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Hudson River Almanac December 1 - December 7, 2011

OVERVIEW

While our mild autumn continued, the estuary began to fill up with winter ducks and wintering eagles. Many of these birds will migrate south only as far as open water can be found, which - for now - includes the entire watershed.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

12/6 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: A pair of red-tailed hawks was hunting together in the late afternoon after heavy rains had left large puddles of standing water under the willows at Croton Point. The smaller (male?) red-tail stooped and landed on a lone male mallard that was unwise enough to be swimming alone. The first swipe disabled the duck but didn't kill it. But the wet duck proved too heavy to fly off with, so the hawk stood on the body and head and drowned the duck by holding it under the water. It took several minutes before the hawk dragged the soaked carcass to the side of the puddle. The larger of the pair (female?) waited on a low branch of the willow while the mate fed for 15 minutes. She then flew down and evicted the male so that she could eat as well. The episode lasted an hour; the hawks must have been very hungry since I watched from not more than twenty feet away and they paid me no attention whatsoever.

- Jane Shemin

["Stoop" is a term that describes a raptor's dive. Webster's Dictionary defines it as "to dive down swiftly; to attack prey." Red-tails will often stand on large prey animals, subduing them with their powerful feet. While a quick literature search failed to find descriptions of this species intentionally drowning prey, that behavior has been described in Cooper's hawks. In the Catskill Mountain reservoirs (New York City water supply), it is not uncommon to see bald eagles stoop on Canada geese, hold their heads underwater to drown them, and then feed on the spot. Few eagles could manage to drag or carry a goose very far. Tom Lake, Steve Stanne.]

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

12/1 - Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 68: We went to watch eagles but ended up with a different treat. As we waited patiently on the Bowdoin Park service road, a grizzly-blonde coyote stepped out of the tree line on the far side of a wide open field and looked both ways as if it were a school crossing. He chose to head north, walking within steps of the forest edge. It was a joy to watch this graceful, healthy, stealthy carnivore as he hunted, probably for mice, moles, voles and bunnies.

- TR Jackson, Tom Lake

12/1 - Croton Bay, HRM 34: Irene's fingerprints were all over the place here. A giant log was stranded under the Croton Railroad Bridge. Stumps and tree-tops were poking above water for a quarter-mile inland upstream from the river and the bay. Out in the bay, depending on the stage of the tide, 6-12 "deadheads" were visible. Cormorants and gulls began using them immediately, and this morning two bald eagles were perched there. It seems likely that there will be much more use made of them as the wintering eagles filter in over the coming weeks. Maybe it's a silver lining?

- Christopher Letts

12/2 - Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 68.5: Bowdoin Park is one of those places where you can generally depend on seeing bluebirds in winter. While not even looking for them, I managed to count a dozen or more as they foraged the fruit trees and shrubs. While seeing the world through much younger eyes several decades ago may account for it, I still do not remember seeing so many bluebirds in winter.

- Tom Lake

12/2 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: It was probably the same male harrier I've seen coursing the ridgeline of the landfill, so deft and graceful as it makes its rounds. Somehow I thought of a "White Knight." Was that the bird of the day, or was it the pair of ruddy ducks on the south side of the Point, the very first of the season?

- Christopher Letts

[The male northern harrier, or marsh hawk, pale with black wing tips, is a light-colored raptor that some birders refer to as the "gray ghost." Tom Lake.]

12/3 - Hyde Park, HRM 82: I heard a loud thump outside, went to check out the back door, and saw nothing. However, the next morning my wife asked what is that white thing on the back hill? I checked our garbage can and found it spread across the back yard. The kitchen bag was ripped open about 50 feet behind the house. The same thing happened to my neighbor a week ago. This is the second bear encounter I have had in Hyde Park.

- E.J. Jurus

12/3 - New Windsor, HRM 60: I noticed an impressive-looking visitor in our shoreline tree, a favorite perch of raptors and other birds traveling the highway of the Hudson. The bird would flush each time I snuck outside with my binoculars but did not soar at all, just beat its wings to the pebble beach just north of the house that is bare at low tide. There it would wait for a short while and soon come back to the tree - same spot every time. This back-and-forth dance happened repeatedly and I was impressed by its stubborn persistence. But I matched the bird in stubbornness and finally got a good long look: it revealed itself to be a handsome peregrine falcon with a black cap, scouting my crowded bird feeder.

- Lisa Maria Cline

12/4 - Annsville Creek, HRM 43.5: Annsville Bay was empty of waterfowl at high tide, which is usually the case with deeper water. The dabbling ducks and herons that frequent the bay prefer shallow water. The winter diving ducks were elsewhere. The brush and shrubbery surrounding the canoe and kayak launch was alive with finches, juncos, cardinals, blue jays, and two lovely snow buntings in their winter colors.

- Tom Lake

12/4 - Croton River, HRM 34: A pair of buffleheads were diving in the river and occasionally surfacing with small fish in their bills. Several ring-billed gulls shadowed them, getting within a foot or so of the diving ducks as they surfaced. It was difficult to tell if the gulls were hoping for leftovers or looking to pilfer a fish. A small group of common mergansers were drifting in the current a bit farther up the Croton River.

- Tom Lake

12/5 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: Shortly after dawn, two similar-looking and surprisingly silent flocks of songbirds swept into the woods from the north: blue jays and cedar waxwings. The blue jays frenetically moved from limb to limb and tree to tree while the cedar waxwings, much less in a hurry, made short work of any berries still left on the flowering fruit trees.

- TR Jackson, Tom Lake

12/5 - Fishkill, HRM 61: Some insects were still flying about in the mild evening air near my outdoor lights. We were surprised to see that a bat had not yet hibernated, but was out and about in pursuit.

- Ed Spaeth, John Pereira

12/5 - Hammond Point, HRM 59: As our Metro North train sped past the Fishkill Creek delta we spotted two adult bald eagles perched in a tall cottonwood along the river. The slightly larger of the two - possibly the female - was perched just above the other. These may have been a local mated pair from across the river in Orange County, or two newly-arrived migrants from points north. Regardless, this area of Denning's Point and lower Fishkill Creek will soon be a prime wintering area for bald eagles until March.

- Jayden Mylod, TR Jackson, John Mylod, Tom Lake

12/5 - Nyack, HRM 28: My wife, Carol, and I were hanging Christmas decorations on our front porch when we heard a great commotion from the neighbor's primrose bushes where a flock of sparrows normally roosts in the winter. As we watched, a merlin made several passes over the bushes, herding the sparrows into the relative safety of the shrubbery. It landed for a bit on the lawn and then flew right into the bush scattering the flock in panic. It emerged and landed on the lawn. We thought the bird was "mantling" over a prize but the neighbor's cat abruptly rushed it from under the porch and it made a strategic retreat. There are bird feeders and then there are "bird feeders," I guess.

- J.C. Brotherhood

[Merlins are one of three falcons that we see with regularity in the Hudson Valley. In the 1934 edition of the Peterson Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America, the merlin is referred to as the eastern pigeon hawk. The two others are the peregrine falcon (duck hawk) and the kestrel (sparrow hawk). These common names supposedly referred to each falcon's preferred prey size. Tom Lake.]

12/6 - Manhattan, HRM 12.5: I was bicycling on the path along the riverbank at the north end of Inwood Hill Park in Manhattan, near Spuyten Duyvil where the Hudson and Harlem Rivers meet, when I saw a large bird fly up from the ground into a tree. Skidding to a stop on the slippery fog-drenched path, I found myself face to face with an immature bald eagle, no more than ten feet away on a low branch, almost at eye level. We eyed each other for a moment; then the eagle turned to glare at a nearby squirrel who was protesting loudly. Having paused briefly, the eagle flew off to a much higher and more customary tree overlooking the Hudson.

- Kaare Christian

12/7 - Denning's Point, HRM 60: The bay inside the point was as smooth as glass and several dozen common mergansers dotted the surface. I could see no eagles in the area but such a presence of "eagle food" will surely draw them here.

- Tom Lake

[Diving ducks, such as mergansers, are more common targets of eagles than marsh ducks. While mallards, gadwall, black ducks, teal, wigeon, pintails, and wood ducks spring straight up from the water, diving ducks such as mergansers, goldeneye, bufflehead, scaup and ruddy ducks require a takeoff run to get airborne, providing an easier target for eagles in a dive. Tom Lake.]

12/7 - Inbuckie, HRM 33.5: It was a late morning high tide at Inbuckie and a score or more of common mergansers were fishing the bay, possibly for killifish.

- Tom Lake

[Inbuckie is a colloquial name used to describe a tidal bay inside the railroad tracks between the mouth of the Croton River and Ossining (river miles 34-33). Inbuckie used to be part of Croton Bay and the greater Tappan Zee until cut off by the railroad in the 1840s. The origin of the name is hazy but it has been commonly used by local fishermen for well over a century. Tom Lake.]

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