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Hudson River Almanac November 1 - November 7, 2007

OVERVIEW

Winter is creeping south at an almost imperceptible rate: A little snow in the High Peaks, a few small rafts of winter ducks, a few leafless trees, and water chilly enough to make us put away the bathing suits. But the Hudson still has that placid look of autumn. There is still no sense of urgency among most of the migrants in the watershed. That will come, but it seems to come later each fall.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

11/4 - Cheviot Landing, HRM 106: I watched 2 red-necked grebes today, feeding and hugging the shoreline, drifting south.
- Mimi Brauch

[Roger Tory Peterson calls grebes "duck-like divers," an apt name since they do not readily fit into other waterfowl categories. The red-necked grebe is an Atlantic coastal migrant in fall from breeding grounds in Canada to wintering areas along the Mid-Atlantic. While not common, birders expect to see them both on the river and in Hudson Valley lakes. Tom Lake.]

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

11/1 - Westchester County, HRM 34: I took a walk around Croton Reservoir today. The air was a haze of green and gold light as the weather gods were trying to decide in favor of sun or rain. This has been a strange autumn with many trees still green while others hang onto their golden leaves. As I walked, I looked up to see a tree with black leaves that were, in fact, a mob of crows perched in its bare crown. They had been making a ruckus until I passed under when they fell ominously silent. As I walked on, the ruckus began again. I stopped to look at the small rock piles that form "islands" at the shore. On one of them was a wonderful twisted bare tree, and standing next to it, with much the same shape, was a great blue heron. I could tell it was real only because I saw it blink its eye. On my return, a garter snake that had been lying squashed in the road was gone. Maybe that's what the crows had been discussing - who got first dibs.
- Robin Fox

11/1 - Croton Point, HRM 35: The osprey was back again today - it may have never left - perched in the open oak canopy on the tip of Enoch's Neck. The first class on the beach was from Brookside Elementary in Ossining, second-graders, hung over from Halloween, with teacher Tara Reynolds. The teachers were beginning to think we somehow plan these things, but as we watched, the osprey came off its perch, nailed a menhaden along the seawall, and let out its cry as it circled back. Like an orchestrated play, an immature bald eagle came off a cottonwood a few hundred yards up the beach, flew directly to the osprey, and the "battle" was engaged. For the first time in my memory, second-graders were speechless. The eagle and the osprey moved in nearly synchronized flight, eagle shadowing osprey. Being half the size of the eagle, the osprey was much more maneuverable so it was not a question of being caught. It was just harassment. After a minute, the osprey decided it could always get another fish and dropped the menhaden. The eagle circled back, plucked it off the water, and headed away to its perch in the cottonwood. The second-graders had never seen such an event before.
The next class was from Byram Hills Elementary, in Armonk, also second graders with teacher Santhea Ogden. The timing must have been right because no sooner had they stepped onto the sand and the eagle and osprey began another duel. We did not see where this one started, but we spotted them jousting out in the bay. Again the osprey dropped its fish (probably another menhaden) but this time, before the eagle could snatch it up, the fish sank. While it was entirely anticlimactic, we did seine, catching a few young-of-the-year striped bass, a couple of adult white perch, a dozen fourspine sticklebacks, half-dozen pipefish, a tessellated darter, a dozen silversides, and a handful of shore shrimp. Pretty meager catch but also pretty typical for November 1. The river was 61 degrees F and the salinity was 5.2 ppt, both slightly lower than yesterday.
- Tom Lake, Lori Ceisler, Mike Santiago,

11/1 - Sandy Hook, NJ: The first winter ducks of the season, 4 buffleheads, showed up today on the bay side of Sandy Hook. They almost always arrive within a few days of November 1.
- Dery Bennett

[Winter ducks are another aspect of the autumn migration. These are ducks and geese that have nested to the north, often far to the north in Arctic regions, and are now heading south to wintering areas extending from the lower Hudson Valley to the Delmarva peninsula. Tom Lake.]

11/1 - Navesink River, NJ: This was opening day for shell fishing in the lower Navesink River that flows into Sandy Hook Bay. Between now and April 30, clam digging for direct harvest (dig and eat) is permitted on about 400 acres of river bottom. The rest of the year, bacteria (E. coli) levels are too high and these beds, and the rest of the river, are open only to commercial clammers who sell to purification processors. These are hard shell clams, quahogs (Mercenaria mercinaria), the clams-on-the-half-shell kind. A sunny 55 degrees F at sunrise with a low tide attracted about 30 diggers; 3 of us scored more than enough of all sizes, plus two 4-inch horseshoe crabs and a few "tapeworms." The small horseshoe crabs bury in the sand for the winter and tend to be dug up with the clams, after which they are released.
- Dery Bennett

["Tapeworms" are ribbon (flattened) marine worms (Cerebratulus lacteus) that burrow in the intertidal sand and can grow to 4' long. They make good bait for striped bass. Dery Bennett.]

11/2 - Croton Point, HRM 35: For the third morning in a row, the osprey was perched out on Enoch's Neck. As I set up for the first class, the bird hunted the bay and finally plucked a fish off the water and took it to its feeding perch. I think the osprey and I both expected an intruder but there would be no eagles today. Two more classes, second graders from Byram Hills Elementary in Armonk, helped me seine over the next two hours. But as had been the case for the last two days, the show was in the air. While there were no eagles, there was an unusual presence of crows. We watched as a flock of at least 30 arrived and noisily set up shop in the trees out on Enoch's Neck, a couple hundred feet away. As we watched, the osprey dropped down from its perch and snatched a fish out of the water just off the seawall next to us. As it spiraled upward and headed back, it was joined by a dozen crows. The osprey settled on the limb and seven crows did likewise, all within a few feet of the osprey. Crows will do this with eagles but never so close; they seemed a little more brazen with the osprey. For a full 5 minutes the osprey patiently perched, talons firmly clamped on the fish, with seven pairs of crow eyes hoping for a handout. The osprey waited them out. Finally the crows got tired (they can never just relax) and took off. Immediately the osprey ate the menhaden. A short time later, the crows chased a Cooper's hawk across the bay and the entire mob disappeared over the trees.
I had just one eel today so we could not have an eel race (see October 31). The single eel we had, however, was a silver eel, a male by its size, black on its back, stark white underneath, with protruding eyes. The students learned that the life of the eel is shrouded in mystery. Their puzzled looks told me they needed an example of a mystery, so I offered, "Like what is being served in the school cafeteria today?" They understood. At the end of the day we went to the beach and had a release ceremony for "Fred," as the students named him, wishing him well as he slithered off to the Sargasso Sea.
- Jennifer Rowell, Cathy Wilkens, Tom Lake

[Silver eels are American eels, 12-30 years old, that have undergone physical changes preparatory to spawning. They have changed from the green and yellow coloration of their yellow eel phase to black and white. Their eyes have enlarged, adaptations to traveling in deep, dark ocean waters. Their reproductive organs develop, and in females the alimentary canal atrophies as they produce eggs. Weeks from now they will finally spawn in the Mid-Atlantic, somewhere in the Sargasso Sea. Exactly where and how this is done is still a mystery. Tom Lake.]

11/2 - Croton Point, HRM 34: Strong northeast winds, probably generated by Hurricane Noel as the storm passed up the coast, must have carried a message to the birds: get moving! The point just seethes with birds this morning: robins, red-winged blackbirds, grackles and blue jays - many thousands were moving through briskly. I heard bluebirds calling from one end of the peninsula to the other and raptors were numerous. I counted a dozen red-tails, the same number of sharp-shinned hawks and harriers, and twice that number of flickers. With the strength of the wind, it must have been an almost effortless coast across the Tappan Zee.
- Christopher Letts

11/2 - Ossining, HRM 33: Sailing off Ossining this afternoon, we saw an osprey flying south, about 1000 feet above the river, making about 150 mph. This was an osprey of an entirely different sort, a V-22 tilt-rotor military plane. It's a weird looking thing, with a small fuselage and two wildly thrashing propellers that look like windmills. The huge rotors/props rotate slowly enough that you can see them.
- Doug Maass, Diane Maass

11/2 - Navesink River, NJ: It was a windy 45 degrees F as we made two short seine hauls along an unpromising beach, catching a scant half-dozen banded and striped killifish, and a small sand shrimp. Luckily the sharp-eyed fourth-graders also spotted an ailing "peanut" bunker, a moon jellyfish, and a submerged brick serving as a home for three oyster spat. I brought along a couple of clams to dissect (kids seem to love to discuss guts) and then eat, making sure some clam meat dribbled onto my chin. The result: shock, laughter, and cries of "Yuck!" Kids know how to please a beleaguered guide. We also found a horseshoe crab molt and talked about it, resulting in the best question of the day: "Can horseshoe crabs blink?"
- Dery Bennett

11/3 - Columbia County: More than a few observers have commented this fall that our autumn colors - reds, oranges, and yellows - throughout the watershed do not seem as intense as they were in years, even decades past. With an eye toward the big picture, we asked Ward Stone, NYSDEC Wildlife Pathologist, to comment.

"On September 28,1946, a few friends and I celebrated my eighth birthday with a party in Chatham, New York. I was happy and the day was beautiful. As I played with my friends I thought to myself that I would always remember this day. The red maples were crimson and sugar maples were becoming mostly orange, with green leaves becoming the minority. I would expect Columbia County to look like this every September 28th. However, in recent years my birthday has often been much greener with fall colors coming later and less glorious. This year I've seen less color and fewer sugar maples blending their bright orange into the landscape. Green has lasted longer with patches of brown foliage common. The hues of the red maples also seem more subdued. Higher ambient temperatures, dry conditions and late frost resulted in late color changes and the leaves disappeared quickly as wind and short intense rain storms followed. It appears that global warming is robbing us of some of the beauty of our fall foliage. The decline in autumn color is another warning of other unpleasant worldwide ecological changes that are upon us. A cooperative global effort to reduce the global warming gases is needed immediately or we will lose much more than the aesthetics of Hudson Valley leaves."
- Ward B. Stone

11/3 Tivoli Bays, HRM 100: This afternoon at the edge of a large meadow adjacent to Tivoli Bays, I spotted 2 ring-necked pheasants. I had not seen a pheasant in the wild in at least four years, maybe longer.
- Mimi Brauch

11/4 - Stuyvesant, HRM 127: Paddling on the end-of-season tour with Atlantic Kayak Tours, we stopped at Stuyvesant for a lunch break. As our group approached the landing, a flock of small birds wheeled up from the gravel roadway between the railroad tracks and the shoreline. Sparrow-sized and showing a white and black pattern, I realized they were snow buntings. As we landed our 30 kayaks, I grabbed the binoculars and was able to locate the flock of 16 birds, now back on the short grass and gravel open area, feeding actively. This is the sort of place these small arctic birds like; perhaps it's like the tundra where they spend much of their year.
- Alan Mapes

11/4 - Tappan Zee, HRM 33.5: We were on our little sloop, "Keepher," in the channel just south of Croton Point, running parallel to the course of the Hudson River sloop Clearwater until she passed us, motor-sailing all up (main, jib and tops'l, and engine). The ebb tide was against us and the wind was moderately strong but veering wildly from west to north and back. Clearwater's huge sails allow her, when the wind is favorable, to sail faster than her engine can propel her. When the wind went on the nose, her engine took over while her sails luffed. We didn't see any pumpkins at first so we radioed and queried about her Pumpkin Sail pumpkins. Right away a crew member held a big one up over his head for us to see. The radio voice said the Clearwater was headed for winter quarters in Saugerties
- Doug Maass, Diane Maass

11/4 - Hook Mountain, HRM 31: The rumbling roar of high-powered engines drew our attention to a speeding boat heading north under Hook Mountain. A Donzi or a Cigarette, we thought, but it was PT 728, from Rob Ianucci's Fleet Obsolete in Kingston. A very impressive WW II restoration, guns and all. Shortly after PT 728 passed, down the river from Haverstraw Bay came Windy II, a four-masted steel barquentine hailing from Chicago. Windy looked both pretty and odd, with a high freeboard and four short masts without topmasts. She was motoring, with no sails apparent, and heading, she said, to Charleston, SC. The 150 foot Windy II is the first U.S. certified four masted barquentine since about 1920. Her 4 masts carry 7,380 feet of sail. Her rig is barquentine with fore and aft sails on all except the forward most mast which has 3 square sails. She was launched in 2000 in Charleston SC and is now home ported in Chicago.
- Doug Maass, Diane Maass

11/5 - Port Ewen to Manhattan, HRM 91-4: My morning starts before dawn, and this dawn was spectacular, with Venus and the crescent moon uncommonly bright. Sunlight crept into the sky, thanks to the expiration of Daylight Savings Time, before I reached Peekskill, in time for the plume of smoke from the Charles Point recycling plant to turn purple above a white blanket of low-lying mist low on the river. That bend in the river is the true turning point of the voyage; the train tracks just zig-zag, but Indian Point and that plume are a 180 degree turn in mood compared to the steep forested slopes of the Highlands. The light was strong enough by the time I passed the Palisades to see the autumn color, having taken its time, now forming a dappled frame around the cliffs. It's a journey in time as well as space between Port Ewen and Manhattan, especially this time of year, given the variations in color. I reached work, near 57th Street, from which I can see a sliver of Central Park, and it is only now beginning to be speckled with reds and yellows. I'd arrived, some days or weeks in the past.
- Dan Shapley

1/6 - Newcomb, HRM 302: This morning I saw another flock of snow buntings (I love watching them fly), as well as a flock of Bohemian waxwings across the street from my house. These were the first of those I've seen in Newcomb this year. They were sitting in a birch tree; that I found odd since right in the next yard there is a crab apple loaded with fruits. The robins have been working on that for the last few days, but I would think the waxwings would be able to muscle their way in. There's certainly enough fruit to go around! The sun was out, after heavy rains early this morning (0.52"), and there was fresh snow up on the mountains.
- Ellen Rathbone

11/6 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: Screech owls at first light. With the time change I was concerned about oversleeping, or waking up late, but the vocalizing of screech owls seems to be able to work its way into the deepest sleep. There was a pair of them this morning, trying to out-spook each other, at the sky showed its faintest first light in the east.
- Tom Lake

11/7 - Newcomb, HRM 302: We had our first accumulation of snow this morning, a half-inch on the car. It is not easy measuring such small amounts on the ground since the grass holds it up while in other places it falls through. Then there is the geothermal heating which melts it before it can accumulate. But even so, it was a white world out there when Toby Rathbone and I hit the roads for our walk.
- Ellen Rathbone

11/7 - Staten Island, New York City: About 175 brant were grazing on the ballfields of Miller Field as I headed back to my office from a meeting. Doing their "brant thing," they were eating and chasing each other around, all the while making those peculiar gurgling calls I miss so much during the summer. Suddenly I realized these were the first brant I'd seen this season.
- Dave Taft

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