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Hudson River Almanac November 19 - November 26, 2013


This week marked the beginning of what has become an extraordinary incursion of snowy owls from the Arctic south into the Hudson Valley and southeast New York. Already, six sightings have been reported on Long Island along with several here in the Hudson Valley.


11/21 - Fort Edward, HRM 202: Good observations in nature are often the product of good timing. I stood along the river at barely first light, looking one way rather than the other (serendipity), and caught sight of a Cooper's hawk as it swooped down, snatched a black (melanistic) gray squirrel, and disappeared a short distance into the forest, all in a matter of seconds. For a "bird hawk," this Cooper's showed much strength.
- Tom Lake

["Black" squirrels are eastern gray squirrels with a genetic variation that produces melanism. Biologists have suggested that black squirrels may have a selective advantage over gray squirrels due to an increased cold tolerance. While not particularly rare overall, it is estimated that melanism occurs in only about one of every 10,000 gray squirrels. Tom Lake.]


11/20 - Washington County, HRM 198-193: I expected this stretch of the Hudson to be brimming with waterfowl this late in autumn. To my surprise, across a five-mile reach I counted only a single bird, a pied-billed grebe at the mouth of the Snook Kill. Thompson Island pool, a favorite stopover for migrating waterfowl, was completely empty.
- Tom Lake

11/20 - Albany, HRM 145; A couple of days ago I spotted a snowy owl flying over the eastern end of the Patroon Island Bridge (Interstate Route 90). It was only about 50 feet above the bridge and landed on the power line tower just south of the bridge. I could not see if it had anything in its talons.
- Rick Werwaiss

[Although this entry occurred last week, it is included because it was one of the first of what has become a plethora of snowy owl sightings in the Hudson Valley, southeast New York, and northern New Jersey. Modest snowy owl incursions are typically dead-of-winter events signaling difficult hunting in the Arctic for these birds. The number of sightings in the last two weeks seems to far exceed what is considered usual. Tom Lake.]

11/20 - Rhinebeck, HRM 90: Early this afternoon, in full sunlight, I saw a common redpoll at the thistle feeder beyond my deck. Maybe he came in with the cold weather that arrived yesterday.
- Phyllis Marsteller

[Common redpoll is one of the "winter finches" that tend to arrive in the Hudson Valley when winter impacts their northern breeding territory. Among others are red crossbill, white-winged crossbill, pine siskin, and evening grosbeak. Tom Lake.]

11/20 - Staatsburg, HRM 86: A friend helped me locate the two red-headed woodpeckers at the Mills Mansion site today. One bird was quite curious about us and we watched it hunt for insects. We only got a brief glimpse of the other one. They are such beautiful woodpeckers and are rare in our area.
- Debi Kral

11/20 - Stanfordville, HRM 68: I stopped at Tamarack Lake around dusk and spotted an immature bald eagle, but the two adults I had seen previously were gone. I only counted eight coot today. I was also able to watch a great blue heron intently track and successfully catch a pumpkinseed sunfish.
- Debi Kral

11/20 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67.5: I was surprised to see a high-flying kettle of six turkey vultures over Schlathaus Park turn out to be black vultures. As they made their way closer, the sun glinted off their silvery wing-tips as they meandered west toward the Hudson River.
- Donna Lenhart

11/20 - Furnace Woods, HRM 38.5: I count up to a dozen species of birds a day here, including brown creeper and wild turkey, their calls going back and forth across Pine Lake. A yellow-bellied sapsucker visited today but did not appear to feed.
- Christopher Letts

11/21- Fort Miller, HRM 194-193: It was frigid at dawn, 16 degrees Fahrenheit. The shrubs along the shore were frost-covered, and the "deafening silence" of yesterday was gone. There was skim ice on the edges of the Thompson Island pool and several overlapping flocks of Canada geese, hundreds of noisy birds, were strung out across the river. Sprinkled among the geese were dozens of common mergansers.
- Tom Lake

11/21 - Saratoga County, HRM 177.5: Long stretches of the river were devoid of waterfowl but where they occurred, the numbers were impressive. Adjacent to the Saratoga National Historic Park a huge flock of Canada geese, spread out over several hundred yards, had come down for a rest.
- Tom Lake

11/21 - Stillwater, HRM 171.5: In most places where large flocks of geese had set down, they were drifting mid-river. Here was the exception. No fewer than 200 geese were dabbling along the shore and foraging on the grassy banks. Among the many Canadas was a single snow goose. Canada geese frequently fail to stir the emotions, but add in a snow goose and the atmosphere changes. (While it may occur, I cannot recall having ever seen a single Canada goose in a flock of snow geese.)
- Tom Lake

[This phenomenon is not common, but is seen several times each fall and winter during migration. The usual explanation is that the snow goose somehow loses contact with its parent flock, senses a family kinship, and joins their relatives. Tom Lake.]

11/21 - Green Island, HRM 153: The tide was exceptionally low at midday, exposing an additional 20-30 feet of shoreline. The "hang-downs" that have claimed fishing lures for decades were exposed (shad darts with rusted hooks). Two adult bald eagles were in view; one was perched in a cottonwood on the Green Island side above the Federal Dam; the other was directly across the river on the Troy waterfront. A ring-billed gull came up with a small fish and was immediately and relentlessly besieged by six others, producing a several minute chase that ended with the prize being dropped into the river and lost to all.
- Tom Lake

11/21 - Milan, HRM 90: I sometimes put out food scraps for the crows. This morning it was a turkey breast carcass but the crows never had a chance! A red-shouldered hawk that had been perching in a nearby tree pounced on it, quickly grasped the carcass, and then flew into the woods for an easy meal.
- Frank Margiotta

11/21 - Galeville, HRM 74: We stopped by the Shawangunk Grasslands late this afternoon just as the short-eared owls were rising up to begin their patrols. We counted four of them.
- Ken McDermott, Ralph Tabor

11/21 - Town of Newburgh, HRM 60: Late this evening I heard a pair of great-horned owls "duetting" from two houses away. I hope they have a successful nesting season later in the winter. Any "owl day" is a great day!
- Ken McDermott

11/21 - Bedford, HRM 35: There was sparse representation by other species today at the Chestnut Ridge hawkwatch, but red-shouldered hawks and turkey vultures continued to come through in good numbers. Most activity happened in the morning, before increasing cloud cover put a damper on things (only five birds recorded in the afternoon). Also counted were two common ravens and 72 American robins. Current season totals of vultures: 2,269 turkey vultures, 66 black vultures. Current season total for red-shouldered hawks: 474.
- Arthur W. Green, Chet Friedman

11/22 - Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 68.5: A flock of perhaps eighteen cedar waxwings had found some Oriental bittersweet at Bowdoin Park and were making quick work of the orange berries. Bittersweet is an apt name, since the berries look very colorful as their vines are pulling their host tree to earth.
- Tom Lake. T.R. Jackson

[Oriental bittersweet is an invasive woody vine that was introduced into North America from Asia in 1879. Their orange and red berries are prized by songbirds. However, as their heavy, thick vines creep skyward on trees in an effort to gain full sunlight, they frequently pull down branches, limbs, and eventually the entire tree, often killing their host. Tom Lake.]

11/23 - Bedford, HRM 35: This was the day that almost didn't start at the Chestnut Ridge hawkwatch. The resident turkey vultures and red-tailed hawks were ever-present, but only one migrant (a red-tailed hawk) was recorded by 1:00 p.m. Also counted were two common ravens. Current season total for red-shouldered hawks: 475. Current season totals of vultures: 2,273 turkey vultures, 66 black vultures.
- Arthur W. Green, Jeff Greenwald, Tait Johansson

11/23 - Croton Point, HRM 35-24: Eight of us birded Croton Point this morning. There were pockets of good bird activity in places sheltered from the west wind. Along the brushy edge between the ball field parking lot and the landfill, we counted a flock of 30-plus American goldfinches; five fox sparrows; a common yellowthroat; a winter wren; and two tree sparrows. On the south side of the landfill we found a Wilson's snipe that flushed down into the phragmites by the river's edge. A flock of 27 American pipits were seen a few times on the west and north side of the landfill.
- Kyle Bardwell, Karalyn Lamb, Christine McCluskey, Charlie Roberto, Hillary Seiner, Jeff Seneca, Anne Swaim, Larry Trachtenberg

11/23 - Croton-on-Hudson, HRM 34: I've been watching the squirrels and chipmunks prepare for winter. Both creatures race back and forth with frantic energy - there are lots of them this fall! If one could track their dashing, it would be a webbed mass of paths. The squirrels are finding an abundance of acorns and other seeds to fill their cheeks. With their jowls bulging, they dash into the leaves and seem to disappear only to have leaves fly up from where the squirrel has decided to stash its bounty. I'll be finding groves of oak sprouts next spring!
- Robin Fox

11/23 - Manhattan, HRM 3.5: I spotted a hummingbird in some purple flowers along the north side of the rink in Bryant Park late this afternoon. I was not sure of the identification, but guessed that it may have been a Selasphorus species - maybe a rufous hummingbird. Also seen were white-throated and swamp sparrows, gray catbird, and hermit thrush.
- Alice Deutsch

11/24 - Newcomb, HRM 302: A beautiful snowy afternoon yesterday resulted in our first significant snowfall of the season, nearly five inches. Today it is wild and windy.
- Charlotte Demers

11/24 - Dutchess County, HRM 88: A visit to Hunn's Lake produced many common mergansers and a small raft of ruddy ducks, as well as Canada geese and mallards. Four wood ducks fled almost as soon as I looked at them.
- Deb Kral

11/24 - New Hamburg, HRM 67.5: The mid-morning ebb tide was ripping downriver, pushed by a northwest wind that had the windchill down to -4 degrees F. Several common mergansers were out on the river and it was difficult to tell if they were enjoying or just enduring the bobsled ride they were getting on the three-foot swells.
- Tom Lake

11/24 - Brockway, HRM 62: An adult bald eagle was perched on the leeward side of a small point, out of the freezing wind. I had seen the two local birds earlier, a few miles upriver, so I guessed that this was a wintering migrant. Although I was certain that he knew I was nearby, about 300 feet away, I was glad for my spotting scope that allowed me a close look without actually getting closer.
- Tom Lake

[Cold weather can be especially challenging for birds. They run on a strict energy budget, balancing calories in with calories out. They instinctively conserve energy. Every time we flush a winter bird, the calories needed to escape reduce its reservoir. If it is near evening roost time, this may deplete resources the bird will need keep its furnace stoked all night. While eagles are the consummate hunters and can usually overcome our intrusions, this not always true for snowy owls, our winter visitors that frequently arrive here already starving. Snowy owls, due to their fluffy feathered look, often look quite healthy, even while in the throes of starvation. Tom Lake.]

11/24 - Bedford, HRM 35: Apart from Canada geese, only bald eagles (three) seemed inclined to take to any height and receive the full force of the winds at the Chestnut Ridge hawkwatch. Other migrants - particularly turkey vultures - kept very low to the treetops as they worked against the wind, typically exiting far to my south. The behavior of one Cooper's hawk that I managed to catch as it crossed I-684 left me thinking that accipiters might have opted to move at or below the level of the tree canopy today, virtually guaranteeing they'd escape detection. Also counted were 1,050 Canada geese. Current season totals of vultures: 2,322 turkey vultures, 70 black vultures.
- Arthur W. Green

11/24 - Manhattan, HRM 3.5: In response to a reported bird sighting in Bryant Park, and as I was showing a group of birders an image of the bird they most likely saw, the bird itself flew in - an American woodcock. They had been seeing it for over a week. [Photo of American woodcock courtesy Jake Dingel/Pennsylvania Game Commission.]
- Ben Cacace

11/25 - Newcomb, HRM 302: This morning the air temperature dipped down to -4 degrees Fahrenheit. I guess winter is here and likely here to stay.
- Charlotte Demers

11/25 - Wappinger Creek, HRM 67.5: I spotted a red-breasted merganser flying downstream on Wappinger Creek today. The bird had been mixed in with a group of eighteen hooded mergansers.
- Jamie Collins

11/25 - Bedford, HRM 35: Red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures were exiting far to my south at the Chestnut Ridge hawkwatch, never particularly high. And that was it! Also counted were three common ravens, 108 American robins, 159 Canada geese, and 26 brant. Current season totals of vultures: 2,343 turkey vultures, 70 black vultures.
- Arthur W. Green

11/26 - Kowawese, HRM 59: We were seining through the snowflakes in bitter cold, with flurries landing on the net floats. We hoped to find the last of autumn's seaward-bound young-of-the-year migrants (herring, shad, striped bass). We had no expectations, so we were not disappointed when only the residents were home - white perch and spottail shiners. The river was 42 degrees F; salinity was 1.0 parts per thousand.
- Tom Lake, A. Danforth

11/26 - Orange County, HRM 44: I watched a snowy owl today at the old Warren Sodfarm near Skinner Lane in Goshen. There were also several hundred horned larks with some snow buntings in the mix, and a single snow goose.
- Ken McDermott

[Snowy owls were also seen this week in Connecticut, Long Island, Edith Read Sanctuary (Westchester County), and Sandy Hook, NJ. Debi Kral.]

[Fall and winter incursions of snowy owls are more or less regular occurrences and are thought to be caused by 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.]

11/26 - Bedford, HRM 35: There was no observable migration at the Chestnut Ridge hawkwatch until afternoon, and even then, only one species: turkey vulture. They began moving once flurries and sleet started, although that may have been just a coincidence. My past experience, however, leaves me convinced that turkey vultures are far hardier than their reputation suggests. There were no preferred flight-lines, with birds often moving strikingly low over the treetops. Also counted were 27 cedar waxwings and 120 Canada geese. Current season totals of vultures: 2,357 turkey vultures, 70 black vultures.
- Arthur W. Green

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