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Hudson River Almanac January 1 - January 7, 2012

OVERVIEW

A full week into the New Year and winter still seemed stalled far to our north. In some Hudson Valley locations confused spring flowers were blooming and crocuses were poking up. The breadth of winter bird occurrence increased this week to include a snowy owl and a northern goshawk.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

1/7 - Furnace Woods, HRM 38.5: Accipiters - sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper's hawks - are no strangers to this property. In fact, during feeder season, roughly November to April, they are a daily occurrence in the feeder area and we can tell from the plucked feathers in the yard who was visiting. Cardinals and hairy woodpeckers are evidence of a female Cooper's; titmice and juncos are evidence of sharp-shinned or male Cooper's. When all the birds fled this morning, I peeked out a window just a few feet from the feeders and was amazed to see a much larger bird on a rhododendron branch, facing me, and looking hard for a "breakfast bird." Almost twice the size of the Cooper's hawk in mass, the zigzag pattern in the tail bars told me we had a northern goshawk. Even the squirrels showed some respect for this hunter.
- Christopher Letts

[The accipiters differ in size not only between species but also according to gender. By weight, male sharp-shinned hawks on average are little more than half as big as females; there is a similar dichotomy between male and female Cooper's. While Cooper's hawks are larger than sharp-shins, a big female "sharpie" can be nearly as long as a small male Cooper's. Thus in general there are size differences in the prey taken by each. Jays, doves, starlings, and flickers are prominent in the diet of Cooper's hawks; sparrow-sized birds in the diet of sharp-shins. However, both frequently capture robins, and they are opportunistic hunters. Sharpshins have been observed to kill ruffed grouse, and Cooper's hawks eat juncos and house sparrows. Steve Stanne.]

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

1/1 - Wappinger Falls, HRM 68: The New Year entered as the old one had left, with confusingly warm weather that belied the season. More than 100 mixed waterfowl dotted Wappinger Lake, a man-made impoundment on Wappinger Creek, about a mile above tidewater. While a few were locals, mallards and swans, most had migrated south under the instinctive assumption that it was necessary. Among these were Canada geese, common and hooded mergansers, ring-necked ducks, black ducks, and buffleheads.
- Tom Lake

1/1 - Croton Point, HRM 35: New Year's Day was picnic weather: balmy, still air, blue sky - real shirt-sleeve weather. I was impressed at the extensive and fresh mole tunneling that I saw in many places, the swollen magnolia buds, and a flock of bluebirds in a perfect setting: nine orange, blue and white sprites welcoming in the New Year. I made up my mind to consider that to be my augur for the coming year. This seems to be an "up" year for brown creepers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers, two more favorites that will get me through to the next gardening season with a bright heart.
- Christopher Letts

1/1 - Croton River, HRM 34: There were four common goldeneyes drifting in the river, the first of the season, with the morning sun showing off their gleaming eyes like lights of a midway game. There was also a small raft of ruddy ducks - tails cocked at a proper 45 degree angle - perhaps wondering why they had bothered to fly south at all.
- Christopher Letts

1/2 - Croton Point, HRM 34: Ravens seem increasingly common in Westchester County and here was a pair in a flat-wing glide, drifting along Route 9 shopping for breakfast. When I see or hear them, I am instantly transported to the California mountains, to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, to our own Adirondacks. They will always be birds of mystery to me, birds of wild places. A single bluebird was the best I could do this gusty morning, but still it was a sight to gladden me through the day. What I dwelt on from the bluebird sightings both yesterday and today was the seemingly sharp color contrasts: Their blue commands awe, but these birds have breasts that are red, not just rusty, and the demarcation between breast and white belly also seems sharply defined. Maybe it was the dead-on clear morning light that caused the effect.
- Christopher Letts

1/3 - Adirondack, Warren County, HRM 265: We saw our first eagle of the winter sitting on an ice flow at the south end of Schroon Lake very close to the bridge where the lake becomes the Schroon River.
- Elinor Muller

1/3 - Ravena, HRM 133.5: I happened to glance out the window and spotted a male red-bellied woodpecker at eye level sitting on a pine branch twenty feet away, fidgeting. He was waiting for a turn at the feeder hung off the front porch. He finally dove down, but flew back almost immediately in a gust of wind. It was a beautiful bird - black and white back with a bright red head. I hadn't seen any until a few years ago; now one or two seem to show up every year around this time.
- Larry Roth

1/3 - Poughkeepsie, HRM 75.5: As I was coming off the east side of the Mid-Hudson Bridge at dusk, watching a big group of crows coming back to their night roost, I saw a snowy owl take a crow in mid flight and pin it to the ground. The other crows began a racket and swooped at the owl. I got a real good look - a pure white owl.
- Michael Rozman

[Snowy owls show up in numbers in the U.S. every four or five winters in what is called an irruption. Apparently one is going on now, with birders across the northern states reporting frequent sightings. This irruption is probably due to an abundance of Arctic lemmings during the past breeding season, which resulted in a owl baby boom. Now that winter has set in on the tundra, lemmings are getting hard to find. With too many owls for the available food supply, many snowies - mainly young birds - are moving south in search of prey. Birds of the Arctic tundra, snowy owls are most commonly seen in open country, particularly along the seacoast, but during an irruption they may show up anywhere. According to Kenn Kaufman, a field editor for Audubon magazine, "The birds that come farthest south tend to be the young birds. These inexperienced birds are often hungry and stressed, and we should encourage people to enjoy them from a distance, not to pursue them for closer looks or photos." Steve Stanne.]

1/3 - Brooklyn, New York City: Staring idly out of my office window at Floyd Bennett Field, I watched a mixed flock of starlings, cowbirds, and red-winged blackbirds feeding on one of the local mowed road margins. I was thinking of a time a few years ago, while taking a CPR class, when a good friend nudged me (technically killing my "resusci-Annie") and dragging me off to a window to see a yellow-headed blackbird mixed with a similar flock. No such luck today, but as I was musing, the birds suddenly took off in tight formation, and a beautiful sharp shinned hawk made a heart-stopping pass at the group. He seemed to unexpectedly slow, and I can only guess it was a sudden gust of today's cold headwinds that caused him to veer off and land, frustrated and bird-less, in a nearby locust tree.
- Dave Taft

1/4 - Tivoli South Bay, HRM 98: Two bald eagles cavorted low over the thin ice of Tivoli South Bay late this afternoon, flying tight circles and making sharp climbing turns as they charged one another and then veered away. Unseen in the trees, a third eagle chirped and whistled, either announcing my approach on the Fathers Trail, or sharing in the excitement of the aerial ballet on the ice. Eventually all three flew north to the open water of the Saw Kill inlet, presumably in search of one last meal before darkness and hunkering down for another cold night.
- John A Sperr

1/4 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: It was a wintry nine degrees Fahrenheit at dawn with a wind-chill of five below zero. For some reason it seemed odd to count a flock of 40 mourning doves frantically scratching for forage in the grass. It was perhaps even odder that the local Cooper's hawk had not paid them a visit. The finch feeders were filled with juncos, a sight that still amazes me for ground feeders. In the frigid first light, they were all puffed out, keeping warm, looking like round balls of fluff.
- Tom Lake

1/4 - Middletown, Orange County, HRM 60: Out on my deck this morning, overlooking a small wetland, I saw a large bird coming to land in the Wallkill River. I grabbed my binoculars and saw that it was a great blue heron. It was eleven degrees Fahrenheit and I am hoping it will survive this cold. During the warmer months the herons go between the pond across the street and the wetland but I have never seen one in the winter.
- Ann Reichal

1/5 - Hudson Falls to Fort Edward, HRM 205-202: I was at Hudson Falls just after dawn. There was not a speck of ice anywhere in the river. From what I could see there was none from here on south, probably to the sea. The upper Hudson was badly in need of a blizzard. At Fort Edward (HRM 202), the cold wind was cutting and I watched, amidst flurries, an odd grouping in the lee of a small island: mallards, black ducks, three hen hooded mergansers, and three hen common goldeneyes. The diver ducks (the latter two threesomes) gave the impression of being very uncomfortable among the puddle ducks, but the strong current and brisk wind seemed to make their association necessary.
- Tom Lake

1/5 - Washington County, HRM 192.5-191.5: I have been to Maryland's Eastern Shore in winter and have witnessed unfathomable numbers of Canada geese in the stubble of old cornfields. However, they did not exceed the expanse of birds early this morning in a heavy snow squall at Fort Miller. It was "solid geese" along a mile of Hudson River, thousands of birds all talking at once. Half a dozen flocks wheeled overhead looking for open water and finding very little. Squeezed among the cramped groups of geese were common goldeneyes, black ducks, mallards, hooded mergansers, and a raft of forty greater scaup.
- Tom Lake

1/5 - Croton Point, HRM 35-34: This morning's walk felt almost balmy after the cold shot delivered over the past two days. With hat and gloves in pocket, I walked the entire Point, marveling at the still green grass, a few dandelions in bloom in sheltered nooks, and a forsythia bush with scores of blossoms on the south side. The white-tailed deer herd has gone through a transformation since coyotes established a permanent presence about fifteen years ago. At the time, I estimated the population at something over seventy deer, and it was clear that the carrying capacity of the peninsula had been exceeded. The deer population now is fewer than a dozen.
When the "Big Dogs" arrived, the first to go were the woodchucks, followed by skunks and raccoons. The rat problem seemed to disappear as well, but that may have had to do with the closing and capping of the landfill. Wild turkeys have attempted a beachhead here several times, but it never lasted long. I suspect the canids again. The cottontails are a bit of an enigma: I go for months and don't see a bunny, and yet, there are tracks to be found when there is fresh snow. Then in May, I start seeing them, a few at first and by the end of June a couple of dozen. But it is all downhill from there; the numbers decrease, week by week, and by the end of summer, they are once again scarce ("scarce as hen's teeth," as the late droll, Audubon warden James P. Rod used to say).
- Christopher Letts

1/6 - Albany, HRM 145: While driving westbound on the I-90 Patroon Island Bridge, I saw an adult bald eagle swoop down toward a white bird that was floating serenely on the Hudson just north of the bridge. I only saw it for a moment as I moved along at 60 mph. The image was incredible, to catch the motion of the eagle's dive as I was busy driving. If I had been a second earlier or later, I would have missed it.
- Pat Van Alstyne

[With nothing more than the brief description to go on, we would guess that the intended victim was a gull, probably a ring-billed gull, or possibly a less-common herring gull. Tom Lake.]

1/6 - Ulster County, HRM 90: Having read stories of how huge flocks of nineteenth-century passenger pigeons blackened out the sky for hours in passing with their incredible numbers, I felt that I had seen a micro-version, a "mini-blackout," as two separate flocks of starlings passed. As each one poured out of the treeline they just kept on coming, with each flock easily containing more than a thousand birds.
- Tom Lake

1/6 - Crugers, HRM 39: We drove down to Ogilvie's Pond early this afternoon, in hopes of seeing the great blue heron and hooded merganser pair that are sometimes there. We were totally unprepared for the sight that greeted us: an adult bald eagle standing on a muddy patch of land in the pond, contentedly eating its lunch. It was feeding on some sort of carrion and was only thirty yards away. After a while, the eagle looked over toward our car and decided to leave its meal and move to one of the trees on the other side of the pond. It finally flew off toward the river. This was our first eagle sighting of the season in our neighborhood and it was truly spectacular.
- Dorothy Ferguson, Bob Ferguson

1/6 - Croton Point. HRM 34: The best I could do on this morning's hike was a gray catbird, near the wine cellars on the south side of the Point. But I met another hiker-birder who had just heard a wren chirping in the reeds: "I stuck with it until I got a good look; it was a marsh wren." I tried hard, but I came up empty. The bird was fairly common here years ago, and I can remember hearing half a dozen singing males along the beach on the south side. Woody plants and vines have changed the habitat along that shore, so that may explain their absence in some years. But never have I seen anything but Carolina and winter wren this late in the season.
- Christopher Letts

1/6 - Croton-on-Hudson, HRM 35: I decided to start the gardening year by trimming my mock orange and forsythia bushes. They had grown very tall and thick. As I looked out the window I saw five juncos all plumped out against the breeze, perched in the bushes. As I watched, they were joined by a pair of cardinals and a clutch of chickadees. Through the seasons many birds perch, peck and nest in these bushes. During the summer the bushes form a green curtain that keeps light out, so I thought that this season would good to trim. But then I'd miss these daily gatherings.
- Robin Fox

1/7 - Town of Newburgh, HRM 60: The air temperature reached 58 degrees F today, a record high for the date.
- National Weather Service

[Air temperatures reached near-records of 61 in New York City and 60 in Dutchess County. National Weather Service]

1/7 - Bear Mountain, HRM 46: We were standing on a pedestrian path next to Hessian Lake as it began to get light this morning when a group [a murder] of crows began calling loudly and making noise in the trees fifty yards north of us. We turned and looked up just in time to see a large red-tailed hawk fleeing the scene, flying along six feet above the path. It flew by not ten feet in front of us as it high-tailed it to a quieter patch of timber.
- Hugh L. McLean, Tom Daw

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