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Hudson River Almanac December 13 - December 20, 2013

OVERVIEW

This was a week of more snow geese and snowy owls. The amazing number of Canada geese seen in flyovers seems almost incomprehensible, and even more unfathomable when taking into account how many there are that we do not see, as they pass at night or at times or places without observers.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK

12/15 - Fishkill, HRM 62: I counted seven high-flyer flocks of geese in no more than 30 minutes. Six of the seven were snow geese. In the midst of this passage I witnessed an odd occurrence. A V-flock of snow geese was heading southwest while a V-flock of Canada geese, at the same level, was heading due south. It appeared that a collision was imminent. They flew into each other's path, but deftly merged into one large flock (not a V), with not a feather ruffled. They flew on for another 30 seconds as one before separating again and going their own way. For a full half-minute, there was one large flock of mixed geese. [At dusk four more flocks went over, two Canadas and two snow geese.]
- Tom Lake

NATURAL HISTORY NOTES

12/13 - Dutchess County, HRM 87: I stopped by the Mashomack Preserve in Pine Plains this morning and counted seven immature bald eagles on the ice with their hapless prey, mallards. Three adult eagles were perched nearby in trees.
- Deb Kral

12/13 - Chelsea to Beacon, HRM 65-61: An immature bald eagle was perched on a high limb of a cottonwood, with a crown of crows around him in the canopy. It appeared that the crows were taking a respite from their annoying antics. This was the fourth immature I counted today across four miles of riverfront.
- Tom Lake

12/13 - Denning's Point, HRM 60: The tide flats and bay at the mouth of Fishkill Creek were frozen over. At last light, more than a hundred Canada geese came down for a break on the edge of the ice at open water.
- Tom Lake

12/13 - Inbuckie, Westchester County, HRM 33.5: An afternoon blow-out tide had nearly emptied Inbuckie bay. Still, a hundred black ducks were foraging in the frozen tidal shallows, with a half-dozen ruddy ducks and ring-necked ducks mixed in.
- Tom Lake

12/13 - Ossining, HRM 33: As an immature bald eagle cruised low along the waterfront, 40 gulls took flight in every direction. This is an enduring mystery of avian predator-and-prey behavior: There are times when pandemonium will break out in flocks of waterfowl with even a hint of an eagle's presence. Then there are times when ducks and geese will show no signs of agitation with an eagle close at hand. There must be some form of predator-prey "non-verbal" communication indicating a well-fed raptor.
- Tom Lake

12/13 - Yonkers, HRM 18: A ragged but unmistakable line of brant, three dozen birds, flew downriver below the level of the Palisades.
- Tom Lake

[The brant is a small goose that frequently flies not more than 50 feet off the water. Riverman Cal Greenburg told me long ago, "They will not lift; they fly right on the deck. They even fly under bridges rather than lifting over them." Christopher Letts.]

12/14 - Ulster County: This was our 64th annual Mohonk-Ashokan Reservoir Christmas Bird Count, conducted under very challenging winter weather conditions. Our first major snowstorm of the season materialized overnight and air temperatures remained below freezing, ranging from a low of 8 degrees Fahrenheit to a high of 18 by midday. Thirty one participants managed to survey a significant portion of all sectors, recording 72 species and 14,033 individual birds. Our tally was greatly influenced this year by large flocks of Canada geese moving throughout the day, accounting for nearly 5,000 individuals and 35 percent of our total number of birds. Best birds of the day were a dickcissel in New Paltz (our first since 1966), and a juvenile Iceland gull associating with a few hundred herring gulls at the Mohonk Preserve composting site in New Paltz (first since 1995). A new high count was recorded for snow geese (870). Irruptive winter finches were essentially absent, with only one purple finch noted.
- Steve M. Chorvas

12/14 - New Hamburg, HRM 67.5: With Wappinger Lake two miles upstream, frozen over and snow-covered, the common and hooded mergansers had moved to open water at the mouth of the tidal Wappinger Creek. There they were joined by several ruddy ducks and at least one ring-necked duck.
- Tom Lake

12/14 - Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: The unmistakable sound came down through a steady snowfall: Canada geese. A large V (more like a checkmark) was flying over, remarkably low under the low ceiling.
- Phyllis Lake

12/14 - Blooming Grove, HRM 55: A flock of robins flew into view this morning as I watched the other birds around the feeders. Because they were heading into and out of a large red cedar, it wasn't possible to count them, other than at least six seen at one time going or coming.
- Betsy Hawes

12/14 - Westchester County, HRM 44: This morning in North Salem, in all that lovely snow, a flock of robins came. There were at least 20 in the red maple swamp behind the house, trading branches, landing on the ground, and ranging out and back. Their red breasts stood out among the gray and white of trees and snow.
- Irene Marks

12/15 - Greene County, HRM 128: A flock of about 70 snow geese flew over our house this morning, heading southwest.
- Jim Coe

12/15 - Palenville, HRM 110: In midday we also had snow geese fly over - three flocks of 200, 150, and 75 respectively. I may have missed a few since they were very high up.
- Larry Federman

12/15 - North Germantown, HRM 109. I went skiing along the railroad tracks this morning on ten inches of fresh powder snow. A CSX maintenance vehicle had cut a perfect cross-country ski trail. A pair of noisy crows led me to a red fox that had just been hit by a northbound train. The blood was still damp though the body was close to frozen. I moved the body away from the tracks to help avoid further fatalities of scavengers, such as bald eagles.
- Kaare Christian

[We frequently do short hikes/bikes/skis along the tracks by my house. There is almost always a dead white-tailed deer along the tracks. And we often see smaller animals, often impossible to identify, dead by the tracks. We've also seen red-tailed hawks, several dogs, a feral cat, a coyote, and now a red fox. And one begets the other: both red-tails and the coyote were near dead deer. Kaare Christian.]

12/15 - New Hamburg, HRM 67.5: After receiving nearly ten inches of snow from a nor'easter, the tidal Wappinger was waterfowl-free and frozen all the way from the fall line two miles to the river. A lone immature bald eagle was slowly flying down the middle of the creek; like me, he was looking for ducks.
- Tom Lake

12/15 - Pine Island, Orange County, HRM 42: On a visit to the greater Pine Island area today I counted more than 50 snow geese, 200 horned larks, and 20 Lapland longspurs.
- Andreas Kanon

12/15 - Crugers, HRM 39: We finally spotted the great blue heron at Ogilvie's Pond the day after the first big snowstorm of the season. We hadn't seen it in three weeks and were beginning to wonder if the heron had gone south for the winter. It was walking along the ice on the far side of the pond, looking for an open spot to fish.
- Dorothy Ferguson, Bob Ferguson

12/15 - Furnace Woods, HRM 38.5: Six inches of new snow turned the world white overnight. The feeder area was carpeted with birds, their caution tempered by the need for food. Mourning doves were dropping out of the trees in pairs. There was suddenly a swirling whirlwind of birds, pandemonium, with a female Cooper's hawk at the vortex for a split second, winds outstretched, larger than life. Then, just snow, not a bird in sight. Only a single feather - a primary from a dove - marked the impact spot.
- Christopher Letts

12/15 - Rockland County: This was our 67th annual Rockland County Christmas Bird Count. Forty field counters tallied 14,501 individuals representing 84 species. Highlights included red-headed woodpecker, American pipit, northern pintail, and black vulture. The common raven count of twelve was the second highest Rockland number since the species first made its appearance in 1998. High numbers also included Canada geese (4,398), and hooded mergansers (147).
- Alan Wells

12/15 - Manhattan, New York City, HRM 8-5: This was our 114th annual Central Park Christmas Bird Count. Seventy-five birders went out on slush and ice and counted 5,414 birds representing 62 species. There was one each of snow goose, green-winged teal, and bald eagle at the Reservoir, a Baltimore oriole in the Ramble, and an American woodcock in the Northwest section. Other notables included 143 northern shovelers and 455 Canada geese.
- Susan Elbin

12/15 - Queens, New York City: A total of forty-four birders covered our circle for the annual Queens County Christmas Bird Count. We totaled 118 species, tying our record. Highlights included king eider, Nashville and palm warbler, two glaucous gulls, common raven, five snowy owls, white-winged scoter, merlin, razorbill, short-eared owl, and fish crow. High numbers included snow geese (2276), brant (2314), Canada geese (3597), and greater scaup (6302).
- Corey Finger

[Snowy owls have cyclical populations linked to prey abundance. Lemming population cycles likely drive much of their survivorship and breeding success. We know snowy owls will skip breeding seasons when prey is scarce and may produce large clutches (up to nine eggs) when prey is abundant. Although lemming scarcity is often implicated in snowy owl invasions [irruptions], a bigger driving force may be highly productive breeding seasons, with multiple young fledged per pair. Periods of summer lemming abundance thus may drive these invasions more than lemming scarcity. The high proportion of first-winter (immature) owls during most invasions provides evidence that high breeding productivity is a major factor in these invasions. Bruce Mactavish, e-Bird.]

12/16 - Ulster County, HRM 76: I stopped by the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge late this afternoon and was pleased to easily find six short-eared owls, three rough-legged hawks, and one "gray ghost" (male northern harrier).
- Ken McDermott

12/16 - Town of Poughkeepsie, HRM 67.5: Almost the entire two-mile length of the tidal Wappinger Creek was frozen. The exception was near the fall line at the head of tide, where a warm-water outflow from a factory had opened a small lead in the ice. Two pairs of hooded mergansers were diving. It seemed a bit early but a pair of red-tailed hawks were interacting overhead in a very familiar way. This seemed early; they usually begin to get serious about mating in January.
- Tom Lake, T.R. Jackson

12/16 - Brooklyn, New York City: National Park Service Ranger John Barron approached me as I returned from a meeting, and just as the sky was turning a post-sunset purple. He told me there was something to see in the Grassland area "D," the smallest of Floyd Bennett Field's managed grassland habitats. We jumped into the car and upon arriving at the site we spotted a large snowy owl craning her neck from the crest of a small rise in the recently mowed grasses. John could not have set this up better if he'd planned it. Behind the pines at the edge of the grasslands rose a full moon to complement the already pale bird.
- Dave Taft

12/17 - Newcomb, HRM 302: It was very chilly overnight with a low of -23 degrees F (twenty-three degrees below zero). It came on the heels of six inches of snow over the weekend that made for about a foot of snow on the ground. As brutal as it was to be outdoors today, the beauty of the snow and frost, coating every exposed surface, made up for it (well, almost). Amazingly, even with the very cold temperatures, the Hudson River was still partially open. A northern shrike was at the feeder today, harassing my 200-plus goldfinches. I've had them a time or two before in the winter but they never stay long.
- Charlotte Demers

[The northern shrike is a boreal songbird whose presence in the Hudson Valley in winter is often associated with severe weather to the north. Shrikes have a raptor-like appearance and will often impale their prey, smaller songbirds and rodents, on thorns and barbed wire. This has earned them a scientific name (Lanius excubitor) that means "butcher." Tom Lake.]

12/17 - Furnace Woods, HRM 38.5: I had five species of woodpecker around the feeders today: downy, hairy, red-bellied, pileated, and yellow-bellied sapsucker.
- Christopher Letts

12/18 - Coxsackie, HRM 127.5: A snowy owl was perched on a kestrel nest box pole at the Coxsackie Creek Grasslands Preserve today.
- Rich Guthrie

12/18 - West Point, HRM 51: The Coast Guard cutter Katherine Walker was moving downriver just south of World's End; the cutter Sturgeon Bay was farther upriver in the Highlands; and the cutter Penobscot Bay was down in the Tappan Zee. All three were readying for the upcoming ice season on the estuary. Among several flocks of common mergansers I was able to spot a small raft of greater scaup.
- Tom Lake

12/18 - Fish Island, Westchester County, HRM 44.5: This tiny metamorphic rock island that projects up from the river's depths in the Hudson Highlands was circled by no fewer than one hundred common mergansers. The males, reflecting the early morning light, positively glowed.
- Tom Lake

[The drake common merganser, with its brighter-than-white body, accented with a black back and dark green head, is frequently described as one of the most strikingly beautiful of diving ducks. The equally gorgeous hen common merganser, with her fly-away red-feathered head, always reminds me of "The Bride of Frankenstein." Tom Lake.]

12/18 - Peekskill, HRM 43: At China Pier, I watched a rather large adult bald eagle - probably a female - pass not more than a hundred feet over a raft of Canada geese. Not a gander stirred. [See 12/13 for observation of similar behavior.]
- Tom Lake

12/18 - Croton Point, HRM 35-34: I have been taking walks at Croton Point around dusk and have seen a blond and apparently well-fed coyote hunting. Today it was digging in the snow for some small mammal before ambling off when it became aware of me.
- Stephen Butterfass

12/18 - Scarborough, HRM 32: Another small raft of greater scaup was mixed in with a half-dozen buffleheads. Although there were about 20 ducks, they were difficult to count; only half were "up" at a time as the others were diving.
- Tom Lake

12/18 - Nyack, HRM 28: I could not tell if it was the same bird I spotted in the same general area on December 12, but there was a snowy owl perched on a floating pier just south of Peterson's Boat Yard in Nyack.
- Sean Camillieri

12/18 - Bronx, New York City, HRM 15: Four brant and another half-dozen buffleheads were bobbing in the chop off Riverdale.
- Tom Lake

12/18 - Staten Island, New York City: We spotted a red-necked grebe off the jetty at Fort Wadsworth today. Later, a flyby flock of Canada geese had a cackling goose mixed in. The geese flew over the Verrazano Bridge toward Brooklyn and kept going.
- Isaac Grant, Mike Shanley

[The cackling goose is a smaller version of the Canada goose. Formerly considered the smallest subspecies of one variable species, recent work on genetic differences found the four smallest forms to be very different. These four races are now recognized as a full species: the cackling goose. It breeds farther northward and westward than does the Canada goose. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.]

12/19 - Westchester County: A Saw Mill River Audubon group enjoyed winter waterfowl and eagle watching in northeastern Westchester County today. Highlights included nine bald eagles (one adult). Among the winter waterfowl counted were ring-neck ducks (90), buffleheads (90), hooded mergansers (50), and common goldeneye (four). There were also 28 gadwall.
- Ann Swaim

12/20 - Beacon, HRM 60: An immature bald eagle, accompanied by a squadron of raucous crows, was spotted scavenging on a carcass on the ice offshore from Madame Brett Park.
- Deb Kral

12/20 - Town of Warwick, HRM 44: We counted seven harriers and six red-tailed hawks across seven miles of the Pulaski Highway as it bisected the agricultural fields of the Black Dirt region of Orange County. The coal-black soil was covered by snow.
- Tom Lake, T.R. Jackson

[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; pumpkins, and squash in the highly organic soil. The soil is immensely organic - in some places it is essentially compost. The black dirt topsoil, measured in "feet deep," originates from the flora and fauna of a late Pleistocene lake and swampland and is filled with bones of extinct animals such as mastodont, ground sloth, horse, peccary, and stag-moose that lived and died here 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Tom Lake.]

12/20 - Town of Warwick, HRM 41: In the course of an hour we counted fourteen flocks of geese passing over Liberty Marsh - all Canada geese. The grasslands were teeming with sparrows, chief among white-throated and white-crowned sparrows. So we were not surprised when a kestrel ("sparrow hawk") emerged and flew to the top of a utility pole.
The best show was in the air: the acrobatics of the harriers ("marsh hawks") hunting the hummocks. They dipped and darted, teetered and swayed, showing off their incredible aerial dexterity. There are few performances in nature that combine the grace, elegance, and flying precision of a harrier hunting a wetland or grassland. The birds' white rump patches glowed in the bright sunshine as they bounced along, buoyantly, methodically listening for the sound of prey, occasionally dropping down and disappearing into the grass only to spring up and resume the hunt moments later.
- Tom Lake. T.R. Jackson

[In later editions of his seminal Field Guide to the Birds, Roger Tory Peterson argued for a change in the common names applied to North American raptors, bringing them into line with British usage. This has largely been accomplished among birders. The marsh hawk, for example, is now the northern harrier, while our sparrow hawk (a falcon) has become the American kestrel (in Britain, sparrow hawks are accipiters similar to our sharp-shinned hawk). However, Peterson did allow that the names of soaring hawks of the genus Buteo - our red-tailed, red-shouldered, and broad-winged hawks among them - should not revert to their English appellation: "buzzard." Steve Stanne.]


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