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Hudson River Almanac November 28 - December 4, 2007

OVERVIEW

December is the month we conduct Christmas Bird Counts in the Hudson Valley, a 100-year tradition of taking stock of our winter birds. For the past few weeks, Almanac observations have been filled with notices of an increased presence of winter finches as well as the usual migrants. This may be a memorable Christmas Count year.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

11/28 - West Point, HRM 53: There we were, overlooking the Hudson River from 1100' up on the side of Crow's Nest Mountain. As if that wasn't good enough, a few winter finches were spotted in the tall grass nearby. More soon appeared and "pishing" produced a flock of 60-70 close around us. Andrew Farnsworth of Cornell's Lab of Ornithology raised the binoculars, then told me "They're ALL common redpolls!" Uncommon birds all the way from the boreal forests. With a flutter of wings, winter was descending upon us. An irruption year for the boreal songbirds.
- Bob Kakerbeck

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

11/28 - Newcomb, HRM 302: It dawned a beautiful day! Sunshine on freshly fallen powdery snow, less than an inch, made everything look nice. The songbirds continued to feed eagerly.
- Ellen Rathbone

11/28 - Wappinger Creek, HRM 67.5: More common mergansers had arrived into the delta at the mouth of this tidal tributary. There was a pretty even mix of hens and drakes, maybe 25 birds, skittering across the water, diving and preening in a loose assemblage. Perched overhead on a bare oak limb, with a disinterested look, was an adult bald eagle. The mergansers never showed the slightest concern. Mergansers and other diving ducks tend to be favored as eagle food given their mode of takeoff. As they flap, flap, flap down what seems like an extended runway to gain elevation, they are vulnerable to attack. Marsh ducks such as mallards, blacks, and wood ducks spring straight up off the water, lessening their time at risk.

[Eagles and "eagle food" are a poorly understood relationship. An explosion of gulls or waterfowl into the air often means a hungry eagle is soaring nearby. The sky over cornfields in Saratoga County will fill with hundreds of snow geese from the presence of a single eagle on the wing. But just as often ducks will swim, seemingly without a care, within a wingbeat of a perched eagle. Crows will share scraps from a fish dinner while standing within talon reach. It suggests that other birds might be able to sense when an eagle is hungry and when they might be in danger. Is there a subliminal message in the eye of an eagle? Tom Lake.]

11/29 - Catskill, HRM 113: A strong east wind and a serious chop on the water had sent all of the migratory waterfowl across the Hudson to the mouth of Hallenbeck Creek where the river was quiet. They were at least a quarter-mile away but my scope picked up a raft of ruddy ducks, buffleheads, and a considerable number of common mergansers.
- Tom Lake

11/29 - Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 68.5: From along the railroad right-of-way, a small flock of cedar waxwings broke in unison from a tree-of-heaven and disappeared into the forest. I thought it was me that spooked them until I saw a shadow pass over. It was a rough-legged hawk. While probably not a threat to the songbirds, the hawk was still a predatory presence.
- Tom Lake

11/29 - Fishkill, HRM 61: Things were getting a bit "nuttier" around here, so to speak. Both a white-breasted nuthatch and a red-breasted nuthatch were frequenting my bird feeders. This was a first in the 24 years of bird-feeding. The red-breasted was the newcomer, quite tame as it flitted to and fro at the feeder and back to a grove of pine trees in my yard. The antics of both nuthatch species are fun to watch.
- Ed Spaeth

11/29 - Croton Point, HRM 35: It was a cold, dark morning, threatening rain or snow. But the birds were there: a red-tailed hawk perched, a Cooper's hawk hunting the thickets, an immature bald eagle soaring over Croton Bay, 2 harriers, 40' apart, flying south, a behavior that made sense to them if not to me, and a northern goshawk soaring over the bathing beach. On my walk I had 37 species, with pine siskin, kinglets, and purple finches in the mix. Best by far, better than a warm fire or a bowl of good soup, was a flock of bluebirds at the edge of the oak grove, calling, foraging, leaving me warm and hopeful.
- Christopher Letts

11/30 - Westchester County, HRM 34: I was on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail near Quaker Bridge Road and was delighted to see, along with the usual winter suspects, a male yellow-belied sapsucker. The Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, 26 miles long, follows a 160-year-old route of the original Croton Aqueduct as it traveled south through the Bronx and Manhattan bringing drinking water from upstate reservoirs.
- Jane Shumsky

11/30 - Furnace Woods, HRM 38.5: We feed our wild birds from October through March, the day we run out of seed. If they don't need it more in winter, well, we need them more during the cold months. Bags of black oil seed, sunflower hearts, and mixed seed get replenished often during this time. The trick is buying "thistle," the tiny black seeds so beloved by finches. It is pricy and the savings on a 50 lb. bag can be considerable. But 50 lbs is a lot of seed. There have been winters when I did not use all of it, and it won't keep through hot weather. A month ago I took a deep breath and ordered 50 lb, and now I'm glad. Goldfinches were emptying the two tube feeders twice a week. This week, purple finch, pine siskins, and common redpolls showed up. Now I hope 50 lbs will be enough.
- Christopher Letts

11/30 - Sandy Hook, NJ: My weather gauge has been a solitary stand of butter-and-eggs (toadflax) an alien snapdragon native to Europe and northern Asia, that my flower book says inhabits roadsides, waste places, and dry fields. I was hoping I could record that it flowered into December but on an early morning walk today it was clear that it bit the dust a day early.
- Dery Bennett

12/1 - The Christmas Bird Count is held throughout the country around this time of year. It replaces the Victorian era "side-shoot," in which guests went out to shoot as many different bird and mammal species as one could on Christmas Day. In 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman organized a group of friends to observe, count, and share information about bird species without shooting them. The National Audubon Society, which Chapman helped organize, now sponsors this annual tradition. Thousands of people go out to count and publish as many bird species as their group can in a sporting, competitive way. The result has been the gathering of significant data which has monitored changes in bird populations and distribution over the years. See below for Hudson Valley watershed Christmas Bird Count dates.
- Rich Guthrie

12/1 - Poughkeepsie, HRM 75: I read with interest the posting of crows and their congregating around Poughkeepsie in the recent edition of the Almanac (Poughkeepsie 11/25). My dad was born and raised in Poughkeepsie. He used to tell my brother and I stories of the crows, crossing the river to Highland, by the thousands, for their nightly roosting. He said they started about 3:30 PM and it went on for 45 minutes to an hour. In the AM, about 7:30-8:30, it began again, as they came back to the east side of the Hudson and disbursed to many townships for daily foraging. He used to say that the sky was 'black with crows" and that it was an impressive sight for a young boy growing up in Poughkeepsie in the 1930s-1940s.
- Susan Droege

[This story has been told many times across many years by parents to children. Recalling my own youth, the magnitude of these daily crow migrations seemed larger than life through young eyes. There are, as best as I can tell, a half-dozen places along the river, from the Tappan Zee to the shadow of the Catskills, where crows have winter night roosts on one side of the river but do their daily foraging on the other. Like commuters going to and from work, they traverse the Hudson by the hundreds, even thousands, in early morning and then again in late afternoon. It is likely they have been doing this since before there were people here to watch them. Tom Lake.]

12/1 - Chelsea, HRM 65.2: Eagles are not easily spooked by trains so it must have simply been happenstance that an immature broke from a riverside cottonwood and then kept pace with us for a short time as we roared through Chelsea on Metro North. In the few seconds we watched, as it flew abreast our car window, we could see the mottled white, tan,and brown of a bald eagle eclipsing towards eventually maturity.
- Tom Lake

12/1 Denning's Point, HRM 60: A strong northwest wind had emptied out the inlet in the lee of Denning's Point. Scores of gulls were walking on the bottom of the bay, probing the sand and mud, taking this unique opportunity to forage for crabs and fish left behind as the tide ebbed away.
- Tom Lake

12/1 Croton Point, HRM 35: On this cold morning, made colder still by a brash northwest wind, the gulls were out in force. Taking advantage of the blown-out tide, they were clamming on the ice-glazed tide flats. The south end of the Croton-Harmon parking lot was more clamshell-white than asphalt black with crushed wedge-clam shells covering much of the surface. Five immature bald eagles circled, wraith-like, over the lower Croton River, with lots of interaction, but no attention directed toward the buffleheads and black ducks below.
- Christopher Letts

12/1 Crawbuckie, HRM 33.5: This legendary beach from which striped bass of epic proportions have been hooked (some even landed) by anglers over the years, had become just a sandy extension of a nearly emptied Croton Bay. The blowout tide had drawn the river out, closer to the channel, where a hundred winter ducks, mostly buffleheads and ruddy ducks, found just enough water to float.
- Tom Lake

[Blowout tides are not common. They occur most frequently following several days of strong and steady north-northwest winds. The daily tidal flushing of the estuary begins to accumulate a net loss of high water as the progression of flood tides are unable to compensate for ebb tides that are being lengthened in duration and effect by the wind. If this happens around a new or full moon (spring tides) the result can be even more spectacular. This scenario culminates in an ebb tide that seems to go seaward forever, draining tidemarshes and inshore shallows until the very "bottom" of the river is exposed. Tom Lake.]

12/1 - Ossining, HRM 33: What a blowout tide this morning - lots of exposed mud on Croton Bay with 2 bald eagles, one adult the other immature, sitting on it. I've been seeing more eagles lately and I'm wondering if these are residents or are they already coming down from up north?
- Scott Craven

[Unless we get some "real" winter, visiting eagles may be fewer this year. They are not terribly motivated to move south any more than necessary; they tend to winter on the edge of the ice, so to speak. Tom Lake.]

12/2 Newcomb, HRM 302: We ended up with about 4.5" of snow. It has been snowing pretty well most of this afternoon, though, so I suspect we can probably add another inch.
- Ellen Rathbone

12/2 Minerva, HRM 284: We were girding for a foot, but the first winter storm dropped only about 6" of snow, with a thin layer of freezing rain sandwiched in between.
- Mike Corey

12/2 - Furnace Woods, HRM 38.5: Ah, the first snowfall of the season. At least the first to accumulate, perhaps 2". All bird feeders, filled to capacity last night, will need filling again tomorrow. It is fun to have so many finches around and to have a flock of red-winged blackbirds, an even dozen, all but 2 of them males. A Cooper's hawk did not miss the opportunity to prey on so many avidly feeding birds, and several times this morning there was trouble in Paradise, with birds bouncing off windows. A scattering of mourning dove feathers suggested what the hawk had for brunch. For the second season running, juncos outnumber all other birds combined. Are others witnessing the same?
- Christopher Letts

12/3 North Germantown, HRM 109: In a tree at the boat ramp sat a bald eagle that allowed me to get out of the car, get the glasses, and inspect. It was almost mature, but still had lots of white streaks on its head and an almost fully white tail. At my presence, all it did was turn its head and stay put. On the river I could see only a couple of black ducks at a distance and a ring-billed gull overhead. Generally a very quiet time.
- Mimi Bauch

["New" adult: This eagle was in what birders refer to as "eclipse plumage." Bald eagles in our area generally mature between years 4-6, with years 4-5 being the most common. This may have been a 4 year-old making the transition from immature to adult plumage. Tom Lake.]

12/3 Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: At 10:00 PM the sky was black and the wind was howling out of the northwest; it felt and sounded like mid-winter. Yet, above all the noise I could hear geese far overhead, heading south. The wind was right and this was a "flight night."
- Tom Lake

12/3 Town of Fishkill, HRM 63.5: From an open field at Stonykill Farm I seemed to be standing directly under a raptor mini-migration: A red-tailed hawk had caught a tailwind and was speeding past; a northern harrier, teetering as though to keep its balance, was passing through; and a gorgeous northern goshawk made three spirals overhead before moving on.
- Tom Lake

12/4 Newcomb, HRM 302: As I was driving to work this morning I came across a large black "something" in the road. As I slowed down it turned out to be a flock of wild turkeys, adults and immatures. They were clustered in a bunch standing next to the guard rail. They didn't react as I drove past and I wondered if something was wrong. I turned around and drove back with visions of a log truck blowing through the flock. As I approached, they just stood. No reaction. I beeped my horn hoping it would make them fly up and over the guard rail (were they stymied by the cables?) Perhaps they were used to ducking under the guard rail and now they couldn't because of the snow piled up. One finally fluttered up and over, but the others just milled about. The rest eventually headed down the road at a slow walk, "Mom" leading the poults, finally breaking into a slow jog and then stepping off onto the snowy slope. Turning around once more, I saw that the silly birds were now clustered in a bunch under a tree. They were not interested in actually going anywhere. A mystery. As I drove on, a log truck passed me. It would've been a bloodbath.
- Ellen Rathbone

12/4 Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 67.5: After a couple of nighttime air temperatures in the 20s, ice began to creep out from the shoreline of the tidewater Wappinger Creek. The hooded mergansers, common mergansers, ring-necked ducks, buffleheads, and other waterfowl were seeing their open-water areas slowly shrink. As winter comes on, this will be a common theme in the Hudson Valley: The formation of ice on water will narrow the options of eagles and waterfowl, pushing them both downriver in search of open water.
- Tom Lake

12/4 - Staten Island, New York City: Brooklyn was beginning to get positively sunny as I left its shores and drove west over the Verrazano Bridge. It was as if I was driving into Mordor. A deep, angry cloud engulfed Staten Island and snow fell heavily on man and beast alike. I could barely see Battery Weed and Fort Tompkins at the foot of the Bridge as the snow faded everything to a lovely pewter color. Wanting to get a better view, I headed to the overlook at Fort Wadsworth, where a very lonely looking white-throated sparrow and I perched on the overlook wall and enjoyed the sun re-emerging from behind the gloom.
- Dave Taft

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