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Hudson River Almanac December 24 - December 31, 2010

OVERVIEW

The last week of the year featured a flurry of memorable moments including a "Christmas" blizzard, the extension of floe ice far down the estuary, an increase in the number of wintering eagles, and a rare sandhill crane flyover.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

12/28 - Fishkill, HRM 61: While clearing my roof of 18 inches of snow, I spotted scattered groupings of crows (about 60) heading westward to the Hudson River, most probably to Newburgh where they have a night roost. Meanwhile, high above them flying across the blue sky were two V-formations of about 30 sandhill cranes heading southwestward. Their necks and legs were outstretched and their wing strokes had a strong upbeat and slow downstroke. It was just awesome! Previously, I have had two late-season sightings here of sandhill cranes in flight. On both of these earlier occasions the birds were flying much lower at treetop level or even lower and earlier in the day. I spotted and could hear 30-35 birds on 31 Dec 2000 and 7 birds on 7 Dec 2003. Both occasions were also after heavy snowfalls.
- Ed Spaeth

[Sandhill cranes have an impressive 6-8 foot wingspan. "Sandhill" refers to its preferred sand hills breeding habitat. The crane's main breeding range lies well to the west and north of us, but in the last eight years a few nesting pairs have been observed in west central New York State. Most Hudson Valley records are of migrants. Strong nor'easters will occasionally draw migrating sandhill cranes and other oddities like white pelicans to the Hudson Valley and the Atlantic Coast. Last April, Brian Houser spotted a sandhill crane near New Paltz in Ulster County. Tom Lake, Steve Stanne.]

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

12/24 - Columbia County, HRM 118: Along with many people in the Hudson Valley, we have an array of bird feeders in our yard. Our best bird so far this season has been a yellow-bellied sapsucker. Judging from Almanac reports and discussions we have had with others, the term "bird feeder" is somewhat misleading. Cooper's hawks feed at bird feeders, too. I recall, years ago, seeing owls perching around a feeder and snagging voles at night. Squirrels feed at "bird" feeders and bears think that they are interesting, too. Last week we watched yet another non-bird taking advantage of the feeder. A shorttail shrew had built several snow tunnels around the base of the feeder. We watched as the shrew emerged from a tunnel, frantically ran around picking up seeds, and then return to its sanctuary. Literature does indicate that shrews will feed on seeds if they have to. Maybe we should call these devices "wildlife" feeders.
- Bob Schmidt, Kathy Schmidt

12/24 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: Just after midnight, our golden retriever paced back and forth along the fence line between our yard and the woods beyond. Something had sparked his interest. Shuffling sounds were coming from just inside the woods, as though something was matching the pace of our dog. At first light I went out to look and found the tracks of at least one, probably two coyotes that had been less than ten feet away from the fence line. Not more than another ten feet away was a red fox den and I wondered if the coyotes were paying a visit.
- Tom Lake

12/25 - Cheviot, HRM 106: Looking out at the frozen river this morning, I could see ice piled on the jetty, lots of gulls and geese, and a few ducks. Suddenly, all rose in flight together. The "Christmas Eagle," an adult, had arrived, landing on the ice with a breakfast fish in his talons.
- Jude Holdsworth

12/25 - Clermont, HRM 103.5: I awoke to see an adult bald eagle perched in an oak tree looking out over Livingston Flats watching the river. It was a great Christmas gift.
- Ripley Hathaway

12/25 - New Hamburg, HRM 67.5: Six eagles, 4 immatures and 2 adults, were in view on the ice. Four more adults were perched on a mile of hillside between Danskammer Point and Cedarcliff. Several small rafts of common mergansers ("eagle food") were in the open leads between the floes. As the flood tide carried the ice upriver it careened off rip-rap, pilings, and docks, playing the crunching and tingling music of winter on tidewater. We spotted a crow feeding on a tiny ice floe. Patience with the binoculars paid off as the crow lifted its meal displaying the tail of what appeared to be a gizzard shad - an eagle's leftovers.
- Tom Lake, Chris Lake

[Diving ducks, such as mergansers, tend to be more commonly targeted by eagles than marsh ducks. While mallards, gadwall, black ducks, teal, wigeon, and wood ducks spring straight up from the water, diving ducks such as mergansers, goldeneye, bufflehead, scaup and ruddy ducks require a "runway" to get airborne, providing an easier target for eagles in a dive. Tom Lake.]

12/26 - Cheviot, HRM 106: I saw a large brown shape out on the ice this morning with fluttering black forms around it. Through the binoculars I could see an immature eagle trying to feed on something. Two crows were pestering him: one sat behind him, the other in front to the side. The one behind the eagle would sneak up and grab a tidbit; when the eagle turned to see what happened, the other crow would grab a piece. It looked like a Heckle and Jeckle cartoon. The crows continued to tag-team the eagle, and all three continued feeding for quite awhile. When he finally left, the "crow boys" went with him.
- Jude Holdsworth

12/26 - New Hamburg, HRM 67.5: For a half hour we watched 3 immature eagles, 75 yards offshore, drifting upriver on a small ice floe no larger than a dining room table. It took that long through ten-power binoculars to finally see what they eating: a drake common merganser. One of the eagles, the one who appeared to be getting more than his share, was a "white extreme."
- Tom Lake, Chris Lake

[White extreme is a color phase described for some three year-old bald eagles. As immatures approach adulthood, their plumage eclipses from mostly brown, to mottled brown-and-white, to a showy-white display with some brown (white extreme), to the final white head and tail of the adult. Peter Dunne.]

12/26 - Dutchess County: What has been unofficially dubbed the "Christmas Blizzard" dropped 24 inches of snow in Hopewell Junction. Measurements from the wind sensor at Dutchess County Airport, necessary to official designate this storm as a blizzard, broke during the storm.
- National Weather Service

12/26 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: The wind-driven snowflakes never seemed to settle. Fifty mile-per-hour winds will do that. Amidst a total whiteout, the snow piled up around me. Tracks of wildlife that I was trying to identify were being covered up quickly, leaving me with only the echoing howl of a blizzard through conifers. When the storm ended we would have 18 inches.
- Tom Lake

12/26 - New York City: The "Christmas Blizzard" dropped 20-24 inches of snow along the coast. Staten Island had the most with 29. The heavy snow plus wind gusts up to 80 mph closed all three New York City area airports.
- National Weather Service

12/27 - Ulster Park, HRM 85: For Christmas we got a new, allegedly squirrel-proof, bird feeder. That has yet to be tested but we do have tree sparrows on it!
- Bill Drakert

12/27 - Highland, HRM 75.5: The crows were "murdering" something so I stood and watched. We have a red-tailed hawk that tends to drive them crazy almost every day. Something quieted and scattered them and the hawk flew directly toward me. He spotted me and dropped a wounded crow into the snow. I tried to get to it, but it flew away, leg hanging and hip bloody.
- Vivian Yess Wadlin

[A "Murder" of crows is a collective noun, one of many used to describe groups of animals. Some apply to Hudson River birds: A charm of goldfinches; an exaltation of larks; a chain of bobolinks; a wake of buzzards [vultures]; a convocation of eagles, and a squabble of seagulls. For mammals we have clouds of bats [becoming much less frequent] and prickle of porcupines. Descriptions of aquatic wildlife include a stuck of jellyfish, battery of barracudas, shoal of shad, troupe of shrimp, glean of herring, army of frogs, and bale of turtles. Tom Lake.]

12/27 - Manitou, HRM 46.5: The ice floes have finally arrived at Manitou. The nor'easter must have let loose the ice north of here. Yesterday we had no ice; today we have a regular flow with the tide and current. Winter is almost bearable with the anticipation of prime eagle-watching. Today we saw 3 immatures and 3 adults at once, jostling for tidbits and riding the ice.
- Zshawn Sullivan

12/27 - Peekskill, HRM 44-43: Strong northwesterlies throughout the two-day blizzard froze Peekskill Bay, a rarity before New Year's Eve. With the hard water has come a blizzard of bald eagles out on the ice, sunning, often doing nothing, occasionally taking flight just to move to another part of the ice, or hunting and then dining. There were at least 6 of them, of various ages, possibly 2 adults and 4 immatures, visible from my window this afternoon. It was amazing how far into the bay the ice had grown in just 24 hours. As usual, eagles prefer sitting out on the edge.
- Peter Schechter

12/28 - Ulster Park, HRM 85: We had a pair of common redpolls enjoying our seeds on the deck today. I think we saw some when we first moved up here in the early 1990s but it has been a long time. They usually appear in groups of more than two when they come. Perhaps we can hope for an evening grosbeak?
- Bill Drakert

12/28 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: The usual feeder birds - chickadees, goldfinches, house finches and juncos - were joined this morning by two common redpolls, a "winter finch."
- Tom Lake

["Winter finch" refers to certain species of finches from the north that appear in the Hudson Valley in some winters. Last year we had reports of winter finches including pine siskins, common redpolls, and crossbills. These appearances are called "irruptions" when the birds appear in large numbers. Birder Larry Federman suggests that these probably occur due to a "cone crop" crash in the coniferous forests of fir, spruce and hemlock up north. Tom Lake.]

12/28 - New Hamburg to Manhattan, HRM 68-5: The post-blizzard riverscape was ice-choked well into the Hudson Highlands. Early winter storms often elicit an immediate response from migratory birds, from finches to ducks to eagles. Today was a "17-eagle" trip to Manhattan, aided by new arrival wintering eagles: 13 immatures and 4 adults. There were no doubt twice that number perched out of sight along the river, on both sides. In one week the center of eagle abundance for eagles had shifted 20 miles south, to consistently open water.
- Tom Lake, Chris Lake

[Bald eagles use the winter ice like the moving sidewalks at airports. The stream of ice floes moving in the current provides a conveyor. At a time of the year when conservation of energy is paramount for all birds, hopping aboard a mobile hunting and feeding platform is very cost effective. Tom Lake.]

12/29 - Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 68: It was blizzard plus two days and the river was iced nearly bank-to-bank. The tide had just turned to ebb and the ice began its seaward drift. The rafts of mergansers were gone and with them the eagles. Where there had been a dozen birds on the ice the day before, there was only a single immature perched on Soap Hill.
- Tom Lake, Chris Lake

12/29 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: They arrived at dawn by the hundreds, filling the trees and descending onto the patches of cracked corn I had spread out: Grackles! This seemed late in the season to have such a huge flock of common grackles migrating past, but here they were. The forest was filled for three acres around as they frenetically shifted, always southward, and within five minutes they were gone.
- Tom Lake, Chris Lake

12/29 - Danskammer Point, HRM 66.5: Although it was difficult to get an accurate count due to their activity, I spotted at least 10 bald eagles, 2 adults and 8 immatures. One of the adults had a blue leg band and may have been the female (N42) from nest NY62 directly across the Hudson. The river around Danskammer Point was teeming with activity; the number of common mergansers alone was well into the hundreds.
- Eric Shaw

12/29 - Peekskill, HRM 44-43: More ice, more eagles today. I counted 3 adults and 10 immatures from my window out on the ice of Peekskill Bay.
- Peter Schechter

12/29 - George's Island, HRM 39: I had to lift my kayak over the snow banks to get to the water. Then, with the sun shining away the cold, I was on the river. An adult bald eagle was perched in a tree facing the launch site, right on the edge of the river access. I paddled away to give the bird some space, but I was still no more than 20 feet away from it. I have been as close to these birds before when kayaking and always been impressed by their size. This one, however, just did not give that impression. From a distance of some 20 feet, it seemed undersized.
- Steve Butterfass

[Bald eagles have a range in size both in weight and wingspan. Most fall in the range of 8 - 14 lb., with a wingspan of 6 - 8 feet. Females tend to be, on average, a little larger than the males. This is often readily noticeable in mated pairs. Tom Lake.]

12/29 - Yonkers, HRM 18: The Eagles have landed! The Eagles have landed (with apologies to NASA Mission Control)! An adult and an immature made my day with their majestic soaring, swooping, and landing on ice floes just north of the JFK Marina.
- Terry Nagai

12/30 - Columbia County, HRM 118: For the last two days we have had at least two common redpolls visiting our wildlife feeder in Hillsdale. One of them has a really attractive pinkish-purple sheen on its breast.
- Bob Schmidt, Kathy Schmidt

12/30 - Dutchess County: Some final and interesting tabulations from the Dutchess County Christmas Bird Count included 53 brown-headed cowbirds, 135 red crossbills, and 2 white-winged scoters previously reported from Poughkeepsie.
- Herb Thompson

12/30 - Blooming Grove, HRM 55: When we moved into our house 40 years ago we had fields instead of a lawn and bobwhite wandered through the yard calling "BOB-WHITE!" on summer evenings. That isn't true today. But this morning, a little hen quail was sheltering in my garage doorway when we returned from a snowshoe walk. It had crossed the highway from the hunting preserve - an oxymoron - where it had been released sometime before the big snow. It wasn't afraid of us, any more than a chicken would be, and kept wandering the snow-blown path that led to the bird feeder. I got out a Havahart trap and, with the help of a bit of suet cake, convinced the lady to move inside. Fearing that she wouldn't last long alone in the snow and cold, I took her to a friend who raises quail. She ignored the other birds and hopped right into the food bowl!
- Betsy Hawes

[The northern, or common, bobwhite, also called quail, is a chunky little bird, smaller than a robin. They are a native species in our area, though at the northern limit of their range. According to the New York State Breeding Bird Atlas the bird was common throughout the state in the early 1800s due to clearing for agriculture, but rare by the end of that century. In recent years the bobwhite has been disappearing even from its New York State stronghold on Long Island. Scattered records in other places across the state are probably, like this one, the result of game bird stockings. Tom Lake, Steve Stanne.]

12/31 - Nutten Hook, HRM 124: We had our last paddle of the year in my little red kayak, floating among chunks of ice that looked liked sculptures, an art gallery on the water - a floating Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Himalayas, upright sheets of ice resembling the sails of the Clearwater, and sculpted sea lions. A flyover by an immature bald eagle, the chatter of a kingfisher, and a toot from the whistle of a northbound tug brought the year to an end.
- Fran Martino, Loki Martino

12/31 - Manitou, HRM 46: A large black locust tree 50 feet from our property was a lookout for an immature and an adult eagle today. The branches of this tree overhang the river and offer a prime location for them to watch the river for food. The immature landed on a low, sturdy branch and stayed for five minutes. When it took off I could see a small fish in its talons. Then came an adult, perching high up in the tree to watch the river and preen in the sun.
- Zshawn Sullivan, Owen Sullivan

12/31 - Croton-on-Hudson, HRM 35: This last morning of 2010 brought the most wonderful sunrise: lumpy clouds, spread all across the sky, gray on top, and rosy with golden touches underneath. Harbinger of good things to come?
- Robin Fox

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