December 2013

12/1     More bufflehead ducks appeared on both sides of the Lake Carmel causeway.

12/3     A kayak jaunt through the cooling waters of the East Branch of the Croton River near Route 164 brought nature drama: six river otters frolicking, two beavers towing branches, one kingfisher chattering, and a raft of 100 or more mallards kicking around in the swollen river.  — Diana Lee

12/7     I encountered a small flock (does three make a flock?) of bluebirds in wet woods yesterday. They were curious about me, coming in very closely and repeatedly. It was sort of a "bluebird on my shoulder" experience, in Kent in December.  — Laura Harris

Driving Route 301 to Cold Spring brought ice-covered mountain tops glistening in the sun. Kent had little ice with last night’s storm, but these high peaks were transformed into a ice crystal sparklefest.

12/8     A cloudy, raw day with the smell of snow in the air. So far this season has just brought a few dustings.

12/9     Ice and freezing rain coat every surface this morning, cancelling schools and making for a treacherous commute. But by afternoon temperatures had risen enough to melt most of it.

12/9     A friend called to tell me he had some large white birds on his pond that he thought I might be interested in seeing, so I went over there with scope and camera. Sure enough, there was a flock of 50 snow geese. They had stopped on his pond for the day, probably after being forced out of their stopover site further north by the cold spell freezing tight their roosting ponds. With the scope you could see the detail of these handsome birds. They breed in the tundra and their populations have exploded in recent years. During migration they gather in noisy flocks of thousands of birds, feeding in agricultural fields and gathering on water bodies for the night. We get a few of them in the Great Swamp during migration, usually mixed into flocks of Canada geese, but a flock of 50 this late in the season is unusual. Most adults are white with black wing-tips, pink legs and bill, and a prominent dark "grin-patch." About 10% of the birds seen are a genetically-based dark color morph that is called the "blue morph." We used to think it was a separate species, the blue goose, but they were found to interbreed with the white snow geese. Unfortunately, the geese continued on their flight last night.  — Jim Utter

Group of snow geese floating on pond
Snow geese stop by for a visit to Kent – Photo: Jim Utter

12/10    A sweet, silent snowfall conveniently started after morning rush and ended before evening traffic leaving 2 inches of snow. All the branches are outlined in white, the birdfeeders are busy, and the temperature is holding at freezing (for now). Some afternoon snowflakes were huge stars, each dazzling and different.

Henry David Thoreau witnessed the same: "The thin snow now driving from the north and lodging on my coat consists of those beautiful star crystals, not cottony and chubby spokes, … but thin and partly transparent crystals. They are about a tenth of an inch in diameter, perfect little wheels with six spokes…" This is exactly what I found on my coat sleeve.

Snowflakes on coat-sleeve
Perfect little wheels with six spokes – Photo: Beth Herr

12/11    There was just enough snow, and enough chill in the air to cross-country ski on the meager two inches left on the golf course after yesterday’s dry wind.

12/12    The freeze is on. Yesterday and today it did not get above freezing. Dean Pond is icing at the edges, soon it will be solid. In contrast, Lake Gleneida is deep with plenty of open water for the waterfowl to congregate. Watch for them as you drive by in Carmel.

Dean Pond icing up
These days Dean Pond is edged with ever-thickening ice – Photo: Beth Herr

12/13    Dean Pond and other small water bodies are frozen over already. Water birds are looking for open water. It takes a long time for Lake Gleneida to freeze (it’s over 100 feet deep in some places). It and the Diverting Reservoir in Brewster sometimes stay open all winter and are good places to see ducks.

The Geminid meteor shower peaks tonight, but alas the clouds have already covered the sky.

12/14    Snow, snow, snow; shoveling and plowing are the chores of the day. But so is cross-country skiing – even though strong winds blow snowflakes horizontally. The snow is not deep enough for skiing in the forest, so golf courses are still the best place. With the sound of ordinary business muffled, an unmistakable sound descended through the steady snowfall: Canada geese. A large V was flying over, remarkably close to the ground under the low ceiling. Are they looking for open water?

When snow covers the land, it insulates the ground, traps the heat below, and increases the intensity of daylight. At night the waxing moon reflects off the whiteness making it hard to sleep.

Lone tree on snow-covered golf course
A lone tree waits patiently as winter blankets its home – Photo: Beth Herr

12/15    The deep freeze continues. Yesterday’s snow ended with ice, making for difficult walking. Imagine the deer and coyotes plodding and punching through the crust. They are warm though. Their fur grows in two layers: as soft, dense underfur, and as an outer layer of guard hairs that shed water and snow, protecting them from cold winds. It’s time to head to Fahnestock State Park where snowmobiles set tracks and make for the finest cross-country skiing in the area.

Animals venturing out to feed leave crisp tracks in the snow. The white-footed mice leave tail tracks, too.

White-footed mouse trail in snow
In snow, even a white-footed mouse shows where it’s been – Photo: Beth Herr

12/16    The strong winds continue and whip seeds from the trees. Sprinkled all around on the snow in my yard are the trident scales from the black birch cones. They look like little bird feet. They are not the seeds, but merely scales. The minute seeds are cradled at the base of the trident. This is what the brave mice look for when they venture out on the snow. Others feed on grass shoots and bark under the snow.

Trident scales from black birch cones lie on top of snow
Black birch cone scales look like little bird feet – Photo: Beth Herr

12/17    The “Long Night Moon” is full.

12/18    Snow highlights the shape of our conifers. Recognizing one evergreen from another means getting to know their needles. Pine trees have bundles of long, thin needles that shed in the autumn. Look for bundles of five, each with a fine stripe of white on our white pine trees. The beautiful American larch sheds all of its slender needles. You can find plantations of them in Kent at the state MUA on Nichols Road and in Putnam County Veterans’ Memorial Park.

12/19    Temperatures rose above freezing for the first time in a week, thawing snow and melting icicles. The snow softened enough for an easier ski. Mice, birds, coyotes, and fox have been active as evidenced by their footprints crisscrossing the white blanket of snow. At day’s end thin clouds rolled in adding crystal “sun dogs” to a silvery ski warmed by the gold of the setting sun. Today it sets at 4:27 inching toward the stand-still, just two days away.

12/20    Such a mild day with temperatures above 50 degrees. The sun sets at 4:28.

12/21    Warm enough today for the honey bees to fly. Their cleansing flights dots the snow. Clouds slide from the south across the muted blue sky, thickened at day’s end so sunset for this first day of winter was hidden from view. But set it did, and early, too. Happy Winter Solstice – the shortest day of the year! The sun set at 4:28, the same time as yesterday and the same time as tomorrow. The sun is “standing still” until Monday when the day will be one minute longer and the march to spring begins!

12/22    Rain, rain, rain has made the snow go away, the ponds ice free, and the rivers run high.

12/25    Brrr – Merry Christmas! This has been a month of weather extremes.

The annual Christmas Bird Count, a 100+ years tradition, doesn’t take place on Christmas, but certainly before and after. Bird enthusiasts (birders) become citizen scientists adding to the understanding of bird populations. Here are some nearby results:

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

Manhattan: 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

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

And from our hometown Kent, the 59th annual Christmas Bird Count:

1   Barred owl 2   Kingfisher
49   Bluejay 330   Mallard
20   Bluebird 1   Mockingbird
15   Canada goose 15   Mourning dove
15   Carolina wren 2   Purple finch
2   Catbird 6   Raven
15   Cedar waxwing 33   Red-bellied woodpecker
128   Chickadee 4   Red-shouldered hawk
2   Cooper’s hawk 10   Red-tailed hawk
31   Crow 19   Ring-billed gull
32   Downy woodpecker 25   Ring-neck duck
2   Eagle 295   Robin
29   Flicker 16   Rock pigeon
7   Golden crowned kinglet 3   Screech owl
25   Goldfinch 13   Song sparrow
4   Great horned owl 32   Starling
1   Great-backed gull 2   Swamp sparrow
6   Hairy woodpecker 28   Tree sparrow
6   Hermit thrush 44   White breasted nuthatch
12   House finch 104   White-throated sparrow
13   House sparrow 4   Winter wren
139   Junco 12   Yellow-bellied sapsucker

Other birds of note in Putnam County that day: a northern shrike, golden eagle, peregrine falcon, goshawk, horned grebe, savannah sparrow, and horned lark. Most extraordinary siting: over 13,000 robins migrating in waves at the end of the day!

12/26    The Ursids meteor shower peaks tonight.

12/31    A brisk New Year’s Eve ends a month of seesawing temperatures.

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