What's Happening on the Hudson River in November
Among the joys of November are the first whiffs of woodsmoke, the first serious frost, and great skeins of geese scrolling south across the sky. The first significant snow will fall on the Hudson's headwaters in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks, as winter begins its southward creep. But for now, the forest's leaves, mostly fallen, are still crisp and noisy with hikers' footfalls. Visitors will find Hudson Valley trails less crowded and, with cooler weather, can actually carry enough water to meet their needs.
With fewer leaves to hide them, Hudson Valley's mammals such as white-tailed deer, black bear, river otter, fisher, and the occasional moose are more easily seen. Beavers will busily drag their birch cuttings into lakes, ponds and quiet stretches of the Hudson. They secure these winter snacks by jabbing them into the soft bottom, banked against a time when ice will cover their world. November is also a month of big game hunting in New York State, so avoid white hankies, wear bright clothing, and don't be afraid to make a little noise while enjoying the month's outdoor attractions.
Birders can once again see their quarry easily in leafless trees. Abandoned nests, finally revealed, show what last spring's bird song was all about. This month the numbers of winter birds in the valley swell. Chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches, paired off for the summer to raise families, now gather together again in mixed flocks, clustering around well-supplied bird feeders. Meanwhile, cardinals, juncos, and white-throated sparrows scratch for fallen seeds below. If seed crops to the north are scanty, pine siskins and evening grosbeaks will join them.
Snow buntings, true birds of the northern tundra, are easiest to find in open areas along the Hudson. A few lucky birders out seeking buntings might spot a rarer visitor from the tundra - a snowy owl. This unmistakable, magnificent bird occasionally migrates through our area in winter, showing a preference for treeless spaces of the lower Hudson Valley, Jamaica Bay and Sandy Hook.
Overhead, the geese migration will continue: Canada, snow, and brant. Most of the puddle ducks, such as mallards, have gone. As winter presses in across Canada and northern New England, we will start to see winter ducks such as common mergansers, buffleheads, goldeneye, canvasbacks, scaup, ring-necked ducks, and ruddy ducks. These waterfowl move south as northern waters freeze over. They need open water to access their underwater food such as water celery, small fish, shellfish, and other invertebrates.
Bald eagles will follow the diving ducks south, seeking both open water for fishing, and the waterfowl themselves to feed upon. Now in the Hudson Valley year-round, the number of bald eagle sightings increase as migrating eagles from the north are seen. Many will zoom past on their way south to harass the snow geese in Maryland. Some migrant eagles stop here, and stay in the Hudson Valley all winter. Others will be our resident eagles, no doubt wondering if they should stay or go.
While the bald eagles are attention-grabbers, birders will also scan the skies for other birds of prey that migrate in late fall: goshawks, golden eagles, rough-legged hawks, and red-shouldered hawks.
As the river chills into the 50 F range, striped bass will begin to move into their winter holding areas in the lower Hudson and New York Harbor. The bass seem to sort themselves out according to age and size, with certain areas of the estuary providing a comfort zone for each. There may be terrific late fall fishing in the Tappan Zee from Nyack to Fort Lee for older striped bass, perhaps fish to forty pounds or more. Young bass concentrate in New York Harbor their first and second winters. Many of these smaller fish shelter among the piers of Manhattan's West Side waterfront.
This is the favorite season for some anglers, despite the unpredictable weather. There is a great tradition of spending Indian summer afternoons on the lower estuary with a thermos of hot coffee and a bucket to fill with ten-inch tomcod and foot-long red hake. The regulars at Yonkers, Alpine, Englewood, or Spuyten Duyvil in Manhattan will measure their success in terms of "tommycod" and "ling," the colloquial names for these winter-migratory fish. If the weather is decent, and their luck is good, they may also have a thirty pound striped bass on a stringer.
Late November is the time when our blue crabs begin to hunker down for the winter. They burrow into the river bottom with not much more than their eyes showing, and enter a torpid state of reduced metabolic activity. Since these blue crabs reside at the northern end of the species' range, their survival will largely depend upon the severity of the winter. Heavy icing in tidewater can kill many of the young-of-the-year crabs, which are no larger than a quarter.
While we prepare our Thanksgiving dinners, the cooks in the Hudson's kitchen are preparing next summer's meals. Aquatic plants are dying back, their discarded leaves joining the millions that November rains wash into the Hudson from the land, forming mats of organic matter that float with the tidal currents. This detritus provides fertilizer for the estuary. Broken down by bacteria, it becomes a broth of essential nutrients for micro-organisms and plants, flowing through estuarine food chains to fish, birds, and even to us. Next time you are nagged for not raking the leaves, just say you are ensuring your future meal of freshly caught and pan-fried fish fillet.