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Hudson River Almanac December 8 - December 15, 2011

OVERVIEW

Some highlights of winter in the Hudson watershed arrived this week, including evening grosbeaks, snow geese, canvasbacks, and a tundra swan. They may pass through or hang around if conditions permit. If we're lucky, the gorgeous evening grosbeaks may move south of the High Peaks of the Adirondacks during the next few months.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

12/8 - Staten Island, New York City: I have been out looking for an orchid that was once considered locally common on Staten Island. A few days ago as I ended a similar search a bat streaked past, hunting in the beam of a street lamp. After having no luck finding the orchid, it struck me that perhaps I was looking at a biological equivalent: A bat might soon be a sight some future New York City naturalist will wonder at, just like I do at the list of 26 previously locally-found Staten Island orchids. In many past evenings of my life, bats hunting in the evening light would not have been worth noting. But in these times of white-nose syndrome, it's a wonderful thing to see.

- Dave Taft

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

12/8 - Albany, HRM 145: Signs of winter had arrived: While driving to work in frigid pre-daylight hours, a small herd of white-tailed deer was outlined feeding in the Corning Preserve, and the Hudson River had small areas of skim ice.

- Roberta S. Jeracka

12/9 - Wappinger Creek, HRM 67.5: The tidewater tributaries in the Hudson Highlands were still ice-free. The lower mile of Wappinger Creek had at least four pairs of hooded mergansers (another sign of impending winter weather) adding to the dozen or so common mergansers.

- Tom Lake

12/9 - Wallkill River, HRM 42: following 2.8" of rain earlier in the week, flooding was extensive along the Wallkill in southern Orange County. Almost every shallow flooded field held hundreds of Canada geese. One of the oddest sights was a pair of northern pintails swimming in the flooded forest on the floodplain well beyond the banks of the river.

- Tom Lake

12/9 - Town of Warwick, HRM 41: Liberty Marsh at the Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge still looked more autumn than winter. With air temperatures in the low 50s, there was still no ice. The open water had attracted several hundred mallards and black ducks with a dozen or so northern pintails, American coot, and a few northern shovelers mixed in. Several birders had located a northern shrike perched in an alder and a pair of harriers coursed the hummocks of the marsh margin. Four huge "check-marks" in the sky approached from the north as I was about to leave. When they passed overhead the sound was deafening - thousands of Canada geese blotting out the sun. Eventually they all landed in Liberty Marsh, adding to the many hundreds already there.

- Tom Lake

[The northern shrike is a boreal songbird whose presence in the Hudson Valley in winter is often associated with severe weather to the north. It has a raptor-like appearance and will often impale its prey, small songbirds and rodents, on thorns and barbed wire. This has earned this shrike the scientific name Lanius excubitor, meaning "butcher watchman." Tom Lake.]

12/10 - Rhinebeck, HRM 90: While I was puttering in the garden this afternoon, I saw and then heard ten snow geese flying southwest toward the Hudson River.

- Phyllis Marsteller

12/10 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67.5: A gorgeous full moon dominated the sky and illuminated the landscape. Not long after dark I heard the calls of geese slowly growing louder as they approached from upriver. My first inclination was to think that they were Canadas, but after listening closely as they passed, I wondered if they may have been snow geese.

- Tom Lake

12/11 - Newcomb, HRM 302: Over the last few days we accumulated just over an inch of snow, most of which melted by midday, resulting in bare south-facing slopes and patchy-covered lawns. The High Peaks were covered in snow and have been for a few weeks, making for a stunning drive through Essex County. It has been cold enough (low 20s) at night to freeze the smaller beaver ponds and some of the back bays on lakes. The Hudson River in places along route 28N had a skim of ice. Last night's full moon was beautiful as it played hide-and-seek with clouds in between a few snow flurries. Evening grosbeaks arrived at the bird feeder today, the first that I have seen this season. They were joined by goldfinches and pine siskins. Colder days and snow will increase the use of the bird feeders that have been exceedingly quiet and remarkably visitor-free up until now.

- Charlotte Demers

12/11 - Tivoli South Bay, HRM 98.5: With back-to-back nightly air temperatures in the low teens, I decided to check Tivoli Bay for early ice. Descending the hill along "Father's Trail," a juvenile bald eagle flushed from his low perch and took refuge in the thick hemlocks of Montgomery Place. There was a thin coating of ice on the mud flats in the south end of the bay and some spotty frazil ice forming up beyond that. At low tide, Tivoli Bay can be much like a hockey rink, with the ice resting on the muddy bottom. It is often safe to walk on in places when it is only an inch or two thick and observe the bottom features of the bay, but today it only measured a scant quarter-inch and did not yet have the strength to resist fracturing under my weight. Soon, however, the sun was melting the frazil and was starting to work on the thicker bits of ice being lifted off the mud in the shallows by the incoming tide. Again, an immature eagle took flight from the ravine in the southeast corner. There is a series of beaver ponds in there and perhaps it is easier fishing in the small connecting waterways.

- John A Sperr

12/11 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67.5: The first skim ice of the season had formed overnight on standing water and the near-full moon seemed to fill the sky just before first light. Our local barred owls generally serenade us but on this late night it was a "hissy" screech owl.

- TR Jackson, Tom Lake

12/11 - Orange County, HRM 40: Porcupines in Sterling Forest are fairly scarce but we have been entertained by a young porcupine who wandered out of the forest into our backyard two weeks ago. Every day or two it will amble into the yard to eat grass and then, to balance its diet, climb a tree to eat some bark or berries from the tangle of bittersweet vines. When approached the animal will casually turn its back and raise its quills enough to let you know it does not want to be bothered. Though this porcupine ambles slowly, it can cover a fair amount of ground quickly when it wants to. We suspect that it dens up under our stone wall or sometimes in a nearby spruce tree.

- Mary Yrizarry

[The porcupine is an herbivore native to the Americas. Among rodents, the North American porcupine is third largest, smaller only than the capybara of South America and the beaver. Their diet consists of leaves, twigs, green plants, and occasionally bark. They can also climb trees to find food. Their coat of sharp quills is a defensive adaptation to help protect them from predators. Tom Lake.]

12/11 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: A trickle of robins and red-winged blackbirds were still coming through. I was delighted to find half a dozen bluebirds sheltering from the northwest wind on the southeast side of the landfill.

- Christopher Letts

12/12 - Town of Knox, Albany County, HRM 145: While driving south on Knox Cave Road this afternoon, a red-tailed hawk flew just barely over the hood of my pickup truck to catch something on the side of the drainage ditch. What an experience! I guess she was focused on the prey and wasn't going to let my passing truck keep her from it.

- Bob Price

12/12 - Wappinger Falls, HRM 67.5: I spent most of today at Wappinger Lake watching many new arrivals - pairs of common and hooded mergansers. There was also a pair of black ducks. The usual mute swans, gulls and Canada geese were all over. An adult bald eagle flew in and perched in a tree for an hour before leaving - there was certainly no lack of possible forage. The treat of the day was a belted kingfisher that came into a tree close by so I got some nice photos.

- Terry Hardy

12/12 - Croton Point, HRM 35-34: A coyote and I spent several minutes staring at each other across 200 yards of meadow before the big dog remembered an appointment and trotted off over the brim of the landfill. He had missed seeing a small flock of water pipits on the flank of the hill. Later I had a nice look at a red-shouldered hawk on the south side of the Point.

- Christopher Letts

12/12 - Ossining, HRM 33: Possibly as a result of the warm weather, waterfowl numbers had been low so far this season in the Tappan Zee. However, for the last three days, there has been a raft of canvasback with a few lesser scaup and some ruddy ducks mixed in just offshore. The raft has had a high count of 80-90 canvasbacks.

- Larry Trachtenberg

12/13 - Wappinger Falls, HRM 67: The hooded and common mergansers, as well as the black ducks, were still on Wappinger Lake today. Many more mallards seemed to have arrived. A female belted kingfisher came by, but not as close as the male from yesterday. I was taking photos when I saw something flying toward me, but my lens couldn't lock onto it. I looked away from the viewfinder and saw that it was a female common merganser flying right at me. It made a sharp turn and fell into the lake - a belly flop. Then she ran across the water to take off and fly away. I have also seen beaver at the lake, as well as muskrat.

- Terry Hardy

[The drake or male common merganser is frequently noted as one of the most strikingly beautiful of diving ducks. The equally gorgeous hen common merganser, with her fly-away red-feathered head, always reminds me of the Bride of Frankenstein. Tom Lake.]

12/14 - Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 68.5: At the south end of Bowdoin Park a spring-fed stream tumbles down to meet the river. Before reaching the Hudson, it empties into a tidal basin (sediment trap) behind the railroad tracks. At low tide the basin becomes a mud flat; at high tide it contains many fish from carp to killies. Today at mid-tide I watched a pair of what may be the most colorful, if not the most beautiful, of our waterfowl, wood ducks.

- Tom Lake

12/14 - Wappinger Creek to Fishkill Creek, HRM 68-60: Many of the lower estuary's tidewater tributaries and backwaters were now home to mergansers and other winter diving ducks, or what we have come to think of as "eagle food." Their presence portends the arrival of large numbers of wintering eagles in pursuit of open water.

- Tom Lake

[Common mergansers, being "common," fill the bill of fare for eagles nicely. Actually, eagles are quite satisified with road-killed deer and winter-killed or careless fish - these items can be captured with less energy than the calories required to take down a duck. Tom Lake.]

12/15 - Poughkeepsie, HRM 76: It is an infrequent treat to watch the aerial acrobatics of a peregrine falcon. For ten minutes today I stood and watched as a peregrine wove its way under the Walkway over the Hudson, hunting at high speed, cruising between the stanchions of the bridge. I never saw it catch anything but that only led to its continued flight until it finally disappeared away in mid-river.

- Tom Lake

12/15 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: On my morning hike today I spotted a single snow bunting on the landfill.

- Christopher Letts

12/15 - Croton River, HRM 34: Out of the wind, a lone tundra swan looked lonely indeed.

- Christopher Letts

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