Hudson River Almanac December 14 - December 21, 2012
The week ended with the passing of autumn and the advent of winter. While the High Peaks of the Adirondacks were white with snow and waters there were freezing over, there was little ice or other evidence of winter in the lower reaches of the watershed. As a result, the diversity of waterfowl in the mid- and lower Hudson Valley was unusual for the season.
HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK
12/14 - Newcomb, HRM 302: Air temperatures in the teens the last few nights had frozen up most of the lakes and ponds. Snow covered the Adirondack High Peaks but there was just a dusting on the ground in town. Animals were getting ready for winter as demonstrated by our encounter with a porcupine today: My colleague and I found one apparently trying to use one of our kayaks for a winter den. We were putting boats into winter storage and when we went to pick up the kayak we were startled by some movement and noise. It seems that a porcupine thought the bow of a kayak was the perfect place to keep out of the winter weather. We thought about letting it stay where it was but the amount of fecal matter and urine in the kayak made us think the boat would be unusable, or certainly not pleasant to use, if we let the animal remain there for an entire season. Hopefully it found something more suitable. Porcupines do not hibernate during winter; they depend on body fat (up to 60% of their body mass), their ability to get nutrition from some poor quality foods, and spending their time either eating or resting in their dens.
- Charlotte Demers
NATURAL HISTORY NOTES
12/15 - Peebles Island, HRM 158: From its perch high atop a silo by the park's visitor center, an immature bald eagle quietly surveyed the waters of the Mohawk River at its confluence with the Hudson. It also kept a wary eye on human activity in Peebles Island State Park below.
- Ed Spaeth
12/15 - Ulster County: Our sixty-third annual Mohonk-Ashokan Reservoir Christmas Bird Count documented a total of 10,461 birds of 78 species. Diversity was very good, falling just one species short of our all-time high of 79 in 2007, and well above the most recent ten-year average of 67. Highlights were dominated by waterfowl, including the addition of a new species to the 63-year composite. Two lingering northern pintail represent a first record and advanced the historical total to 144 species. Four green-winged teal were counted for only the second time; three American wigeon represented our third historical record; one wood duck represented a fourth record; and a gadwall and a lesser scaup were both encountered for only the fifth time. New high counts were set for several species, including 425 snow geese (eclipsing 286 in 2008), and 145 eastern bluebirds tied our previous high count from 2006. [Northern pintail photo from U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.]
- Steve M. Chorvas, 34 colleagues
12/15 - Eddyville, HRM 92: While out searching our part of the Mohonk-Ashokan Christmas Bird Count, we stopped at the DEC boat launch site on Rondout Creek. It was totally windless and the surface of the creek was completely still. Two female common mergansers took off and quickly became four mergansers as they flew low upstream. Remarkably, two were flying upside down directly beneath the other two. We thought for a second and decided to do the right thing and only enter two mergansers in our tally.
- Lynn Bowdery, Lin Fagan, Maeve Maurer, David Arnett
12/15 - Ulster County, HRM 81: This afternoon a female white-winged crossbill spent about an hour happily eating sunflower hearts out of our feeder in Tillson. I'd never seen one before.
- Jason Taylor
12/15 - Wappinger Creek, HRM 67.5: I was moving along Creek Road when I looked up to see an adult bald eagle flying low, heading toward the Hudson River. There was no way to tell for sure, but it may have been one of the mated pair from the local nest. On the creek below were five common mergansers, two drakes and three hens.
- Jamie Colins
12/15 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: You had to be very quick to notice it, but the sun set a minute later today for the first time since the fourth of July.
- Tom Lake
12/15 - Yorktown Heights, HRM 43: Nine redhead ducks, five drakes and four hens, were seen at the Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park this morning and then again in late afternoon. They were in with a group of 24 ring-necked ducks. Also present in the same area were two pied-billed grebes, eight bufflehead, and four gadwall.
- Anne Swaim
12/15 - Brooklyn, New York City: The highlights of the Jamaica Bay section of the Brooklyn Christmas Bird Count included an American white pelican that flew in from the direction of the Marine Parkway Bridge and then cut over Terrapin Point before disappearing from our view. This was a first for the Brooklyn Christmas Bird Count. Also sighted pre-dawn was a male Barrow's goldeneye on the West Pond of the Jamaica Wildlife Refuge, in company with sixteen common goldeneyes. We also had a Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow, seaside sparrow, American bittern, clapper rail, canvasback, and a flock of 69 boat-tailed grackles feeding on the mudflats. We got shut out of ruddy ducks for the first time in our memory after having counted more than 3,000 last year.
- Doug Gochfeld, Bob Gochfeld, Steve Walter, Jeff Ritter, Eric Miller.
12/15 - Brooklyn, New York City: The Kings County Christmas Bird Count documented 135 species, tieing our all-time record. The list included a juvenile drake Eurasian wigeon photographed by Barbara Wasserman. Of species counted, brant were the most numerous. Among the rare sightings (seen three times or less in the last decade) were Barrow's goldeneye, American white pelican, semipalmated plover, Wilson's snipe, Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow, seaside sparrow, red crossbill, white-winged crossbill, common redpoll, blackpoll warbler, and Nashville warbler. A cave swallow was new to our count.
- Peter Dorosh
[The cave swallow is a locally common swallow of Texas, Mexico, and the Caribbean. True to its name, it often roosts and nests inside the entrances to caves, sharing the space with bats. Roger Tory Peterson describes the cave swallow as an "accidental from the tropics," a stray in our area. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.]
12/16 - Brockway, Dutchess County, HRM 62: It was a wonder that we spotted the bird. The snowy owl was perched on the white roof of a white building, with a white sky as backdrop. Our consensus was that, given its mottled plumage, this was a first year bird.
- Barbara Michelin, Barbara Mansell, Margie Robinson, Rosa Corbeels, Tom Lake
[Fall and winter incursions of snowy owls are more or less regular occurrences every few years and are thought to be caused by the low numbers of their prey to the north: hares and lemmings. Unfortunately, many of the snowy owls that show up in our area are badly malnourished. Eric Lind.]
12/16 - Rockland County: A total of 13,826 birds representing 87 species were counted for the sixty-sixth annual Rockland County Christmas Bird Count. The number of species documented was fairly typical. The range from 1947 through 2011 is 47 to 92, with an average of 74. Among the notable sightings were northern shoveler (133), the highest number ever recorded (previous high 94 in 2011), and bald eagle (44), the highest number ever recorded (previous high 29 in 2007). Canvasbacks continued to decline; only sixteen were counted compared to the average of 181 (1947-2011).
- Alan Wells
12/16 - Queens, New York City: Preliminary results for the Queens County Christmas Bird Count included 109 species. Among the unusual birds were dovekie, American white pelican, common eider, razorbill, bald eagle, white-winged crossbills, and indigo bunting.
- Arie Gilbert
12/17 - Town of Warwick, HRM 44: I counted eight red-tailed hawks and one red-shouldered hawk across seven miles of the Pulaski Highway as it bisected the agricultural fields of the Black Dirt region of Orange County. The coal black of the soil was accented by the new, light, bright green cover crops of barley and Sudan grass.
- Tom Lake
[This part of Orange County, known as the "Black Dirt," between Florida and Pine Island, is an important agricultural area, growing enormous amounts of produce such as onions, potatoes, lettuce, radishes, cabbage, carrots, corn, pumpkin, and squash in the highly organic soil. The soil is black from a millennia of decomposing organics - in some places it is essentially a compost heap. The black dirt topsoil, feet deep, originates from a late Pleistocene lake and swampland and is filled with bones of extinct animals such as mastodont, ground sloth, peccary, and stag-moose that lived and died here 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Tom Lake.]
12/17 - Town of Warwick, HRM 41: A low-hanging fog hung over Liberty Marsh, keeping most of the birds on the water - including no fewer than a thousand mallards. I hiked the Liberty Loop Trail (2.75 miles; highly recommended) in search of the sandhill cranes that were seen here recently. While the cranes proved elusive I did spot four common pintails and four gorgeous northern shovelers. As I rounded the far bend of the trail my binoculars picked up two charcoal-gray coyotes nimbly making their way through the wet grass on the far side of the marsh a quarter-mile away.
- Tom Lake
[Liberty Marsh's 335 acres are part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge, adjacent to and near the headwaters of the Wallkill River. Tom Lake.]
12/18 - Newcomb, HRM 302: The weather has been hit or miss lately: snow, sleet, ice pellets, rain, and everything in between. There is not much on the ground. We had two inches of snow last night but it won't last long given that it's raining now.
- Charlotte Demers
12/18 - Crugers, HRM 39: After several rainy days and a very heavy downpour last night, the sun finally showed itself this afternoon and sparkled on the calm, still river. We went looking for Ogilvie's Pond's great blue heron with no luck. However we did spot four beautiful hooded mergansers, two drakes and two hens. The white crests on the males' heads caught our attention at first, but it was a while before we spotted the reddish-brown-headed females behind them.
- Dorothy Ferguson, Bob Ferguson
12/18 - Croton Point, HRM35-34: As I began my walk I worked hard on conjuring up a flock of bluebirds, but with no luck. What I did get was a nice look at two very tame fox sparrows. As I passed the marshy woods on the southwest side of the point a great blue heron launched from a low branch; it was so close that I could hear its wings as it passed overhead. What was it doing - mousing? A few minutes later, there was a handsome mature peregrine falcon on the verge of the marsh, perch-hunting at the edge of the phragmites.
- Christopher Letts
12/19 - Town of Warwick, HRM 41: With a steady west wind at 20 miles per hour, this was decidedly not an optimum day for birding. As I walked the Liberty Marsh Loop Trail no fewer than a hundred mallards took flight all at once. Had they heard or seen me? I looked overhead and there was the answer: an adult bald eagle canting its wings into the wind, making lazy circles over the fleeing ducks. At the far end of the trail I came upon an eagle 'kill site" where a mallard had been taken. There were feathers everywhere but all the good parts were missing. Three northern harriers plied their trade over the hummocks with their artful maneuvers, making slow glides over the marsh in the face of the stiff wind. They dipped and darted, teetered and swayed, showing off their incredible dexterity while hunting. On the way out I flushed a rough-legged hawk and spotted the only unexpected birds of the day: red crossbills.
- Tom Lake
12/19 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: It was a brisk and blowy morning and as I crested the landfill I was glad to have opted for an insulated jacket. A day ago I had counted more than two dozen species of birds; today allotted me fewer than half of that. I did see a fleet flock of cedar waxwings, in short supply this season. They wheeled and whirled over my head like a tightly choreographed snowflake ballet.
- Christopher Letts
12/20 - Rhinebeck HRM 95: As I crossed the Kingston- Rhinecliff Bridge, I counted six snow geese: three going north and three going south, all at about bridge level. A first for me!
- Marty Otter
12/20 - Croton Point, HRM 34.5: It was a good day for a walk: calm and crisp. A kestrel was hunting for breakfast while an eagle observed from a cottonwood, white head outlined against blue sky. Half-a-dozen red-winged blackbirds glided in and joined a big flock of starlings while golden-crowned kinglets were busy in the canopy.
- Christopher Letts
12/20 - Croton River, HRM 34: I watched a red-throated loon struggle to swallow a good-sized white perch, diving with the fish several times, then surfacing to try again. I did not stay to see the conclusion.
- Christopher Letts
12/21 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: Winter arrived an hour before dawn on the solstice with driving rain pushed by 30 mile per hour winds and gusts over 50. Despite the presence of coyotes, owls and songbirds, the woods were eerily silent except for the screeching of branches against limbs and tree trunks - it sounded like a forest full of banshees.
- Tom Lake
12/21 - Furnace Woods, HRM 38.5: A lone wood duck was still at the Croton Mill Pond and it was nice to have a peek at it as I passed on the winter solstice. The seasons seem out of joint, somehow, with birds still present that generally are long gone, and migrants from the north not yet arrived. I was thinking about this while doing some gardening and noticed crocus and daffodils pushing green tips up. Some of the daffodils were up six inches and I gave them a little cautionary admonishment. When we moved to Furnace Woods 25 years ago there was no doubt that we were solidly in Growing Zone 6. Now we surely are in Zone 7, and last winter may have been Zone 8 - food for thought.
- Christopher Letts
12/21 - Brooklyn, New York City: Watching from the end of Bay Parkway, I counted seven fly-by dovekies over Gravesend Bay, heading southbound in three groups.
- Doug Gochfeld
[Dovekies are a tiny north Atlantic species of the Alcidae family, a group of birds very similar to penguins, except that they can fly (the extinct great auk however, was flightless - a good example of convergent evolution). The other alcids include the Atlantic puffin, black guillemot, razorbill, and common and thick-billed murre. A dovekie is only about the size of a starling; ornithologist Paul Guris describes them as "fluffy little black-and-white nerf footballs in flight." They nest in colonies estimated to number in the millions in the very high Arctic latitudes and winter at sea as far south as New England and New York. In our area, dovekies winter in huge numbers on the water, well offshore. Despite their large numbers they are rarely seen from land. In past years, however, severe storms have driven large numbers of dovekies inshore. It's a rough life for these small seabirds that have to survive eating plankton in an ocean environment where storms can kick up waves in excess of 50 feet high. Rich Guthrie.]