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Hudson River Almanac November 22 - November 27, 2007

OVERVIEW

The estuary is gaining a slow accumulation of winter ducks as well as an impressive surge of winter finches. Steve Seymour gives us a clue as to why pine siskins and others are at feeders earlier and in more places than usual this season. As the river chills and anglers put away their gear, birders and binoculars dominate our observations.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

11/23 - Putnam County, HRM 54: A winter plumage adult red-throated loon spent the day on Canopus Lake in Fahnestock State Park. There were scattered flocks of pine siskins, good numbers of dark-eyed slate-colored juncos, goldfinches and white-throated sparrows, and a few hermit thrushes in the park.
- Ralph Odell

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

11/22 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 68: There is a huge supermarket parking lot here where feats of magic occur daily. The lot is isolated just enough so that a few people feel comfortable parking and tossing stale rolls to the gulls. While this is not a good thing for the birds, on many levels, it is the bird behavior that amazes. Among the hundreds of cars that drive through here each day, the gulls know exactly which few are the "bird feeders." They spot the vehicles as they turn off the highway and, like seabirds following in the wake of a ship, ring-billed gulls by the score follow their lunch wagon to the parking lot.
- Tom Lake

11/22 - Hathaway's Glen, HRM 63: The spring tide was flooding into Hathaway's Glen Brook at a furious rate. We were in the midst of some of the highest tides of autumn and the river had a long way to go in its allotted six hours. An incredibly clear near-full moon was rising in the east against an open sky. The distortion of being near the horizon made it seem many times larger than it really was. A good protocol for walking along the river is to step softly when you cannot see the water around the bend. Careful as I tried to be, a single lapse, a small loss of focus, and I crunched down on a dry limb hidden in the leaves. It sounded like a rifle shot, and not only to me. A dozen and a half buffleheads sprang up from the shallows not 100 feet away, immediately assumed a tight formation, and headed south to find a quiet piece of water for the night.
- Tom Lake

11/22 - Beacon, HRM 61: It was difficult to believe that it was Thanksgiving Day with the temperature at a balmy 65 degrees F, a warm south wind, waves lapping at the shore, and lots of golden leaves still adorning the maples along the River Walk trail. The oaks had brown leaves, not so unusual, but the amount of greenery in the undergrowth seemed all wrong for this late in the season. A lone red-tailed hawk flew up from the ground ahead of us and perched not very high above, giving us a fine view of his majesty. When there are no eagles in sight a red-tailed hawk will do for magnificence.
- Carolyn Plage, Ed Connelly, Chance Plage

11/23 - Croton-on-Hudson, HRM 35: I looked out the window in early morning the day after Thanksgiving "Gobble" Day to see a parade of wild turkeys hustling across the lawn into the woods. They were chatting and clucking to one another. Flaunting their freedom?
- Robin Fox

11/23 - Bronx, New York City: While searching for wintering owls at Pelham Bay Park, I observed the most unusual behavior of an adult red-tailed hawk. A man was walking his two beagles, both off leash, and they were running around and through the heavy brush. The dogs were wearing bells on their collars so they were quite noisy. As they ran around, the adult red-tail flew in and began to shadow them. The dogs seemed oblivious to the hawk; they had their noses to the ground and did not appear to be aware that the bird was only a few feet above them.
Every time the dogs moved away, the hawk would fly to another limb closer to them. It appeared that the hawk was following the dogs hoping they would scare up a rodent or other creature that the hawk would then catch. The hawk followed the pair of dogs for 10 minutes, finally flying away when the man called the dogs back. I asked the dog owner if he ever noticed this hawk behavior before. He told me that this hawk often follows his dogs whenever he walks them in the park. If we are interpreting this behavior correctly, it is interesting that the hawk has overcome its instinct to avoid dogs and humans and learned how to take advantage of human (and dog) behavior. It also appears that the hawk may have initially been attracted by sound of the bells that the dogs are wearing. Kind of a twist to Pavlov's dogs.
Falconers often train their birds to "wait on" while dogs work to flush game from cover. I have seen a falconer walk through heavy brush using a wood staff to scare up small animals while his Harris hawk followed, moving from tree to tree, in the same fashion as this red-tail. Afterwards, I wondered if the bird headed towards some other dog walkers. There are a good number of people who walk their dogs in this park so this hawk has had plenty of opportunity to observe them and learn this behavior. My guess is that she has been successful.
- Joe O'Connell

11/24 - Willsboro, Essex County: We were in the Adirondacks just after Thanksgiving and, recalling Ellen Rathbone's report of bohemian waxwings at Newcomb, found them along Lake Champlain. The bohemian is just a little larger than the cedar waxwing but the different call gives them away. There were also common redpolls, snow buntings, and quite a few rough-legged hawks. There was no sign of cones on the white pines in our part of the woods. This has probably led to the winter finches getting out of the mountains while the getting was good and heading south into the Hudson Valley.
- Steve Seymour

11/24 - Tomhannock Reservoir, Rensselaer County, HRM 163: Among the 21 species of waterfowl on the reservoir were an estimated 2,000 Canada geese, 150 hooded mergansers, 50 ring-necked and ruddy ducks, and 20 lesser scaup, as well as one bald eagle.
- Rich Guthrie

[Tomhannock Reservoir is on Tomhannock Creek, a tributary of the Hoosic River that in turn is a tributary of the Hudson, entering at river mile 172. Bob Schmidt.]

11/24 - Wappinger Creek, HRM 67.5: This was a cold, blustery winter-like day. Five hooded mergansers caught my eye in the lower tidewater reach of the creek, 3 drakes, 2 hens. They were swimming on the fringes of a small number of common mergansers.
- Tom Lake

11/25 - Saugerties, HRM 102: The wrack line was well over the boardwalk at Saugerties Light this evening, indicating a very high tide. A beautiful full moon was rising well to the northeast. Among the 5 species of waterfowl on the river were 53 mute swans and a dozen Canada geese. Also seen was an American kestrel and an eastern screech owl that I "whistled up."
- Rich Guthrie

[I think if I had to choose one owl that brings the most genuine chills to the listener, it would be the eastern screech owl! Two screech owls vocalizing on Halloween night are better than a witch flying across the face of the moon. Tom Lake.]

11/25 - New Paltz, HRM 79: Just north of the New Paltz exit on the New York State Thruway I spotted a lone black vulture soaring overhead. Although this southern species has become much more common in recent years, I was surprised to see it at the end of November. I would have thought that it would have moved further south by now for the winter.
- Reba Wynn Laks

[Dozens of vultures roost together in winter in the Village of New Paltz. While turkey vultures are far more numerous in these congregations, there have been black vultures among them in recent winters. Steve Stanne]

11/25 Poughkeepsie, HRM 75: I have noticed in the last few years a gathering of crows in late November around the Mid-Hudson Bridge on the Poughkeepsie side. The sheer numbers are astounding; I have never seen so many crows in one place! Why do they gather in such numbers at this location.
- Ray Spiegel

[One of the more well-known and particularly noticeable communal night roosts for crows along the Hudson is at Poughkeepsie. From late November through much of the winter, great numbers of crows - beginning in the hundreds, growing to the thousands - collect along the river from the Mid-Hudson Bridge south for well over a mile. These communal night roosts may offer protection from predators, and may also be important in facilitating social functions for crows. Tom Lake.]

11/25 - Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 67.5: I just watched an adult Cooper's hawk chase a common flicker across a field. As a Cooper's prey size, the flicker seemed a bit bigger than what I'm used to seeing. I wondered if this was a "real" chase or just the hawk showing off? They disappeared into the treeline so I did not see the outcome.
- Tom Lake

[According to the entry for Cooper's hawk in the Birds of North America Online at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology website http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna , birds and mammals of medium size, especially robins, jays, northern flicker, starling, doves, and chipmunks, are major prey items of this raptor. Steve Stanne.]

11/25 - Western Long Island Sound: The winds slacked off and many anglers who still had boats in the water spent the day chasing striped bass all over western Long Island Sound. Almost every year the western Sound serves as a nursery for vast numbers of young-of-the-year Atlantic menhaden, also know as "peanut bunker," the most nutritional prey fish in existence (~20% body fat). Many Hudson River-origin stripers migrating south from New England move through the Sound and intercept these bunker schools. Normally this fishing peaks in mid-November but with October being 7 degrees F above normal, it happened late this year. Harbor waters cool faster than the open Sound so the late fall fishing shifts to the warmer middle between Nassau and Westchester counties, usually centered off Hempstead Harbor. On this day there was a festival atmosphere out on the water with about 40 boats full of fishermen merrily chasing schools of stripers surfacing as they charged into the bunker, the scene marked above by hundreds of gulls also contributing to the carnage. It's the climax of the annual production cycle with the stripers cashing in before wintering on the bottom of the Hudson estuary and elsewhere and it provides the kind of memories that sustain an angler through the winter just ahead.
- John Waldman

11/26 - Putnam County, HRM 54: The first tree sparrows of the season arrived at Fahnestock State Park today.
- Ralph Odell

11/26 - Wappinger Lake, HRM 67.5: This shallow man-made impoundment is 2 miles upstream from tidewater and has always been a favorite stopover for migrating waterfowl, especially dabbling pond ducks like mallards and blacks. In addition to the several dozen mallards and blacks, I spotted 5 hooded mergansers, 3 drakes, 2 hens, and wondered if these were the same ones I saw two days ago downstream. Each group of waterfowl had found their own patch of water and the deepest held a small group of common mergansers. Amidst all the ordinary happenstance was a sideshow: 6 hen mergansers were perched in a row along a floating timber, preening in unison, their shock of red head feathers bobbing in the wind. They looked like a cross between a comedy skit and the Rockettes!
- Tom Lake

11/26 - Constitution Marsh, HRM 51.4: Heading to Manhattan on the Metro North 7:55 AM commuter train, we spotted 2 bald eagles, one adult, one immature, hunkered down against the wet weather in a tree at the south end of Constitution Marsh. As December approaches we expect to see more of them, migrants from points north.
- Mike Boyajian, Jeri Wagner

11/27 - Newcomb, HRM 302: Another grey day with snow flurries at the Adirondack Park Visitors Interpretive Center. We had 0.37" of rain yesterday. Today we have flurries, then real snow, wind, sunshine, rain, flurries, sunshine, more wind, more snow, a little blue sky, and back to wind. The birds have been feeding non-stop. I think they suspect a storm. I even had a female hairy woodpecker cling to my tube feeder twice to snag a seed or two. We have mostly chickadees and the occasional red-breasted nuthatch, although I did watch a white-breasted nuthatch making the rounds on a maple tree trunk just outside my window. A common redpoll was just seen at our platform feeders. The Hudson River is up again, another 3-5'. Most of the rocks were submerged when I last went down to the pump house over the weekend.
- Ellen Rathbone

11/27 - Town of Warwick, Orange County, HRM 41: The rain had ended (1.45"). Huge banks of black clouds were being pushed across the sky over Liberty Marsh by the north wind. It seemed like it might be a good flight day but the expected large flocks of geese did not arrive. However, there were raptors a-plenty. In an hour there were 5 red-tailed hawks, either wandering residents or migrants, a rough-legged hawk, 2 Cooper's hawks, and 3 northern harriers. One female harrier put on a show (don't they all?) at the edge of the marsh. From its perch on a heavy power line, it drifted down into some low grass and pounced on an unseen prey. I had the feeling that the marsh hawk was not very hungry; it seemed to play with whatever it had, footing it, letting it move away, and then pouncing again like a kitten after a catnip mouse. I could not tell if it ate whatever it had, but after a while it flew back to the power line where it cleaned its beak on the wire. Only a couple hundred feet down the same line, a northern shrike perched with a good view for any opportunities that might come along.
- Tom Lake

[The northern shrike is a boreal songbird whose presence in the Hudson Valley, like that of winter finches, is often associated with severe weather or food shortages to the north. While the shrike family is taxonomically grouped with thrushes, blackbirds, finches, and other perching birds; their behavior is raptor-like; this species often impales its prey, smaller songbirds or mammals, on thorns or barbed wire. The Latin scientific name for their genus is Lanius, meaning butcher. Tom Lake.]

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