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Hudson River Almanac November 13 - November 21, 2007

OVERVIEW

Near the headwaters of the Hudson, resident wildlife is preparing for the cold. Nearly 300 miles south, migratory wildlife from points north have taken up winter residence. Between those points is a river in flux as migrants pass by and others arrive to stake out their winter territories.


HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

11/13 - Sleepy Hollow, HRM 28: I was out on the bell deck of the Tarrytown Lighthouse, a wondrous,130 year-old structure, showing a group of school children the proper technique for ringing the 1,000 lb. bell. For many years the sound of this bell through fog and darkness warned boat captains of the Tarrytown Shoals. From the site of the old General Motors plant came a peregrine falcon, flying over the lighthouse and out over the Tappan Zee like an arrow. It was gone before I could find the words to describe its passing.
- Christopher Letts


NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

11/13 - Senasqua, HRM 36: Headed south on Route 9A, I was virtually beneath a wheeling bald eagle, less than 100' above the roadway. As I passed, the white head and tail contrasted with the almost black body. Dangling from one set of talons was a limp gray squirrel. Had eagles taken up squirrel hunting, or was the prey scavenged? There was no way to know.
- Christopher Letts

11/13 - Manhattan to Croton-on-Hudson, HRM 4-34: It must be the bumpkin in me, but when I ride truck, plane, or train, I'm a neck-craning rube who wants to see everything. On a late afternoon northbound commuter train out of Grand Central Station I scored a prime window seat. Without cell phone, laptop, or newspaper, I was free to marvel at the vast acreage of trashed-out land abutting the tracks all the way to the north end of Yonkers. At Irvington, I had a clear but fleeting look at a swift peregrine falcon as it passed. Sleepy Hollow gave me a female belted kingfisher. At Ossining, I was gratified to see a strung out raft of winter ducks: blacks, ruddys and buffleheads for sure. There was another flock of white-on-black waterfowl, but they were too far out in Croton Bay to identify as scaup or canvasback. All told, perhaps 1500 birds. At the Croton railroad bridge the show was over, concluded by a flock of 5 dozen mute swans.
- Christopher Letts

11/14 - Croton Point, HRM 35-34: For the past few days this peninsula has pulsed with bird life. Have I ever seen and heard so many robins? Yesterday, I listed 42 species, today just 9. The place was all but deserted. A clear night and a fair wind had made up thousands of avian minds; they had made their flight.
- Christopher Letts

11/15 - Jamaica Bay, Queens: I stood at the head of Jamaica Bay, staring into Queens from Nassau County, in the parking lot of a bank that had neatly replaced the mud bank where Mott and Hook Creeks feed Jamaica Bay. Below all the bulkheading flowed a startlingly beautiful deep-water creek, clear to the point where shells could be seen on a 15' sandy bottom. It looked so fishy I yearned to throw in a cast. I recall seeing many anglers here not many years ago, but it was now completely cut off from any public access by an array of barbed wire, hurricane fencing, warning signs, and barricades that would have impressed a terrorist. Squeezing through a crack in the asphalt bordering the creek was black nightshade - probably the latest I've ever seen it bloom.
- Dave Taft

11/16 - Croton-on-Hudson, HRM 35: At last the 4 Japanese red maples at the entrance to my drive had turned as their name promised. Their color is a deeper red this year than I remember, the brilliant crimson tinged with burgundy. The effect is a remarkable glow. As in past years, people stopped to photograph the trees. One year, a couple in their wedding outfits asked permission to be photographed under the trees. As I write, there is a white-tail stag with a headdress of antlers standing like a statue under another Japanese maple tree at the edge of the woods. He is intently watching a small herd of females. With its head and antlers aloft, and the tree above "on fire" with its inner gold, apricot, peachy light, the scene was surreal.
- Robin Fox

11/17 - Sandy Hook, NJ: They had already been here for a month (see 10/13 Sandy Hook) yet I was still impressed that every inlet and cove on the bay-side of the Hook held 50-100 brant. In almost every setting, they mixed in with buffleheads, black ducks, and red-breasted mergansers. While the diving ducks sought fish and shellfish, the black ducks dabbled along the shore probing for the last of the vegetation; they were having the house salad.
- Tom Lake

11/18 - Croton-on-Hudson, HRM 35: The bird feeder at my back door was crowded with small finches busily foraging for seeds. I noticed that some of them looked a bit different from the rest. My field guide revealed that they were pine siskins, another first for my lifelist.
- Robin Fox

11/18 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: Along with the first flurries of the season there was a flock of American pipits on the Croton Point landfill, their white outer tail feathers very apparent as they flew.
- Jane Shumsky

[Water pipits have been "split" into two distinct species: the water pipit (Anthus spinosa) of Eurasia, and the American pipit (Anthus rubescens) of our world. Ours is a spin-off species, a descendant of some ancestral colonists long ago. Its constant tail-wagging mannerism gives the name to their family group: Motacillidae, from the Latin motacilla, meaning "wagtail." They get their common name from their flight call: a repeated "pipit-pip-it." In migration, they're a bird of the open grasslands, such as the Croton Point landfill cover, and can occur in flocks of a dozen or more. Rich Guthrie.]

11/18 - Navesink River, NJ: Over the past few days the backyard bird feeders have hosted chickadees, titmice, house finches, house sparrows, common grackles, starlings, brown-headed cowbird, juncos, white throated sparrows, downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches, and goldfinches. Today, however, was special. In addition to some of the above, half a dozen crows came in and took over, yacking it up and cleaning out the peanuts. Then, total bird silence and absence. Sure enough, there in the half-leafed hackberry tree perched a sharp-shinned hawk. Here's hoping it uses the yard for regular winter feeding visits, dining only on the non-native, now naturalized, house sparrows.
- Dery Bennett

11/18 - Queens, New York City: The bird that zipped across Woodhaven Boulevard at its junction with Cross Bay Boulevard landed squarely on the side of a Norway maple, and worked its way up. Though traffic began to move just before I could get a better look, I'm sure it was a hairy woodpecker. My wife would prefer I separate my birding from my driving.
- Dave Taft

11/18 - Sea Bright, NJ: At first light on the beach, a dozen brant in a sloppy V flew past heading south. There would be no dawn this morning. A corp of hopeful anglers faced a screaming northeast wind in a persistent rain. The surf was building and we knew that in a couple hours it would be unfishable. A quarter mile offshore a hundred gulls were in a frenzy; bass or blues were chasing bait. The half-dozen of us on the beach all had our opinions as to which and what of each. I knew I was in the company of fishermen when one offered, "Aw, those are blues, big as bathtubs. I can tell by the birds - they're being cautious." All that, from a quarter-mile away - the eyes of experience.
- Tom Lake

11/18 - Sandy Hook, NJ: Along the northeast edge of Sandy Hook, adjacent to Gunnison Beach, a short boardwalk bisects a small holly forest. In warmer months, this small patch of dense vegetation can house a dozen or more species of songbirds. Today I could find only one, but there were many of them, tiny winter wrens flitting across the canopy and scooting through the underbrush. In what was a first, for me anyway, a croaking raven flew low overhead. There is scant habitat for ravens on this sandy peninsula, so it was a head-scratcher. But this large black bird had the scruffy noggin, a trowel-shaped tail, and a voice like Janis Joplin's.
- Tom Lake

11/19 - New Baltimore, HRM 131.5: There were 3 red-breasted mergansers on the Hudson River this morning. The evening grosbeaks that visited my feeders yesterday must have moved on, as have the pine siskins of a week ago.
- Rich Guthrie

11/19 - Rhinebeck, HRM 92: This morning I awoke to a red sky and temperatures in the 30s, but by 8:30 it had warmed up enough to work outside without the hat and gloves. The sun peeked out! It has indeed been a strangely developing, drawn out autumn. My planter box of petunias under the garage overhang was still in bloom. The burning bush have just turned red. I harvested carrots and kohlrabi this week and still have beets and parsnips in the ground. The apple trees are holding on to their leaves, and some of the spring perennials have several inches of new growth. A beautiful pair of bluebirds, who I hope are nesting nearby, have been perched in my peach tree for the past couple of days, occasionally flitting down to the lawn to eat grubs. Winter? I guess so; I caught a sleepy vole burrowing under the frost-wilted hostas.
- Joanne Engle

11/19 - Brooklyn, New York City: The red tailed hawk who has been haunting the Belt Parkway near Bay Ridge these past few weeks was a wet, unhappy looking mop of a bird this morning, sitting on a lamp post in the rain. As I made my usual trudge through yet more construction delays on the Belt Parking-lot, I'm sure he looked no more miserable than I did.
- Dave Taft

11/20 - North Creek, HRM 257: I was driving north on Route 28N from North Creek at mid-morning, just barely over the Hudson River bridge into the Town of Chester, when this amazingly narrow white flash of a critter passed across the highway in front of me. The white flash had a shortish tail that had a strikingly black tip. With only a dusting of snow, and a road clear of ice, this shorttail weasel was pretty easy to spot. Unlike a squirrel or chipmunk, both of which seem to have a death wish when it comes to crossing roads (i.e., stopping, starting again, stopping, then doubling back), this beautiful little weasel, about 10" long, had no thought of stopping as it cruised quickly and single mindedly across the road to safety. It was a refreshing sighting and made my day.
- Mike Corey

[In winter, the brown fur of the shorttail weasel turns white except for the tip of its tail - an adaptation to living in the snowy northern reaches of North America. In their winter coats, the shorttail as well as the longtail weasel are often referred to as ermine (longtail lacks the black tip on its tail). Both are related to other members of the weasel family such as fisher, mink, marten, otter, and skunk. Tom Lake.]

11/20 - Peekskill Hollow Brook, HRM 43.5: At dawn, the cold rain and wet snow and ice underfoot reminded me it was nearing late November. I stopped by this stream briefly this morning, curious about a story told to me by Dave Taft. For Dave this is promising trout stream, where there are always raccoon-picked freshwater mussels along the banks, interesting plants and animals, and also more changes in pools and runs than any other creek he knows. Big logs come and go, runs shift from right to left and back, shallows get scoured and vice versa. I recalled Dave's tale from a recent trip:

"I thought I would take a quick look at conditions along this beautiful Putnam County creek for a possible fishing trip. As I stood on a bridge over the creek I spotted some movement in the pool below. A small mammal was foraging under water, swimming easily upstream and surfacing once for air. It drifted down again with the current as if looking at me, only to resume foraging on another swim upstream. About the size of a chipmunk, but with none of the color and certainly none of its associated behavior, I was left standing and staring blankly, trying to think of what it could possibly be. It had a long slim tail, and a sort of widened appearance under water with a paddle-like sort of swimming motion. Finally, the animal swam into a cleft in some stream side stones, and disappeared. After some considerable discussions with my wife, local experts, my therapist, a rabbi, two priests, and a session on the Internet, one expert, Chris Letts, nailed it: a water shrew. An animal I didn't even know existed in these watersheds."

This morning there were no shrews - no anything, matter of fact. The somber ambiance was cemented in place by the 4 night-roosting turkey vultures in a nearby snag. Still, on its best day, this a nice piece of water.
- Tom Lake

[Shrews are small, omnivorous, mouse-size, frenetic mammals. Their high metabolism requires that they eat frequently; some shrews consume twice their body weight in food each day. Air trapped in the fur of the water shrew gives it buoyancy, the "widened appearance" field mark that Dave Taft picked up on. In Peekskill Hollow Brook, its diet probably consists of both aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates. Tom Lake.]

11/21 - New Hamburg to Chelsea, HRM 67.5-65.4: This was a typical gray November day, but with no wind and no rain, it was made for a long walk along the river. While some of the bays and marshes held the beginnings of the winter duck migration, this two-mile reach from New Hamburg south to Chelsea was flat calm and open. Cody the golden retriever was intrigued by the seemingly endless numbers of small finches flitting and calling from the treeline and underbrush along the railroad right away. I "pished" and he softly yipped as we tried to identify as many as we could. While pishing ordinarily brings goldfinches, chickadees and titmice, within seconds an adult bald eagle broke out of the treeline overhead, hesitated for just an instant over the tracks, and then continued westward toward Danskammer Point. As it flared away I could make out a blue band on its leg. I'm guessing it was the female of the local mated pair from nest NY62. On our way back to our truck, an immature eagle dropped down out of the same tree (I had missed it the first time) and shadowed the tracks upriver for a few hundred feet before settling in a cottonwood. Having done quite enough "eagle disturbing" for the day, we left.
- Tom Lake

["Pishing" is a tool used by birders to entice songbirds closer to be identified. This vocal technique, simply a low, mellow "pish-pish-pish," is especially useful when facing dense underbrush and deep woods filed with birdsong and shadowy shapes. No one is quite sure why it works, but guesses include the birds' curiosity about a seemingly familiar sound. Tom Lake.]

11/21 - Beacon, HRM 61: While the fishing season is winding down at Long Dock, this was a banner day with two carp, both 26" long and weighing about 8 lb. They were admired and released along with 2 channel catfish, one of which was 25" long and weighed nearly 5 lb. It seems that one of the better days was saved for last.
- Bill Greene

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