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Hudson River Almanac November 7 - November 13, 2007

OVERVIEW

It might be said that diversity of entries is a hallmark of the Almanac. This week we range from 12,000 years ago to the present, from the High Peaks of the Adirondacks to Sandy Hook, from extinct animals to gulls with seemingly more than a "bird brain," and to inspiration for a hearty late autumn soup!

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

11/8 - Furnace Woods, HRM 38.5: It was 22 degrees F at 6:00 AM. The window boxes, flower beds, and vegetable gardens were frozen in the lushness of yesterday. In a few hours, as ice crystals melted, all would lose their vigor and slump, fit now only for the compost heap. The longest growing season in over two decades of gardening here had come to an end. It was a relief, in a way, none of the crazed bargaining we usually go through covering plants with tarps or spraying them with water in the small hours of the morning. No negotiating with this cold snap. In the kitchen our largest stock pot was simmering with some of that last harvest. "End of the Garden" soup, my mother called it, as she built a hearty brew with a little bit of this and a handful of that. Somehow a magical synergy came into being and, of all her soups, it was the one we loved the most.
- Christopher Letts


NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

11/8 - North Germantown, HRM 109: The river was a mirror, bank to bank, reflecting the colors of a Catskill Mountain autumn from across the way. A sizeable raft of black ducks drifted lazily in the flood current near shore as a pied-billed grebe poked in and among them, busily diving for forage.
- Tom Lake

11/8 - Cheviot Landing, HRM 106: The flood tide was halfway up on the rock and earth pier that extends a quarter-mile from the eastern shore. In the still water on the upriver side, a raft of black ducks mingled with a small congregation of Canada geese. One bird was swimming alone, and even though I approached the river bank quietly, it took off and headed upriver. It was a red-necked grebe, perhaps one of those Mimi Brauch spotted here four days ago (see 11/4 Cheviot).
- Tom Lake

11/8 - Kowawese, HRM 59: There are many ways to compare one year to the next. However, since we find ourselves in the river much of the fall - hauling nets, holding fish, getting wet - water temperature becomes a most useful measure of the change in seasons. Each year we note the water temperature at Kowawese Park on November 8 if, for no other reason than to know when it is time to don the waders and stow the bathing suit. Today it was 56 degrees F. In the last eleven years, the water temperature has ranged from a high of 58 in 2003 to a low of 47 in 2002, with a mean of 52.4 degrees F.
- Tom Lake

11/8 - Constitution Marsh, HRM 51.4: From our Metro North commuter train car this morning, we again spotted an adult bald eagle in a tree at the south end of Constitution Marsh. Its white head was clearly visible in the morning sunshine. Our fellow passengers were oblivious to its presence, being engrossed in their morning newspapers.
- Mike Boyajian, Jeri Wagner

11/8 - Croton-on-Hudson, HRM 34.5: We call it "Item 4," for the slight resemblance to the crushed stone used in driveway and road construction. It is actually made up of shell fragments dropped by gulls over the Metro North commuter parking lot. It offers an instant read on what the local birds are eating. From June to November, blue crab shells are prevalent, but that is finished for this year. Now the detritus consists of wedge clam (wedge rangia) shell fragments. On a good minus tide, it is usual to see up to 60 ring-billed gulls probing the mud flats for clams that are then dropped over the parking lot from an average height of 40 feet. The black-backed and herring gulls tend to let the smaller birds do the work, then swoop in to pirate the clam meats. By spring the black asphalt will appear almost white and more than one commuter will get off the train to find a fresh ding on their vehicle.
- Christopher Letts

11/8 - Brooklyn, New York City: The death of a good friend's mother was the sad business that brought me into Brooklyn today. Talking outside the church with friends after the services, we watched 25 common crows fly silently through the Marine Park area of Brooklyn. It's been a few years since West Nile Virus made these birds so scarce. I was struck at how significant they seemed: very prim, all dressed in black, and silent - a condition I don't often associate with crows.
- Dave Taft

11/8 - Sleepy Hollow, HRM 27: From the Tarrytown Lighthouse bell deck I watched flight after flight of brant pass by, all within 50 feet of the water. It is interesting how these little geese fly so low during migration, when Canada and snow geese are often just specks in the sky.
- Christopher Letts

11/9 - Brooklyn, New York City: Passing Madison High School on the way to do some errands for my mother, I noted an unplanned addition nearby. On the telephone pole where I used to meet friends before walking home, an enormous monk parakeet nest had been constructed. True to form, it almost completely encased the transformer that would heat it all winter. Ironically, it would probably eventually short out and burn their house down. These parrots were inadvertently introduced when a crate (or several) containing parrots destined for the pet trade broke open at Kennedy Airport. Unlike the "alligators in the sewers" story, this one has good basis in truth. Native to temperate forests of South America, these parrots are not unused to snow and cold. They've become a fairly regular sight throughout the Midwood sections of Brooklyn, and now also in Gravesend and several neighboring "hoods."
- Dave Taft

11/9 Sandy Hook, NJ: A new moon and an extra low tide drew me to the beach at Horseshoe Cove. Three black-bellied plovers fed along the low tide line. Under the rocks of an abandoned rocky pier were small Asian shore crabs (Hemigrapsus sanguineus) that first appeared along the Atlantic coast at Townsend Inlet, Cape May County, New Jersey in 1988. They have since spread south to Virginia and up into Maine. The common wisdom is that their larvae arrived in ballast water (see 10/31 Liberty State Park, NJ). On the way back to the truck, I kicked up a flock of white-throated sparrows and juncos. The spotted knapweed was still blooming.
- Dery Bennett

11/10 - Newcomb, HRM 302: My neighbor, Charlotte Demers, has had pine grosbeaks in her crab apple tree. They've been spotted in many parts of the Adirondack Park already this season.
- Ellen Rathbone

[Pine grosbeaks, true "winter finches," are boreal forest nesters of northern Canada. In most years, they are uncommon visitors in the mid and upper Hudson Valley. But in some winters, large numbers of winter finches move south in what are called irruptions. Judging by reports from the Adirondacks thus far, this looks like it's going to be a "winter finch" year. Rich Guthrie, Tom Lake.]

11/10 - Pine Island, HRM 45: Farmer Richard Van Sickle spotted some bones sticking out of the bank near the bottom of a drainage ditch in a potato field. As more and more bones were uncovered, the skeleton of an extinct animal appeared. This was a stag-moose, a mammal with the body of an elk, the head of a deer, the antlers of a moose. There were "cut marks" on some of the bones, raising the question of how it died. One mark was on a clavicle, another near a leg joint, both in the right place for butchering. But were they the result of a Paleoindian spear point or modern farm machinery? There is scant evidence in the Hudson Valley for the first native Americans killing and butchering large fauna such as mammoths, mastodonts, and elk-moose. Without a microscopic look to see if these were made by stone or steel, it was suggestive, but not compelling.
- Tom Lake

[This part of Orange County between Florida and Pine Island, known as the "Black Dirt," is an important agricultural area, growing enormous amounts of produce such as onions, potatoes, lettuce, radishes, cabbage, carrots, corn, pumpkin, and squash in the highly organic soil. From 30% to as much as 90% of the soil is organic; in some place it is essentially a compost heap. The black dirt, topsoil measured in "feet deep," originates from a late Pleistocene lake and wetland and is filled with bones of extinct animals like mastodont, ground sloth, horse, peccary, and stag-moose that died here 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Tom Lake.]

11/11 - Putnam Valley, HRM 55.5: I was reading that bird call soundtracks are used sometimes to create "natural ambience" background during televised golf tournaments. But the faint, intermittent sound of a hooting owl (or any bird) didn't seem likely with a book or television program this evening so I turned off the television. There was silence for a while, then again I heard the hooting. The broadcast was emanating from my fireplace (damper open), now loud and clear. It was the distinctive 4 + 4 hoots of a barred owl. It must have been perched on my chimney! What a treat: indoors, warm, reading by electric light about a night-talking bird while it's in flue-amplified earshot. The "just-owl-event" lasted at least three minutes with 20+ calls unforgettably seared in my ears! I didn't dare go outside to get a look for fear of scaring it off with noisy door-opening.
- Nancy P. Durr

11/11 - Shrewsbury River, NJ: A waterfowl check of this tributary of Sandy Hook Bay yielded a dozen ruddy ducks and 4 eared grebes, first of the year. On the water off in the distance were a flock of brant and 2 mute swans. None of the "serious" winter ducks were here yet: common goldeneye, longtails (formerly oldsquaw), or greater scaup (a.k.a. broadbills, bluebills). The bay water was warmer than the air.
- Dery Bennett

11/12 - North Germantown, HRM 109: There is a inland body of water near here, a couple of mile east of the river, that I call "Kellners' Pond." I stopped today and counted 60 snow geese that were hanging out with a gazillion Canada geese.
- Mimi Brauch

11/12 - Cheviot, HRM 106: Last week I spotted a couple of red-necked grebes here, then a couple of days ago a pied-billed grebe, but late this afternoon I had to be content with a flock of about 90 American coot. The light was difficult for details at that hour, but the coot were close enough for a clear identification.
- Mimi Brauch

[American coot, distinctive among birds on the Hudson, are a member of the rail family, along with the moorhen (gallinule). Rather than webbed feet, they have lobed toes which open and fold when the coot is paddling in the water. They are duck-like, yet are not ducks. They can dabble like a mallard and dive like a bufflehead. They swim well underwater, a strategy that frequently allows them to evade bald eagles. They used to nest on Long Island but disappeared from there as a breeder in the mid 1980s. They do nest in the wildlife refuges in western New York such as Montezuma, Oak Orchard, and Iroquois. They winter on ice-free ponds, lakes, and rivers of the Mid-Atlantic, including the Hudson. They have stately black plumage, an ivory white bill, and shiny red eyes. Rich Guthrie, Tom Lake.]

11/12 - Quaker Creek, HRM 45: The gray skies filtered an even light, giving the Black Dirt farmlands of Orange County an ebony glow. The contrast between the deep black dirt and the remnant green crops was striking. Unlike the Hudson River, where rafts of waterfowl numbering the hundreds often provide a sensory overload, simple, singular events frequently mark this area. For a half-hour a lone northern harrier provided entertainment. There are few performances in nature that combine the grace, elegance, and flying precision of a harrier hunting a wetland or a grassland. This one's white rump patch glowed in the subdued light as she bounced along, buoyantly, methodically listening for the sound of prey, occasionally dropping down and disappearing into the grass below, only to spring up and resume her hunt moments later.
- Tom Lake

11/13 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: Anthropologists believe that human senses, especially hearing and smell, were much more acute in the distant past, but have become dulled by modern living. For hearing, at least, I see glimpses of recovery. An hour before dawn I awoke from a sound sleep as though someone had tapped me on the shoulder or yelled in my ear. It was dark and quiet. Then I heard it: coyotes, distant but clear, mostly yipping, from at least two distinct quarters, what seemed like a back-and-forth bantering among a family or clan. This morning it was simply intriguing; in the distant past it may have had a much more significant meaning.
- Tom Lake

11/13 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: What a glorious day to be walking on Croton Point. I wandered very close to a red-tailed hawk eating a squirrel; it didn't seem concerned about my presence. At the south point (Teller's) there was a flock of cedar waxwings, feeding on red berries from a viburnum. There seem to be lots of red-breasted nuthatches this year; previously I never had them at my feeder.
- Jane Shumsky

[Although the red-breasted nuthatch nests in conifers throughout New York State, it prefers spruce-fir forests, and the bulk of its breeding range lies to our north. Like winter finches, this nuthatch occasionally descends to the lower 48 in large numbers. Such irruptions are a reaction to a periodic phenomenon of failed food crops up north. So far, the species on the move include red-breasted nuthatches, pine grosbeaks, red crossbills, white-winged crossbills, evening grosbeaks, Bohemian waxwings, common redpolls, and northern shrikes. The more regular species, such as the American goldfinch, have also been showing up in high numbers. Rich Guthrie.]


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