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Hudson River Almanac December 16 - December 24, 2011

OVERVIEW

The winter solstice arrived early in the morning on December 22. While the upper Hudson watershed in the High Peaks has seen some winter weather - including a modest amount of snow - the lower, tidewater Hudson stills seems stuck in autumn. While short-term weather is not the same as long-term climate, there does seem to be some change, or shifting of the seasons, afoot.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

12/21 - Furnace Woods, HRM 38.5: For all my life, it seems, winter was underway before it was winter. For decades we spotted the snow shovels, scrapers, brooms and sand where they would be needed. We positioned vehicles where they couldn't be buried by the plows. We made sure the feeders were filled, summer furniture and tools put away; leave something out and you could count on it being buried until April. Not anymore. Yes, there will be colder weather, and snow, and - unhappily - ice on the roads, but it will arrive later, depart earlier. Three decades ago I spread my ice fishing gear on the dining room table as the last of the Thanksgiving feast was being cleared. There was always someplace that first weekend in December where the ice would bear your weight and you could indulge in the low-tech magic of ice fishing. Not anymore. What will this bring to our children and grandchildren, three decades from now?

- Christopher Letts

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

12/16 - Cornwall Bay, HRM 58: Low tide in Cornwall Bay, in the winter late-morning shadow of Storm King Mountain, had been blown out even more by strong northwest winds (gusts to 40 mph). Much of the bay, with its sandbars and deadfalls, was exposed. In addition to hundreds of gulls, the bay held ruddy ducks, buffleheads, common mergansers, and a small group of black ducks.

- Tom Lake

[This graph from the U.S. Geological Survey's gauge at West Point a few miles south of Cornwall Bay displays the average river levels each day from December 12 to December 18. Notice that they peak on December 15 and drop sharply on December 16 to the "blowout" levels described above.

USGS graph showing water level at West Point

December 15's high water levels and December 16's low water levels are explained in the graph below from the HRECOS (Hudson River Environmental Conditions Observing System) weather station at Piermont (HRM 25). It displays wind speed and direction over this period. The vertical placement of the arrows shows speed; the direction of the arrows indicates wind direction (north at the top, south at the bottom, east on the right, and west on the left). As a storm entered the region on December 15, winds from the south-southwest increased in speed, pushing sea level higher along the coast and up the Hudson. As the storm passed, the wind shifted direction, blowing strongly out of the north. This pushed ocean water away from the coast and lowered water levels along the shore and in the estuary, causing blowout low tides. URLs for the HRECOS and USGS websites are listed near the end of this Almanac. Steve Stanne.]

HRECOS graph showing wind vectors

12/16 - Manhattan, HRM 12.5: The woods at Inwood Hill were sparse and still, reduced to their most basic elements: trees, rocks, terrain. The scene was a frugal study in browns and grays against a big blue sky. The low-angled sun cast sharp light and extended shadows. It felt like December. There were no leaves underfoot. This season's have been wind-swept into the hollows, some of which are knee-deep with leaves. The bare ground showcased a mosaic of once-hidden flotsam: broken glass, bottle caps, flinty rocks, small twigs, discarded cigarettes.

Mosses crept up the trunks of trees, spread along the surface of stones, and blanketed the flat distances in between. These primal plants have been here all along - Inwood Park has the largest expanse of mosses in Manhattan - but we were busy charting changes in more recently evolved flora. Emerald carpets of fire moss rolled out in all directions. A dislodged clump pushed into the soil will root and grow; that's one reason why it is the most common species here. Silver ball moss grows in a velvety pincushion at the base of a rock. When dried, it develops a whitish cast. Callicladium moss on the lower trunk of a white oak looks like an old shaggy rug. Haircap mosses resemble miniature conifer trees. The beds support seedlings of larger woody species, especially blueberry and black cherry that will eventually overshadow and out-compete the moss.

The same environments that harbor moss also support lichens. Lichens are two organisms in one, a shared existence between alga and fungus. These work in unison to survive in exposed environments like the sides of trees and surfaces of rocks. Lichens are sensitive to air pollution, especially sulfur and nitrogen. Their presence signifies clean air. Lichens parade in an array of curious shapes and colors. The crustose types appear as a skin on a rock or tree. The edges of foliose lichen rise up from the surfaces they grow on like the margins of curling paper. There are sea foam green swirls, chalky gray dust and cubed, salt-like deposits. Lichens do not harm the trees that support them. In fact, they return the favor by altering atmospheric nitrogen to a form that plants can use.

More color was provided by large swathes of paint on trees and rocks to mask graffiti. One trunk was brushed in a minty green that I first thought was lichen. But nothing grows on these painted strips.

At the bottom of a set of stairs I stood in the intense light for a minute to warm up. The cold should be a fixture now. Winter begins in a few days.

- Marielle Anzelone

12/17 - Cornwall Bay, HRM 58: The midday low tide had set up perfectly for resting waterfowl. A flock of Canada geese, perhaps 75-100, had come down in the shallows and found a pocket in the bay, surrounded by sand bars, where the lack of current helped the birds stay put. A half-dozen ruddy ducks and three common mergansers shared another small tidal enclosure a hundred yards away. Several hundred feet upwind an adult bald eagle perched on a deadfall, a dead tree that was probably swept out of nearby Moodna Creek by tropical storm Irene.

- Tom Lake

12/18 - Poughkeepsie, HRM 75: In late afternoon, just before sundown, they begin to arrive from all points. Scores and more move across the river from Blue Point in Ulster County. The river shoreline begins to fill up as every available limb of cottonwood and sycamore becomes occupied. This is a winter crow roost and by last light the scene is surreal.

- Tom Lake

[One of the more well-known and 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. This winter roosting behavior may serve several social functions for crows. Tom Lake.]

12/19 - Minerva, HRM 284: In late afternoon with darkness falling, the dogs and I left the house for our hike to the swamp in the back forty. We had just stepped out the door when a large bird silently flew away from a butternut tree 25 feet away. The dogs were oblivious. The bird flew up to another tree, perched, and looked "balefully" at us. Darkness was setting in, but in my binoculars I could see that it was a barred owl. Those big dark eyes watched us for another five minutes before it flew off. The bird never made a sound.

- Mike Corey

12/19 - Cold Spring, HRM 54: If its shadow had not swept across the dock, we might never have noticed the immature bald eagle as it cruised overhead and out across the river toward Crow's Nest. We quickly found it in our binoculars as it banked against Storm King, its back cloaked in white - a "white extreme."

- TR Jackson, Christopher Letts, Tom Lake

[White extreme is a color phase described for some three-year-old bald eagles. As immature eagles 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.]

12/20 - Manitou, HRM 47.5: One of my favorite winter activities is feeding the birds. Feeders usually go up sometime in September - the titmice and chickadees always tell me when it is time. They come to where the feeders should be and scold me until I put them up. Over the years, I have often wondered how many birds are repeat customers. This is the third year we have had a tufted titmouse that has a deformed beak (avian keratin disorder). The top beak is very long, shaped correctly but long. The bird doesn't seem to have any problem eating the seeds, so I am pretty sure it is the same one. There are many studies going on in the Northwest and Alaska because of the number of birds there with the disorder. On a lighter note, night brings a couple of northern flying squirrels to the feeders.

- Zshawn Sullivan

12/20 - Croton-on-Hudson, HRM 35: A plump red-shouldered hawk landed on an oak branch close enough so that I could see its lovely rusty plumage and its glittering eyes. The bird preened and fluffed out its red belly, causing a flutter among the chickadees that had gathered to annoy it, circling at a bit of a distance. The hawk seemed unperturbed by the chickadees and the lone robin (me) as it scanned the woods. In a blink, it was gone from the branch. There was a scuffling in the leaves under the tree; then the hawk lifted off, flapping hard with something dangling in its beak.

- Robin Fox

12/21 - Newcomb, HRM 302: On the eve of the winter solstice it barely looked like winter here. Lakes were frozen but it was stretching it to say that there is an inch of snow at the snow stake, and rain is forecast for today. I'm thinking of buying a snow machine and making my own.

- Charlotte Demers

12/21 - Milan, HRM 90: For a few days now I have been watching several brown creepers on the big oak by my back door. This is a first for me. I thought they were mice when I first saw them.

- Marty Otter

12/22 - Selkirk, HRM 135: Out to the woodshed last night and it was as quiet and peaceful as could be. There were clouds and a light mist. The magic of the winter solstice was in the air or was it in my heart, probably both. Early this morning, there were stars in the sky and still that calm peaceful feeling all about. Winter was here with an incredibly warm start.

- Roberta S. Jeracka

12/22 - Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 75: On the first day of winter, the air temperature reached 55 degrees Fahrenheit. In Manhattan (HRM 5), it was 58 degrees.

- National Weather Service

12/22 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: Just before the winter solstice arrived, we had an incredible midsummer-like thunder and lightning storm with wind gusts over 30 mph.

- Tom Lake

12/22 - Denning's Point, HRM 60: We spotted three immature bald eagles spread out along the tree tops on Denning's Point. It was a pretty good guess that these were migrants looking for suitable winter habitat.

- TR Jackson, Susanne Lake, Phyllis Lake, Tom Lake

[Denning's Point, part of the Hudson Highlands State Park, has long been recognized as prime wintering habitat for bald eagles. This northeast-southwest trending peninsula affords a point of land from which eagles can hunt deeper open water, use feeding perches in huge sycamores and cottonwoods, and find out-of-the-wind night roosts in the lee of the point. Tom Lake.]

12/22 - Furnace Woods, HRM 38.5: The warm autumn has saved many of us money on heating bills, but we know that it is not supposed to be this way. Some flowering shrubs have tentatively begun to bloom. As I did yard patrol today, I saw with dismay that many daffodils have thrust green tips up an inch and more. We need a cold snap and some degree of normalcy, or I fear many plantings are in danger.

- Christopher Letts

12/22 - Croton Point, HRM 35-34: The word was "balmy," on a dry and calm morning. Lightly dressed when I left the house, I shed another layer and began my morning walk in a t-shirt and shorts. "Pay attention," I admonished myself. This was a morning when anything at all might be seen or heard. A big black coyote was the first coup. A tight knot of cedar waxwings shot past, closely observed by a Cooper's hawk. "Dearly, dearly, dearly" sounded and there were bluebirds to be marveled at, tame and not noticeably afraid. I enjoyed them for long minutes. A single robin was "tut-tutting" in the green briars. At the end of the walk, as I started down the slope toward the parking lot, a tiny bird dove into the undergrowth, flashing white patches on its tail. It took a few minutes, but I was able to determine that it was a magnolia warbler. Nice start to the day.

- Christopher Letts

12/22 - Queens, New York City: There is no accounting for these warm winter days, particularly after there was no accounting for the late October snowstorm we experienced in New York City. But somehow, despite this season's history, a garter snake slithered by John Zuzworsky and I as we hiked to the east garden of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. One last spring peeper did its best to cheer up a leafless scene at the east pond as we arrived. Warm, but not that warm, I hoped these two would display better common sense in the next few days.

- Dave Taft

12/23 - Croton River, HRM 34: Three times in the past week, I have enjoyed the largest flock of fish crows I have ever seen. I counted 55 birds on one occasion, spread out over a mile and loudly conversing as they passed overhead. Three bald eagles were present this morning, but I am sure they were not wintering birds from points north. I did a check of all the usual winter roosts, and found nothing from China Pier to Verplanck to Georges Island and points in between (HRM 44-39). One little treat was a single common grackle that landed nearby and took its time preening. I always wonder about these singletons, what the story might be, why are flocking birds all by their lonesome?

- Christopher Letts

12/23 - Queens, New York City: Traveling slowly along the Long Island Expressway as it bisects Queens near Forest Hills, I had time to examine an unfortunate Cooper's hawk that was dead along the central barrier of the eastbound lanes. Who knows what temptation caused the bird to fly low enough over the highway to find itself anonymous road kill in Queens, but its tail was fanned out, and pointing up, and there was no doubt as to its identification.

- Dave Taft

12/24 - Chatham, Columbia County, HRM 125: I spotted a lone robin last week and this morning a pair of bluebirds - a beautiful gift for Christmas.
- Nancy Castaldo

12/24 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: The sky was crystal clear late on Christmas Eve. Orion the Hunter, a winter constellation, was directly overhead. To the west, near the river, I could hear two barred owls conversing. To the east, near a highway (route 9D) I could hear a lone coyote. I silently wished him care since drivers frequently discount the pathways of wildlife. In thinking it, however, I realized that I rarely ever see a road-killed coyote. They are as wily as we make them out to be.

- Tom Lake

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