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Hudson River Almanac December 5 - December 12, 2013

OVERVIEW

At this time of year, bird observations dominate the Almanac. Well-insulated and active, they stand out at backyard feeders and in the larger landscape. Among bird observations this week, the snowy owl irruption into the Northeast was again the major focus. In addition to those reported from the Hudson's watershed, many reports were coming from peripheral areas such as Long Island and northern New Jersey.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

12/5 - Stanfordville, HRM 84: I had a female Oregon junco under my feeder today. Last year she (or another one) stayed the entire "junco season!" There was also one reported this week in Ulster County.
- Debi Kral

[The Oregon junco is a regional variety of our common "snowbird" - the dark-eyed junco. There were several Oregon juncos at feeders in Dutchess County during the 1960s, some staying two to three months. The Oregon variety is more of a western bird, but where the two overlap, they successfully inter-breed. This makes a good argument that they are one species, but the taxonomy of the dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) is not without its debates. Barbara Butler.]

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

12/5 - Poughquag, Town of Beekman, HRM 71: An interesting goose has come in with a flock of Canada geese for the last two days. Is it a snow goose "blue morph," or a white- fronted goose, or ???
- Doreen O'Connor

[Accompanying photos stirred up a prolonged debate among several Waterman Bird Club members as to the identity of the mystery goose. Among the candidates that were eventually discounted were barnacle goose, white-fronted goose, and graylag goose. Its orange legs eliminated some possibilities. Eventually a gaggle of experts decided on a hybrid. Even then, was it a Canada cross with a snow goose, or any of the above? Our final and tenuous conclusion was a hybrid Canada/white-fronted goose. Tom Lake.]

12/6 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: I watched three black vultures as they rested on a light pole in a parking lot. This was my third sighting of black vultures in the past two weeks.
- Donna Lenhart

12/6 - Ulster County, HRM 78: I counted four short-eared owls in late afternoon at the Shawangunk Grasslands. It was a life bird for me and truly a thrill.
- Martin Carney

[Keeping a "life list" is a popular activity among naturalists, and adding newly-seen species to it is rewarding. Typically these lists are compilations of related species, like postcards from one's travel through life. Some people keep bird lists; for others it's fish, flowers, insects, mushrooms, or fungi. Anyone can keep a list of almost anything that ultimately gives them a context and appreciation for the natural world. Tom Lake]

12/6 - Beacon, HRM 61: It was the bottom of the flood tide and the river was just beginning to creep back up on the sand. The beach and the bay were empty but that changed rather abruptly when a large flock of Canada geese (at least 75 birds) did a pirouette overhead and then set down not far offshore. As if they were flying in tandem, a flock of mallards (at least 35 birds) followed them down and landed on their periphery. We had our duck and goose calls with us and were happy to hear the Canadas and mallards occasionally answer us back.
In the sand we found a single shell, a single valve of a bivalve. After some consultation with Dave Strayer, a senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, we concluded that it was an invasive species, the Asian clam (Corbicula fluminea). Asian clams were introduced into the United States in 1938. Just a single valve, half of a bivalve, was adequate evidence of its living presence in this reach of the river.
- Tom Lake, T.R. Jackson

[This string of logic from a single valve that provided evidence of a living presence, i.e., one clam requires more clams, reminded me of the meager evidence for the first corn or maize cultivation in the Hudson Valley. Until recently, it was thought to have occurred around AD 1,000. That date was derived from radiocarbon dating of a single charred kernel of corn found by archaeologists near the Roeliff-Jansen's Kill in Columbia County (HRM 111). And in that instance, one kernel meant one ear; one ear meant one plant; and it followed that more than one plant was required for cross pollination; therefore it was being cultivated. Tom Lake.]

[We see the Asian clam everywhere we sample in the Hudson from South Troy to the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, so far in small numbers. However, it seems to be spreading rapidly. Dave Strayer, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.]

12/7 - Greene County, HRM 113: We saw a huge white owl on top of Hunter Mountain this morning. I thought it was a gull at first because of its white and gray coloring. However, the flattened face was a dead give-away for an owl, likely a snowy owl. It was airborne as we came into the clearing from the Becker Hollow Trail.
- Eric Scata, Dawn Scata

12/7 - Millbrook, HRM 82: This afternoon I happened to see - very high overhead - a migrant adult golden eagle.
- John Askildsen

12/8 - Newcomb, HRM 302: A large flock of goldfinches, easily more than 130 birds, has been at the feeder the past few weeks. They empty the sunflower feeder about every other day. Other folks feeding the birds in the area are also reporting very large flocks of goldfinches. My past records indicate that they usually stick around for a few weeks in early winter and then go elsewhere, but they seem to be staying longer this year. I'll have to increase the birdseed expenditure if they decide to stay. Other birds at the feeder include black-capped chickadees, dark-eyed juncos, red-breasted nuthatches, and both downy and hairy woodpeckers. The Hudson River was still mostly open water, with ice in the back bay and a few brave souls ice fishing there.
- Charlotte Demers

12/8 - Dutchess County: Snowy owls have been reported at no fewer than three different locations so far in Dutchess County. One was seen flying towards Bannerman's Island, another was seen in the Bangall-Amenia area, and one at the Dutchess County Airport. Please remember that even when snowy owls are not on private property, these owls should not be closely approached because many are already very stressed and several have died of starvation.
- Debi Kral

12/9 - Essex County: A snowy owl was struck by a car in the Adirondacks at Keene Valley. When recovered it was found to be emaciated and starving.
- Charlotte Demers

[This location along the Ausable is arguably out of the Hudson River watershed (Lake Champlain watershed) but is used here as another example of the extraordinary snowy owl irruption that has marked this autumn. Tom Lake.]

12/9 - Chelsea, HRM 65.2: It was the morning after an ice storm and rime ice was on the trees, bushes, and shrubs. We walked along the river and as we brushed up against a branch, it sounded like breaking glass. A large flock of common mergansers, almost all drakes, was holding its own not far offshore, playing the wind against the current to stay together.
- Tom Lake, T.R. Jackson

12/9 - Monroe, Orange County, HRM 46: I woke up this morning to black ice on the driveway and a flock of snow geese on Round Lake, just floating quietly together. There were at least 60, with a light gray one in their midst (immature?). I missed their departure; that left just six ruddy ducks that have been here since September.
- Lyn Nelson

12/10 - Ulster County, HRM 78: I arrived at the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge in mid-afternoon and immediately had a short-eared owl in flight in good light. Over the next two hours I found eight short-ears, four northern harriers, and two red-tailed hawks.
- Ken McDermott

12/10 - Furnace Woods, HRM 38.5: While hauling stove wood to the house on this blowy, cold day, I paused several times to enjoy the ethereal calls of the high flying geese, specks in the blue wintery sky. They had taken note of the forecast: next stop, Delaware Bay.
- Christopher Letts

12/11 - Fishkill, HRM 62: A cold northwest breeze had the wind-chill in single digits in mid-morning, but for these birds it was time to rise. I watched as thirteen black vultures struggled to gain lift from their night roost, executing broad circles barely over tree-top level for several minutes before finally clearing the canopy and drifting south.
- Tom Lake

[Having counted thirteen black vultures, I thought of the folklore and mythology associated with black birds; vultures; and the number 13 (triskaidekaphobia). If I were looking for ominous omens, these would have been adequate. Tom Lake.]

12/11 - Piermont Point. HRM 25: It was real nice to see rafts of black ducks and ruddy ducks in the lee of the point. Red-winged blackbirds were taking advantage of the protected marsh while in close proximity to the bird feeders in town.
- Christopher Letts

12/12 - Norrie Point, HRM 85: The cove outside of the Norrie Point Environmental Education Center was covered in a thin layer of ice for the first time this season. There were two male common mergansers fishing at the edge of the ice.
- Brianna Rosamilia, Jim Herrington

12/12 - Quassaick Creek, HRM 60: This afternoon, with the air temperature well below freezing; a light covering of snow on the ground; and icicles hanging from the feeder; I was surprised to see a fox sparrow scratching away in the leaves, looking for fallen sunflower seeds. It arrived here about a week ago and was still hanging around.
- John Gebhards

12/12 - Tappan Zee, HRM 27: A snowy owl was spotted perched on an empty gravel barge in the middle of the river, just west of the channel on the north side of the new Tappan Zee Bridge construction site, The work crews were made aware, enjoyed its company, and did not harass the owl.
- Sean Camillieri

12/12 - Norrie Point, HRM 85: The silver eel research being carried out by Sarah Mount and Chris Bowser on the Indian Kill was finished for the season. Operating a fyke net on the tributary throughout the fall, they captured a total of 118 eels. As many as half of the eels were classified, by various maturity indices, as out-migrants leaving the estuary for the sea to spawn. Their life history is so poorly known that any research increases our overall understanding of them.
Silver eels exit inland waterways all along the estuary, as evidenced by the large silver eel that fell on the jogging path at Inwood Park in northern Manhattan, where it was found by Valerie Thomas in mid-November. Looking up, she saw an immature bald eagle twirling overhead, with a meal lost.
- Tom Lake

["Silver eel" is a colloquial name given to American eels, perhaps 12-20 years old, that have undergone physical changes preparatory to leaving the estuary to spawn. Their eyes become enlarged and they go from the green-and-yellow coloration of their "yellow eel" phase, to dark black dorsally and stark white ventrally. These changes are adaptations to traveling through the deep, dark waters of the North Atlantic to locations and a spawning ritual that are still a mystery. Tom Lake.]

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