Kayaking to Wildlife Explosions on The Hudson River

hudson river wildlifeWildlife started exploding all around me as soon as I pushed my kayak off the boat launch on the Hudson River’s east bank.

I was adventuring without an adventure-mate, as most other people don’t work jobs allowing them to kayak on weekday mornings. The starting point was about fifteen minutes north of the City of Hudson at the mouth of the Stockport Creek, downstream from what had been some pretty decent rapids.

I lackadaisically paddled under the rust-red piers of the Amtrak bridge and drifted to where the creek’s delta merges with the Hudson River. That’s where I saw him, a prime example of Hudson River wildlife, high atop a tree – a goddamned bald eagle.

Eagle populations have been rebounding, and this trend has seemed to reach the Hudson Valley over the last few years. Before the summer of 2017, I had never spotted a bald eagle in the area, but over the last couple years I’ve seen the giant raptors seven or eight times, including a breeding pair that hangs out near Kingston.

This sighting superseded all the others: as I stared at the eagle, two (even) larger eagles exploded into my range of vision. I turned my head and saw a fourth on a tree on the delta’s opposite side.

I had come upon an entire bald eagle family: the white-capped male, his gargantuan mate (females are about 25 percent larger than males), and two female juveniles, their umber plumage touched with a hint of gold and mottled with white.

No, I did not capture the entire convocation in a photo, as they were wheeling and looping erratically, and I was frantically shooting from a moving kayak. I was able to capture a short video of one of the juveniles in flight, however.

As I rounded the point at the delta’s terminus, I saw movement on the shore out of the corner of my eye.

From its movements, I first thought it was a large housecat. But as I drifted further, I saw it was a red fox.

It was sitting, scratching at its side with its rear leg until it saw me. It stopped for a moment, gave me a good look, then continued to satisfy the itch.

In the fox’s mind, since I was on the river, I might have well been in a different world. This wasn’t too far off, since it would have taken a lot of stumbling and sloshing to reach the shore if for some reason I became murderously enraged at the little guy.

But who could? It was a-DOR-able.

As I approached the metal skeleton of the giant channel marker on the Hudson’s opposite shore, I saw what looked like the remains of an entire tree cradled in its top-most girders.

A head popped out of the branches and started yelling at me.

It was an osprey, its wings spread to their full six-foot length, expressing extreme displeasure I was checking out its nest.

I paddled a bit closer, and the raptor took flight, wheeling above me and continuing to vocalize its irritation. It was the bird’s distress call, which kind of sounds like a series of chirps, but chirps if they were coming out of something as wide as you are tall.

Osprey and bald eagle populations fell over the 19th and the first half of the twentieth centuries, until the eagles almost went extinct in the 1960s, which would have been a really ironic black eye for the country, it being our national symbol and all.

Much of the decline was because of America’s excessive and unregulated use of synthetic pesticides, including DDT, which was finally banned in 1972, thanks in part to the efforts of Rachel Carson, the pioneering conservationist author and marine biologist.

As I was trying to get a shot of the osprey, I happened to glance at the water and saw what looked like a bit of branch sticking above the surface.

“My, that’s a tall branch!” I remember thinking. “It must be a hundred feet tall, sticking above the water at this depth!”

However, if you’re familiar with dramatic irony, you won’t be surprised that the bit of branch kind of squinted at me. I squinted back, and it retracted back underwater, the tiny head of a much larger turtle headed back to the deep.

The journey was a veritable wildlife explosion, a what’s-what of Hudson River wildlife. I thank Rachel Carson and the numerous Hudson Valley-based environmental groups for this, because without their efforts, some of the animals I saw kayaking would be extinct.

I reflected upon this as I wrenched by giant kayak onto my car’s roof and drove back to the human world.

Afterword: Kayaking or Hiking?

I was hiking in the Catskills earlier this year when I noticed a lack of something: animals…

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