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Hudson River Almanac November 20 - November 28, 2005

OVERVIEW

It was another roller-coaster week of snowfall and record-breaking warmth. Despite a season where days seem to end before they really get going, there is much to see if you are out and about. Migratory birds, including waterfowl and songbirds, are prominent. Raptors are common, including the vanguard of wintering bald eagles. Huge rafts of ducks and geese are filling the watershed as the first winter storms hit Canada.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE PREVIOUS WEEK

11/19 - Croton Point, HRM 34: At least 1,000 ruddy ducks formed a raft half a mile long in the calm waters under the lee of the south side of the peninsula. This is the largest concentration of ruddys I've seen here. From observations by duck hunters and fishermen, coupled with mine, I'd estimate that almost 5,000 waterfowl are on Croton Bay right now, more than I've seen since the early 1980s.
- Christopher Letts

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

11/20 - Beacon, HRM 62: It was late afternoon when I spotted a single southbound sandhill crane over the eastern shore of the river near Brockway.
- Stephen M. Seymour

11/20 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: A calmer and milder day, and the migration train was rolling again. In the oak grove I stood beneath a barred owl, which was paying me no attention but peering hard into the underbrush, hunting. An hour later in broad daylight I watched it soar across the dump, harassed by crows. In the sunlit tangles behind the swimming pool, several hundred robins and waxwings were gorging on various fruits, and small flocks of cowbirds and one of red-winged blackbirds flew past. Also in the tangle were ruby-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers, and - to my delight - two Baltimore orioles. The orioles were not feeding on the vine fruits, but were combing through the hanging leaves with their bills, apparently in search of small insects hiding beneath the leaves.
- Christopher Letts

11/21 - Newcomb, HRM 302: We got one and a half inches of snow, and it was very windy. While hanging up bird feeders on the back deck, I saw a gray and white bird with a black mask fly by. It perched in a tree for a minute, then flew on. It was a northern shrike.
- Ellen Rathbone

[The northern shrike is a boreal songbird whose presence in the Hudson Valley is often associated with severe weather to the north. They behave like raptors, and will often impale their prey - smaller songbirds or rodents - on thorns or barbed wire. This has earned them the scientific name Lanius excubitor, in which Lanius means butcher. Tom Lake]

11/22 - Governor's Island, Upper Bay, New York Harbor: National Park Service Ranger Ilyse Goldman and I wandered the island discussing potential natural history stories to add to the fascination of this place. Some field aster and shepherds purse were still blooming despite the pelting, just-above-freezing rain. As we rounded the north end of the island, a very large red-tailed hawk flew off the peaked roof of an old military building and swept out over the harbor and then back, disappearing behind a clump of ailanthus and privet.
- Dave Taft

11/23 - Liberty Marsh, HRM 41: Three northern harriers, a female, a male, and an immature, were working the waist high marsh grass. The "pale male" - a light-colored raptor with black wing tips that some birders refer to as the "gray ghost" - floated over the marsh, blending into the colors of autumn. Their instinctive approach was from the northeast, facing the late afternoon sun, eliminating their shadows - no warning for the prey. They hunted in long slow passes, ten feet over the ground, their heads cocked downward, listening for sounds in the deep vegetation below. When they heard something they'd immediately stoop, hover, and then drop down and disappear. Seconds later, if unsuccessful, they'd rise again, and continue on. Their aerial agility was considered in the naming of the harrier jet, an aircraft of nearly the same maneuverability.
- Tom Lake, Phyllis Lake

11/23 - Croton Point, HRM 35: After a day of lashing rain followed by a drop in temperature to the 20s, with a roaring north wind, I was expecting the last of the migrant songbirds to be gone. Half a dozen small flocks of red-winged blackbirds and several hundred robins and cedar waxwings were a pleasant surprise.
- Christopher Letts

11/23 - Croton Point, HRM 35-34: Eagle encounters are becoming more frequent. About half of the sightings are adults and the rest first-year birds. I watched a brief joust over Croton Bay this morning, first between an adult and a rash youngster, then between two juveniles. An hour later I was walking the service road parallel to the beach. I did not see the dive, but I saw the juvenile rise from the waters off the bathing beach, beat for altitude, and clear the roadside black willows passing directly overhead. The prize was a 2 lb. catfish, carried vertically, one talon enveloping the head, the tail dangling down, still writhing.
- Christopher Letts

11/23 - Breezy Point, New York Bight: National Park Service Ranger Sue Gilmore called to let a few of us know that she had just spotted a saw-whet owl in the back woods of Fort Tilden. It was my first saw saw-whet of the season. In my time at the park, I've only located these tiny owls a few times on my own, a fact that always surprises me. Despite their cryptic coloration, small size, and their strategy of staying completely still even at close proximity, their gaze is disarming. The eyes are fierce, fiery yellow rings, and their demeanor, even for a bird this size, is more malevolent forest demon than cuddly woodland elf. On our second pass through the pine grove, Sue pointed, and there was the beast, asleep in the sun, well buried in the needles of a Japanese black pine.
- Dave Taft

11/24 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 68: An inch of snow, maybe a bit more, covered the earth at dawn. Chickadees, titmice, and goldfinches were stumbling over one another to get to the sunflower and thistle in the feeders. I thought it was a bit of an overreaction given the amount of snow, and the long season to come.
- Tom Lake

11/24 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: Overnight the witch hazel bloomed, glorious sprays of lacy lemon-yellow flowers thumbing their petals at November's worst. I cut a couple of wands to add authenticity to the Thanksgiving table. Flights of red-winged blackbirds, robins, and cedar waxwings were sparse, but a real presence and a pleasure.
- Christopher Letts

11/25 - Gardiner, HRM 75: We frequently visit Tilson Lake to see if any new waterfowl have arrived. Today there were a dozen mallards, a common merganser, and 3 hooded mergansers. We also spotted a yellow shafted (common) flicker.
- Rebecca Johnson, Brian Houser

11/25 - Poughkeepsie, HRM 75: It was hard to believe, but the river temperature rose from 42°F this morning to 43°F late this afternoon.
- John Mylod

11/25 - Crugers, HRM 34: An immature Cooper's hawk has been visiting the bird feeder during the past two weeks. Sharp-shinned hawks have often visited during the winter but this is my first Cooper's. It circles overhead, sending all the birds to cover, and then lands on the roof of the feeder, remaining there for a couple of minutes, surveying the empty yard.
- Jim Grefig

11/25 - Croton Bay, HRM 34: Croton Point anglers were still boating striped bass outside the railroad bridge.
- Christopher Letts

11/25 - Manhattan, HRM 5: This was the first of several owl walks I was to lead over the next three days. This evening, with a group from Queens, we watched an eastern screech owl (red morph) leave its tree cavity roost about 10 minutes after sunset in Central Park. Afterwards, when I played a tape of a screech owl call, we brought in a long-eared owl to our location in the Ramble.
- Robert DeCandido

11/26 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: For the past two mornings, I've enjoyed a "falcon grand slam." The peregrine seems to hunt the periphery of the landfill, the kestrel mostly sight-hunts from perches on the landfill, and the merlin does as it pleases, wherever it chooses to do it.
- Christopher Letts

11/26 - Manhattan, HRM 5: On Saturday evening, for Manhattan people, we played the same screech owl tape as last night, and a gray morph eastern screech owl perched above us. When not perched, he was diving at our heads, making us giggle and duck at the same time.
- Robert DeCandido

[Like eye color in people, color morphs among eastern screech owls are permanent - i.e., red birds don't molt into gray ones. They are, at the extremes, red or gray. Intermediates appear brownish. Sometimes an all gray bird will have a reddish feather. Historically in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, red morphs outnumbered gray ones. It is believed that red morphs are more common coastally where it is slightly milder. Red morphs are more common to the south, gray ones to the north. Eastern screech owls are now nesting in Central Park once again due to a restoration project begun in 1997. Anyone interested in the history of this little owl in New York City can download my scientific publication on New York City eastern screech owls from Urban Habitats electronic journal. -Robert DeCandido]

11/26 - Sandy Hook, NJ: The surf fishing was so slow that I was not distracted from the rest of the show: striped bass chased a small school of bay anchovies up on the sand, where the receding water left 20 of them flopping in the frigid air. Out in the swash I could see several foot-and-a-half-long bass framed in the breakers. A common loon, in winter colors, was feeding not far off the beach, maybe after the same anchovies, or smaller bass. The flights of the cormorants were impressive: large flocks headed south at dusk and then returned at north at dawn. Their huge Vs zipped past only 18 inches off the water. At sundown I spotted two large white birds with black wingtips well offshore. The field marks said white pelican (my binoculars were in my truck!). However, the birds dove like brown pelicans. White pelicans do not dive. The light went on: northern gannet. Two adults and a dark brown immature made one dive after another. They were quite a show.
- Tom Lake

11/27 - Newcomb, HRM 302: It snowed all day, leaving us with 5", all very nice and fluffy.
- Ellen Rathbone

11/27 - Highland Falls, HRM 50: I was watching the usual contingent of feeder birds at my home along the Hudson when a Carolina wren flew in to feed on the suet. It was the first time I had ever seen a Carolina wren at my feeders. After posing for a few photos he flew off, but later in the day I could hear his familiar song in the nearly trees.
- David Baker

11/27 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: I think I saw my merlin (a merlin, for sure) leaving the Point today. I am conscious of a sense of personal loss; such a fine bird, and it's leaving me! I wanted to run after it, offering starlings and house sparrows on demand, but it really is a temperature thing, not food. I am always so pleased and honored to have this species, seldom seen around here. Croton Point is a hotspot, a focus point.
- Christopher Letts

11/27 - Croton Point, HRM 34: We were walking the lower road along the marsh in late afternoon hoping to catch a sight of the great horned owl ("flying tiger of Croton Point"). We saw a female with three young a couple of years ago and often find their pellets on the landfill. However, with the exception of a few sporadic sightings, we have not seen them in quite a while. Today we were not disappointed. Just before the vine cottage in a stand of Scots pine and Norway spruce, she flew silently out over our heads, tremendous wing-span, and landed in a large locust behind the vine cottage. She stayed, scanning the grassy landfill for the evening fare.
- Scott Horecky, Kathy Sutherland

11/27 - Sandy Hook, NJ: It was a gorgeous dawn. The loon was back, feeding just offshore. As had been the case for three days, the striped bass were feeding in the swash, right where the last comber breaks, not more than 30-40 feet off the beach. All of them were 17-24 inches long, 3-4 year-olds, probably migrating north into the Lower and Upper Bays of New York Harbor for the winter. The water temperature was near 50°F. As we came off the beach two black vultures were circling overhead.
- Tom Lake, Phyllis Lake

11/27 - Shawangunks, HRM 81: I was hiking on the Ridge trail with the weather overcast and air temperatures in the 30s. The first snow of the season had covered most of the terrain and Christmas fern and wintergreen could easily be seen against a backdrop of melting snow and decaying oak leaves. Ravens were calling at Millbrook Mountain at lunchtime. Returning on the Coxing trail, conditions got colder, more snow and ice remained. A field of club moss in a hemlock forest stood out under the snow along the trail. A small, deep pool fed by a stream looked so clear, like glass showcasing the collage of leaves and stones at the bottom
- Richard Balint

11/28 - Town of Goshen HRM 53: We found scores of fire-reddened hearthstone cobbles scattered on a knoll in a field overlooking Cheechunk Creek. From recovered artifacts we can guess that people were here at least 2000 years ago. On a cold November night, this hilltop was probably dotted with red campfires, lit by people who were here to hunt white-tail deer and migratory waterfowl in the Wallkill River marshlands.
- Tom Lake

11/28 - Croton Point, HRM 35-34: The cedar waxwings continue to flow, over a month now, with four more flocks this morning.
- Christopher Letts

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