What's Happening on the Hudson River in October
October is one of the very best months of the year for hiking. The weather is cooler and less humid, and visibility is generally much better now than in summer. The High Peaks of the Adirondacks, the summits of the Catskills, and the trails of the Hudson Highlands offer spectacular scenery, but one may have to fight the leaf-peeping hordes during the drive to a trailhead in those popular areas.
In addition to the tourists, everything else seems to be moving through the Hudson Valley en masse. It is a birder's delight as migrating birds make their way south, down the Hudson River flyway. While most of the broad-winged hawks moved through last month, there are still many other hawks, eagles, and falcons to come. Visit a good viewing location on the day following passage of a cold front. Flocks of marsh ducks (dabblers), such as mallards, teals, and wood ducks, are drifting down in small family groups on wetlands and quiet waters this month.
At Sandy Hook, where the estuary meets the Atlantic, autumn is marked by the return of brant, usually on Columbus Day. These coastal geese passed through the Bight at the end of May, heading to Arctic nesting locations, and return in early October, some staying all winter in our harbors. Brant have similar markings to their Canada geese cousins but are smaller, and are usually quiet in flight. Speaking of Canada geese, by mid-month you will hear the "goose music" of high-flying skeins heading to cornfields on the DeMarVa peninsula and Chesapeake Bay. These Canada geese are actually from Canada, and their migratory lifestyle is vastly different from the growing numbers of "resident geese." Some of these flocks, with higher pitched honks, will be snow geese.
This aerial display will occur against the backdrop of fall colors, the spectacular foliage finale marking the end of the growing season. This phenomenon has been celebrated by the Hudson River School of painting (ca. 1820-1880), by kindergarten students decorating their classrooms, and on thousands of picture postcards. If you collect fallen leaves, be sure of what you touch - some of the most intense red leaves will be poison ivy! While "peak fall color" can be an arbitrary measure of beauty, it occurs earliest in the High Peaks, and then descends southward to tidewater where it arrives by mid-month, usually reaching the lower Hudson Valley and New York City in the third week of October. These estimates can vary depending upon the weather.
An ill-timed storm can prematurely strip the trees of their color. Tropical storms, if not hurricanes, are always a possibility in October. Their storm surge can cause flooding and erosion as water swamps areas of the lower river normally unaffected by high tide. At the other extreme, a blow-out tide can follow these storms if a cold front with strong winds moves in from the northwest. The winds push coastal waters offshore, lowering sea level at the Hudson's mouth and all the way upriver to Troy. Under these conditions, ultra low tides bare stretches of river bottom that are rarely seen. Rotting hulks of sunken sailing ships, prehistoric shorelines, and ancient shellfish beds can be exposed.
As water temperature drops quickly through the month, blue crabs become scarce, moving to deeper and more brackish water, while the seaward migration of young-of-the-year menhaden, shad, river herring, and striped bass becomes more intense. This can often trigger memorable feeding frenzies. Sudden and explosive runs of large striped bass in the Tappan Zee and large bluefish in Croton Bay are not uncommon this month.
Although most fauna will be flying or swimming south for the winter, there is at least one exception. The Atlantic tomcod will be nosing its way upriver in the opposite direction. This fish, unlike all the others it passes on its way in from the sea, is a winter spawner. Tomcod will appear more often in anglers' pails as the ice and snow of late autumn and winter chill the river.
October nights can bring frost and, at almost any time, a glance to the High Peaks of Tahawus, Skylight, Haystack, Colden, or the MacIntyre Range may find snow covering the upper slopes. As winter nears, the wings of those monarch butterflies who lingered too long will add their colors to the leaf-covered ground.
Even on a short walk, there is great beauty to be seen among the maples, oaks, and other trees of open spaces closer at hand. Visit DEC's wildlands, one of Scenic Hudson's preserves along the river, a riverside park managed by New York's Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, or one of the many gems protected by local land trusts and other community groups. Enjoy the best that autumn has to offer along the Hudson.