging the eagles (which can usually be safely aged although it is a little more complicated than some texts suggest) and when they reach sexual maturity (4 or 5 years). The other interest sighting of the day was the huge rafts of Common Mergansers sitting out on the Hudson, staging up for their flight north. There were at least a couple of groups of these glorious birds numbering in the hundreds and somewhat surprisingly almost all were males (probably trying to get a head start on the trip north to set up their territories).

To end the day we stopped over at George’s Island. This is a well known eagle roost and towards sundown one is almost guaranteed good sightings and good numbers of roosting Bald Eagles. We arrived  little early to find one adult bird sitting in one of the trees but we were not waiting long before there were five birds all in the air at one time. As birds flew in and began to settle in for the night two young birds put on quite the show – perhaps practicing their courting maneuvers for future years (see the atmospheric shots from Michael below), or maybe just having a little fun for the day. This sky dance was the perfect end to the day and although there were still Eagles drifting in as we left, everyone was desperate to go grab a warming bowl of soup and a cup of Coffee. We ended the day back at Croton more in hope than expectation that some owls might put on a dusk appearance but although the scene was set perfectly for them with a beautiful wintery full moon they just weren’t playing ball today.

Still a fun day out with lots of great people and it was great to catch up with some old friends and introduce some new ones to the site. The eagles were as fantastic as ever, although the supporting cast could have been better.  Next year it’ll be awesome there I am sure.

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