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Hudson River Almanac December 7 - December 14, 2012

OVERVIEW

The week remained much more autumnal than wintery. Sandhill cranes were in the Wallkill Valley, snow geese were moving through, and common mergansers were filling the tributaries, reminding us that winter was already touching the northern reaches of the watershed.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

12/14 - Warwick, HRM 41: Walking the Liberty Marsh Trail I had a raven fly over, spotted an adult bald eagle with a duck it had caught, and saw a sandhill crane at the far end of the loop. As many as four sandhill cranes have been spotted here in the last week.

- Jeffrey Cook

[Sandhill cranes have an impressive six to eight foot wingspan. They breed mostly from the prairies of Canada and the north-central U.S. to the Arctic tundra, but there are nesting records from the Montezuma Wildlife Refuge in western New York State, and the birds are occasionally seen here in spring and fall migration. Tom Lake.]

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

[See 12/7 - Wappinger Falls: Regarding the three flying squirrels at Terry Hardy's bird feeder, these were most likely southern flying squirrels. I would expect to see northern flying squirrels only in places like the high Catskills or the Rensselaer Plateau - if even there. Erik Kiviat.]

12/7 - Staten Island, New York City: I was walking in woods on Staten Island to clear my head of Sandy and yet another three-hour meeting designed to discuss it. The sun was low in the horizon and a heavy fog transformed mere acres into ancient woods of unknowable proportions. Barely visible from just yards away, two perfect circles of running pine was clearly evident, emerald green against the thick oak duff, now soft and beautifully red-brown in all the moisture. Club mosses are rare enough in our urban wood - I'd have come to see them alone - but other sightings were being doled out gradually by the fates. Two ravens, their calls magnified by the utter lack of anything visually clear, were black and just yards overhead before I even had a chance to register what direction they were coming from. Perhaps as surprised as I was to find guests in such lonely woods, they wheeled around twice, obviously checking me twice, and then in typical raven fashion, disappeared in the mists, well before their calls did.

- Dave Taft

12/8 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: Against the first blue sky I had seen in a week, the soaring adult bald eagle was a stunning sight. Up on the landfill, half a dozen American pipits flushed and flew fifty yards up-slope to land in light cover and instantly vanish from sight.

- Christopher Letts

12/9 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: We watched eight turkey vultures rise laboriously from their night roost and desperately try to gain altitude. Vultures are built for soaring flight, and do not have an easy time of it on a cold day lacking significant thermals. In an uncommon scene for these birds, they all flapped furiously trying to both achieve lift and somehow get into a kettle. After ten minutes of near futility they gave up on the kettle and just flapped away to all points.

- Tom Lake, T.R. Jackson

12/9 - Fishkill, HRM 61: I noticed movement right outside my front door. Being curious, I looked out and saw, busily flitting about my balsam fir Christmas wreath door decoration, two Carolina wrens. Presumably, with sunset about an hour away, they were looking for a nighttime roost.

- Ed Spaeth

12/10 - New Paltz, HRM 78: It was somewhat foggy at noon near the bridge over the Wallkill River. We spotted a roost of about 35 vultures - a few were turkey vultures but most were black vultures. They were perched on roof tops, in pine trees and bare deciduous trees. Every now and then a few birds would take off, fly across the Wallkill, and then soar above the fallow fields to the west. Most, however, just stayed at the roost.

- Erin Murphy, Ed Spaeth

[Black vulture (L) and turkey vulture (R) photos below by Mike Pogue.]

A black vulture soaring in the sky?
A vulture soaring in the sky?

12/10 - Yorktown, HRM 44: I was stacking wood in the yard when a flock of about seventy snow geese flew over. The flock was in a "broken" V, behaving as though they were searching for a landing site. They came in very low from the northeast, circled the yard, and then headed northwest.

- Thomas Rhindress

12/11 - Poughkeepsie HRM 75: I watched today as a peregrine falcon perched on what was left of the Nelson House in Poughkeepsie. I have watched it, or another falcon, for years as it perches and then pursues one of the many pigeons in the area.

- Marty Otter


12/11 - Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 68.5: As I was preparing to speak to a class of third-graders about bald eagles, we glanced out the window to the edge of their playground and saw an adult bald eagle perched in the top of a black locust (not a favorite "eagle tree"). Try as I might, I could not convince the students that I had not somehow arranged the appearance.

- Tom Lake

["Eagle trees" are easy to spot, even when eagles are not in them. They are large, open canopy trees, like cottonwoods, oaks, tuliptrees, sycamores, and white pines, on or near the river or a tributary, with a view of the water. Some of these trees have large horizontal limbs that make perfect feeding perches. Many are in sheltered locations, out of the prevailing wind, with a sunny exposure. The formula for a good eagle tree is "easy in, easy out." White pines are favored as night roosts in winter as they afford shelter from the wind. Tom Lake.]

12/11 - Wappinger Creek, HRM 67.5: It was a mid-morning high tide as eight common mergansers, both hens and drakes, made their way upstream leaving widening wakes behind. As I watched they all stopped and simultaneously dove. They soon popped up but immediately dove again. All eight were repeatedly underwater. I puzzled on what had caught their attention: A school of spottail shiners? Banded killifish? White perch? Sunfish? It is unusual to see an entire group of ducks diving all at once. Whatever the lure was, it had been exciting.

- Tom Lake

12/11 - Beacon, HRM 61: We took a run across the river to the Beacon side and the area near the Metro North railroad station. It was near low tide and we were most pleased to find three Iceland gulls among the ring-billed and black-backed gulls. Two of them were birds-of-the-year and one was a second-year bird with an extremely clean, almost white, form.

- Ken McDermott, Curt McDermott

12/11 - Palisades, HRM 23: I was driving out of the parking lot this evening when I spotted a unique silhouette in an old willow tree by the marsh: a great horned owl!

- Linda Pistolesi

12/12 - Westchester County, HRM 43-34: On this crisp blue sky morning I did the first nine-mile "eagle sweep" of the season along the northern Westchester County shoreline, visiting half-a-dozen of the favorite winter perches for the birds. Generally, some wintering birds have arrived by now, but I drew a total blank. At China Pier in Peekskill, the first great cormorants had arrived, pretty much on schedule.

- Christopher Letts

12/12 - Town of Cortlandt, HRM 38.5: We saw a pair of hooded mergansers on a pond between our house and the Hudson River. Further down the road where Furnace Brook becomes a marsh and meets the river, we counted two more pairs. Three of them dove, leaving a male in the cool air. They were under a long time and the remaining male soon dove as well. We love nature!

- Simone Kukla, Ethan Kukla, Violet Kravitz

12/13 - Stanfordville, HRM 84: I spent an hour or so this afternoon at Tamarack just listening to the bald eagles vocalizing (both were in a favorite oak). One, possibly two, immatures further back in the woods were responding - ever so wonderful. One of the immatures was out on the skim ice.

- Deb Tracy-Kral

12/13 - Town of Poughkeepsie: Eight tall tuliptrees are evenly spaced along the base of a long ridge of dolomite several hundred yards from the river. One of these tuliptrees holds bald eagle nest NY62. It was very quiet and still this afternoon to the point where even the bluebirds were no-shows. Then we heard that familiar, instantly recognizable sound like the opening of a squeaky, creaky door: an eagle was nearby. It was the adult female (N42) carrying several thin branches her talons for nest repairs.

- Tom Lake, T.R. Jackson

[Several days ago a third-grader asked me "What do eagles say to each other? Do they give each other names?" The easy answer is that we do not know. However, it is useful to consider the wide range of vocalizations eagles use to communicate. Most are squeaks, chirps, and chortles. The tone, selection, and pitch seem to vary depending on who is calling and who is listening. Nestlings calling Mama in the midst of a midnight nor'easter sound different from a fledgling demanding to be fed. Adult communications around their watches at the nest differ from the calls that accompany mid-winter mating. It is a beautiful mystery. Tom Lake.]

12/13 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: A small flock of wintering bluebirds, all male, was a cheery sight this frosty morning. Two house wrens were something of a surprise - tame as could be. A single kestrel on the landfill and a male wood duck on a woodland water hole were other nice sights.

- Christopher Letts

12/14 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67.5: As I drove past Hunter's Brook I did a double-take. We are used to seeing mallards and the occasional black ducks there but this was something new. I stopped alongside the brook and in my binoculars was a pair of gadwalls. These are also marsh ducks, related to black ducks and mallards, but not nearly as common in this area.

- Tom Lake

12/14 - Orange County, HRM 50: Take heart: If the red-tailed hawks are courting, can spring be far behind? I counted several pairs within an hour - soaring, sketching love circles in the sky.

- Christopher Letts

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