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Hudson River Almanac December 14-December 21, 2004

OVERVIEW

The Big Chill hit the entire Hudson River Valley this week, icing over many ponds and lakes. Air temperatures fell well below zero in the High Peaks and windchills in the New York Bight were also below zero. With this blast of Arctic air there is a sense of urgency among many birds, from their increasing activity at backyard feeders to the squabbles of waterfowl packed in to more limited areas of open water. 'Tis the season for Christmas Bird Counts; the first of our Hudson Valley counts is reported here. In this appropriate context, we observed the winter solstice and the official start of winter.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

12/15 - Croton River, HRM 34: I spotted a hen long-tailed duck (also know as oldsquaw), the first I've ever seen in the Croton River. One of the mute swans had a white 4" band around its neck, possibly with writing on it, that slid up and down as it moved.
- Scott Craven

[A reminder that NYSDEC would appreciate any information on sightings of mute swans with neck collars. If possible, record the information on the collars and report it to the Hudson River Almanac. We are trying to assess mute swan seasonal distribution and abundance throughout New York State. Robin Holevinski, NYSDEC Fish & Wildlife]

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

12/14 - Greene County, HRM 124-113: With one group yet to report in, here are some highlights of the Catskill-Coxsackie Christmas Bird Count. The air temperature ranged from 14° to 28°F; the wind was N-NW 15-25 mph. The weather had turned from mild to very cold overnight. Despite the low temperatures, most larger water bodies were still open. This let waterfowl disperse widely, making them harder to find in the usual variety and concentrations. Also, with open water to the north, winter waterfowl really hadn't come down yet. With the prolonged mild weather leading up to the count day, folks didn't feel compelled to feed birds, hence, many bird feeding stations were empty. Field birds, if there were any out there, were well dispersed or were kept down by the strong winds through the entire day. Lack of any snow cover didn't force field birds to converge on manure spreads or roadsides. All in all, it was a very hard day to find birds, reflected in the lowest count day totals in many years. One absence of particular note was mute swan; it's been more than two decades since we've missed this species. Here are selected highlights and unusual species found:

Great blue heron 5; snow goose 45; Canada goose 4,334 (high); blue-winged teal 1 (very rare in winter); northern pintail 3, bald eagle 8 (all adults); northern harrier 42; red-tailed hawk 86; rough-legged hawk 3; American kestrel 1 (continuing decline; used to get double digit numbers); peregrine falcon 1; killdeer 1; Iceland gull 1; glaucous gull 1; red-bellied woodpecker 25 (continues to increase in numbers); yellow-bellied sapsucker 5; common raven 5 (also increasing in numbers and being found away from higher elevations); American pipit 1 (rare in winter); eastern bluebird 55; American robin 726; song sparrow 4 (very low, probably due to high winds keeping them tucked into hedgerows); house finch 178; evening grosbeak (a surprise, in with house sparrows at a feeder; they've been absent lately); species count 66 - total individuals 9,674.
- Richard Guthrie

[Christmas Bird Counts are held throughout the country at this time of year. The count originated as an alternative to the Victorian era "side-shoot", in which teams competed by shooting as many different bird and mammal species as possible on Christmas Day. In 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman organized a group of friends to count birds without shooting them, and the Christmas Count became an annual tradition sponsored by the National Audubon Society. Thousands of people go out to count as many bird species and individuals as possible within defined circular areas 15 miles in diameter. The data gathered has helped ornithologists monitor changes in bird populations and distribution over the years. Counts will be held elsewhere in the Hudson Valley through the count period which ends January 5th. Rich Guthrie]

12/14 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: Hiking out on the landfill this morning to search for early eagles, I spotted an immature soaring up over the northern edge of the fill on strong winds gusting over 30 mph. I was able to follow the eagle for at least 10 minutes as it banked over the Croton-Harmon Station and headed north. What amazed me was that - in spite of the heavy winds - the bird never beat its wings and never even slightly faltered during the entire time.
- David Baker

12/14 - Queens, New York Bight: During a drive to work under stormy gray skies, I saw about 120 common grackles sitting on every electric wire bordering the corner of 157th Avenue and Cross Bay Boulevard in Howard Beach. The yellow Gold's Gym sign virtually quivered with a living outline of jet black birds. When a bleached-blonde pedestrian was virtually blown across the boulevard, the whole scene called to mind Alfred Hitchcock's movie The Birds.
- Dave Taft

12/15 - The Glen, HRM 245: I passed along the Hudson at The Glen in Warren County this afternoon. Small clusters of what will become frazil ice were beginning to build up along the quiet shorelines on both sides of the river. With seriously cold weather, this ice will begin to build and spread - an odd phenomenon.
- Mike Corey

12/15 - Albany, HRM 145: The crew of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater has begun its yearly negotiations with winter's chill. Frozen pumps frustrated the routine task of removing bilge water as the sloop prepared to transit from Albany to her winter home on the Esopus Creek at Saugerties. At 4:00 AM, a thin layer of ice was visible in its slip at Scarrano's Boat Yard.
- Daniel Kricheff, Capt. Samantha Heyman

12/15 - Croton River, HRM 34: There was quite the cast of characters on the Croton River this morning in the quarter mile between Route 9 and the railroad bridge. In addition to the usual Canada geese, swans and mallards, there were coot, buffleheads, common mergansers, a snow goose, and a pintail - all overseen by an immature bald eagle perched in the trees.
- Scott Craven

12/15 - Manhattan, HRM 5: Through the efforts of New York City Audubon and city and state officials, an agreement was forged with co-op officials to rebuild Pale Male and Lola's nest in the same spot on a 12th-floor cornice above Central Park at 927 Fifth Avenue. Preparations were underway today, one week after it was removed, to restore the nest. A network of steel spikes are to be erected on top of the cornice. These are meant to duplicate others that were installed to discourage pigeons but served as an anchor for the nest until they were removed. Audubon officials agreed to a plan by the co-op's architect to surround the spikes with some form of protective rail that would prevent the sticks and small branches used for nest building from falling to the sidewalk.
- Joe O'Connell, Ellen O'Connell, Thomas Lueck, Howard Stier, Michael Wilson, Jennifer Lee

12/16 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67.5: We were on County Route 28 between Routes 9 and 9D when a great horned owl swooped across the road in front of our car, illuminated by our headlights in the pre-dawn light. It was a magnificent specimen.
- Mike Boyajian, Jeri Wagner

12/17 - New Paltz, HRM 78: As I was walking along the Wallkill River at sunset, a squadron of 19 turkey vultures drifted past, a couple at a time, teetering on a southwest breeze, heading to their night roost.
- Tom Lake

12/17 - New Hamburg, HRM 67.5: At 6:30 AM Venus was glimmering brightly in the eastern sky, so bright that at first we thought it was a plane. Venus can at times shine so intensely that its light casts shadows.
- Mike Boyajian, Jeri Wagner

12/17 - Croton-on-Hudson, HRM 35: This is the last week residents of Croton-on-Hudson will hear train whistles from the Brook Street area. With the completion of the new road, pathway and bicycle track along the river on the west side of the railroad tracks, the Brook Street Crossing will be closed - the noise eliminated. However, many residents will be nostalgic for the familiar sounds.
- Lyn Roessler

12/18 - New Paltz, HRM 78: I was up at 3:45 AM to search for owls as part of the Lake Mohonk-Ashokan Reservoir Christmas Bird Count. After picking up several other groggy but intrepid souls, it was off to the first of eight sites to stand motionless in 19°F cold as a tape player broadcast screech owl calls to a starry night. Ducks, dogs, geese, and roosters responded, but no screech owls. At our next to last stop, with the eastern sky glowing, a great horned owl hooted from afar - our only owl of the morning (and one I often hear from my warm bed). This wasn't enough owls to satisfy me, so after spending the day afield counting sparrows, chickadees, and other more familiar birds, I headed south to the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge, an abandoned airfield favored by short-eared owls. These owls are crepuscular: active in twilight at dawn and dusk. At 3:45 PM they were on the hunt, long wings carrying them over the fields in a unique buoyant, bounding style of flight. There were at least eight different individuals in view at one moment, and no doubt more overall. It was a lovely scene, the pale, buffy birds coursing over grass glowing pink as the sun settled towards the Shawangunk Ridge to the west. I left reluctantly, but home was beckoning. As I relaxed there just after dark, a screech owl started calling from a perch right next to the house. At this point on this day, a thrush could not have sounded sweeter.
- Steve Stanne, Margaret Stanne, Davis Natzle, Wes Natzle

12/19 - Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 68.5: It was barely first light during my walk at Bowdoin Park when I glanced up to see a barred owl perched right over my head on the horizontal limb of a white sycamore. That may have been as close as I have ever been to an owl in the wild. I wrote a paper several years ago on "precognition in owls," how many cultures, worldwide, believe that the presence of owls portends future events, usually unfavorable. As I stood there in the freezing cold under a gray somber sky looking up into those cold, vacant eyes, I could understand how that might be.
- Tom Lake

12/19 - Eagle Nest, Dutchess County: Mama eagle has been busy with housekeeping, bringing new sticks and twigs to her nest and rearranging those already in place. We have watched her on several occasion break off dead branches from trees near her nest. While Mama works, Papa watches from a tall white pine a couple of hundred feet away.
- Bruce Pung, Rosalie Pung

12/20 - Newcomb, HRM 302: At 11:15 AM, our thermometer read -11°F. It gave a low of -18°F overnight, although a neighbor of mine reported -22°F at his house. This morning the sun is shining, the sky is blue, and the Hudson River still has open water under the Route 28N bridge.
- Ellen Rathbone

12/20 - Minerva, HRM 284: The bottom fell out of the temperature floor last night. It was in the mid-30's for a brief time, but then, in a fairly slow but sure way, the winds picked up, a few inches of fluffy snow fell down, and by the time I hauled myself out of bed this morning at 6:15, it was -16°F. Saranac Lake reported -30°F. I guessed the windchill factor to be around -35°F. It is winter in the North Country.
- Mike Corey

12/21 - Farmer's Landing, HRM 67: The sun was weak and the air bitterly cold as the winter solstice arrived at 7:42 AM. The windchill was -10°F and the Hudson had that still look of water about to ice over. The tidal Wappinger Creek was frozen bank-to-bank, thick and thin depending on where the tide had been overnight. Overhead was an old friend, the female bald eagle of our mated pair. She was watching the creek as well, now empty of waterfowl. She'd have to search hard for breakfast this morning.
- Tom Lake

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