Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Friendly Skies over Derby Hill

By Spider Rybaak

Sign marking the spot.

Oswego County is a fowl paradise. Hunters take to the open waters of Lake Ontario and the swamps around Oneida Lake, the deep woods of Winona State Forest and patchwork of ponds, forests and clearings of the Happy Valley Wildlife Management Area to pursue birds of every feather.

But there’s a magical corner of Lake Ontario that sees more birds each spring, particularly large raptors, than some sovereign nations do all year: Derby Hill. Indeed, on March 12 alone, 110,000 snow geese flew over the place like a blizzard in the sun, punctuated by raptors ranging from bald and golden eagles to turkey vultures and ospreys.

Onondaga Audubon Society’s Michele Heligan says the reason so many large birds use this corridor is because of thermals, “heat waves coming off the ground. Raptors use these currents to gain and maintain altitude. The clearer the day, the higher they can reach on the thermals,” she explains

In other words, this time of year Lake Ontario sucks in the sun’s heat like a magnet and raptors heading back north naturally avoid its drag in favor of flying over land and exploiting the lift which thermals bouncing off the ground provide.

The big bird fly-over season runs from March 1 through May 31, so you still have a month of decent viewing ahead of you. According to the Audubon website, some species are restricted (ospreys, for instance, are most active from mid-April through mid-May) while others, like bald eagles, flip restrictions the bird and appear whenever they want to during the season.

OAS member Bill Purcell reports it’s been “a good year so far” for raptors; and colleague Gerry Smith adds: “There are more bald eagles around now than there were at any time during the 20th Century. So your chances of seeing America’s favorite bird are pretty good.”

Unfamiliar with the ways of birds and need guidance?

You’re in luck: The OAS is staging its FREE bird festival on Saturday, May 11, 10 am-5 pm at Derby Hill. Gene Huggins, president of OAS, will lead ½-mile-long bird walks, over moderately difficult terrain (i.e. hills) throughout the day. OAS volunteers will also be on hand to offer assistance and intelligence.

Other features planned for the festival include a display of live raptors, face painting, vendors selling everything from food to jewelry, hawk identification, raffles…stuff like that.

Volunteers are needed. If you’d like to help, contact: oabirdfest@gmail.com or call 315-474-3778. Their website is www.onondagaaudubon.com.

Derby Hill Observatory is located in the Town of Mexico on Sage Hill Drive, off NY 104B, about a mile east of Texas.

Michele Heligan searching the sky for hawks.

The tally up to April 28.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Spring 2013: Back to Normal

By Spider Rybaak

Walleyes in the ripples at Scriba Creek.

Ice finally broke up on Oneida Lake on April 1. A heavy northwesterly wind on March’s last night grabbed the tattered corners of the cap on the north shore, ripping it open, piling it into a jagged ring along the south shore like the crust on a giant frozen pizza.

Within a week, the icy ridges clinging to the shoreline melted into sandy beaches punctuated by rocky points poking into the lake on all sides. The water stayed cold; the fishing slow.

Fortunately, heavy rains soaked Central New York recently, swelling creeks beyond their banks, shooting their currents into the lake like chocolatey fingers. They stirred the downpour into the inshore waters, warming the lake‘s edge and raising it to normal levels, spurring the natural cycles anglers expect each spring.

And the fish are responding. Walleyes stormed into Scriba Creek so thick they looked like a throbbing carpet. Every step I took along the streamside path from the Oswego County Recreation Trail to the hatchery dam sent walleyes sprinting for cover in the deep rapids in the middle of the creek. Their backs exposed, they ran upstream creating a surrealistic scene in which the whitewater crashed into their wakes, creating a Maytag effect of clashing currents. What’s more, they bumped the mass of walleyes in the whitewater, causing them to erupt through the surface like miniature autumn cohos in the fish ladder at the Salmon River hatchery.

At the New York State Toad Harbor Fishing Access Site, a colorful ring of anglers lined the bank. The water is still a little too cold for massive schools of crappies to pack in, but a few hardy ones are there. In addition, some yellow perch averaging 8 inches and bullheads around the same size are present.

But hey, the one thing fish and anglers have in common is: the early bird gets the worm. The water’s warming as you read this, so get out there when you’re done and maybe you’ll hit a major run.

If you go by the old saw: spring makes the rest of New York’s weather bearable, you understand that there’s more to fishing this time of year than just catching fish. Coming back from the THFAS last week, I decided to take a right on McCloud Road to see if wild flowers were blooming along the forested shoulder. A couple daffodils were up but that’s it...for now.

On the way to Phillips Point, an old guy was bottom fishing for bullheads in Toad Harbor, off to the right. Mergansers were about 100 yards in front of him, diving and water dancing, feeding and courting at the same time. I disturbed a large blue heron; it cackled as it took off in fright off to his right, startling him and me. The guy’d been there half the day, hadn’t caught anything, but he wasn’t complaining.

At Phillips Point, I watched Allen Handy of North Syracuse launch his kayak. He’d been there a couple times already this month and hadn’t caught anything…but he was optimistic.

Oneida Lake is alive after winter’s deep sleep; and the natural world is celebrating with a visual feast steeped in a cacophony of sound. But you better hurry, and get there before brush and trees shield nature’s miracles behind curtains of leaves--and before walleye season opens May 4, making you too busy to look for anything else.

Walleyes in the pockets.

Allan Handy, North Syracuse, kayak-fishing in Three Mile Bay.

Dave, a resident of Central Square, with a crappie taken at the THFAS.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Miracle of Constantia, 2013

Spider Rybaak

Blue heron waiting for a walleye dinner at the dam.

Up until around the turn of the century, the walleye was one of the culinary world’s best kept secrets. Anglers knew they tasted great and so did chefs; but the fishermen kept their mouths shut to protect their game and limit the competition; and native stocks were protected--still are--and couldn’t be sold, so there was no incentive for professional  cooks to rave about them.

The tournament angling craze that swept the country in the 1980s changed everything. “In-Fisherman,” the world’s most popular angling magazine even started a “Walleye Insider” edition, complete with recipes. Walleyes became the apple in the eyes of fish lovers everywhere. Now, everybody wants them.

Fortunately, NY anglers have had a love affair with the species since white men first set foot in the place. Indeed, the first hatchery on Oneida Lake was built on Frederick Creek in 1895. It proved insufficient in meeting the state’s needs and a new one was constructed a little east of here, on Scriba Creek, in 1942 (even war couldn’t put a dent in our love of walleyes). Completely overhauled in 1992, the Constantia hatchery is the world’s finest walleye rearing facility.

Each April, the operation collects between 200,000,000 to 300,000,000 eggs from adults it nets in the lake. Most are allowed to develop into fry and are released soon after into waters throughout the state. Roughly 400,000 are raised to 50-day-old fingerlings averaging two inches long; and 100,000 are reared to advanced walleye fingerlings ranging from four to six inches long.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation plans on launching the collection process this coming weekend.  Hatchery personnel hope to net 25,000 adults ranging from two to 10 pounds, and will strip them of their spawn back at the hatchery. The collection process is expected to take until April 15.

The first half of the month is the most exciting time to visit the facility, and it’ll be open from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., seven days a week from April 1 through September 30.

But there’s more.

Walleyes start ascending Scriba Creek to spawn right after ice-out. Still, the vast majority doesn’t start running until April. After checking out the common miracles performed at the hatchery, including the rearing tanks holding rare and unusual critters like paddlefish, sturgeon, mud puppies  and round whitefish, step outside to see the natural process going on in the creek.

If walleyes aren’t in the little tributary that runs under the hatchery, or in the creek running alongside the building, drive or walk upstream along Hatchery Road for a couple hundred yards to its intersection with the Oswego County Recreation Trail. Head east through the field to the creek and walk quietly, stealthily upstream to the dam. If you hit it just right, you’ll  see the floor carpeted in walleyes; and even if you’re a little too early or late, there should still be a few. But don’t wait too long; the peak run generally occurs in the second and third week of the month. Wear polarized sunglasses to see through the water’s glare.

Bear in mind, walleye season is closed and it is illegal to fish for them, even catch-and-release.  The season opens on the first Saturday in May (May 4) and runs until March 15.

For more information, call the hatchery: 315-623-7311.

Employee holding one of the hatchery's resident sturgeon.

Employee checking jars of eggs.