November 2014

11/1     A taste of winter starts the month as temperatures plunge into the 30s and the winds howl with 40 mph gusts! The growing season ended today; we may have our first hard frost tonight. The last of the snapdragons, coneflowers and sunflowers are gathered.

11/2     Strong northeast winds howled through the night and all day causing power outages in Carmel, whitecaps on all Kent’s lakes, and all leaves but oak to fall. At sunset, winds were still brisk and temperatures hovered at freezing. No doubt there will be widespread frost tonight, save in places near water and macadam which can moderate the thermometer a bit. It was a beautiful winter-like sunset through the newly exposed tree silhouettes. Skies were crystal, the waxing moon was bright, and on the horizon the golden glow was muted and short-lived. Time to retrieve the gloves and scarves. Winter is just around the corner.

11/3     Which witch is it? There I was staring at the entrance to one of my bee hives. Suddenly on the landing board I spied a bee carrying a load of pollen. The color was a stunning orange gold. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out where this food treasure was coming from. All of the fall flowers, including goldenrod and aster, had come and gone in my neighborhood. I remembered that there was a native variety of witch-hazel that flowers in the fall – Hamamelis virginiana. This low-growing woodland shrub ranges from the entire east coast to Texas. Witch-hazel prefers to grow near streams, rivers and wet bottomlands in part to full shade.

This plant employs an interesting and advantageous pollination strategy. When it blooms in the fall, witch-hazel lacks any floral competition. The airborne pollinators, among which is the honeybee, seek out its flower in the pollen desert of the fall forest. Last year’s seed capsules can be seen side-by-side with this year’s flowers. The capsules are explosive, ejecting their two shiny black seeds up to 30 feet.

Photo of witch-hazel plant in bloom

Which witch? Photo: Ralph Szur

Wouldn’t it be fun if witch-hazel’s “witch” originated with the miniature witch’s hats often found on the leaves? The hats are galls formed from plant tissue in response to chemicals produced by an aphid (Hormaphis hamamelidis). The chemicals mimic various plant growth hormones and cause the witch-hazel to create a home for the aphid. Sadly, the galls didn’t suggest the plant’s name. The name originates from the plant’s use as a divining rod; its forked twigs are said to bend slightly when dousing for water. The Middle English word “wiche” means pliant or bendable. The “hazel” comes from the leaves’ close resemblance to the unrelated hazelnut.

Photo of witch-hazel leaf showing cone galls

Aphid houses. Photo: Ralph Szur

My quest for the source of this fine pollen led me to a pond perimeter 100 yards from my apiary as the bee flies.  — Ralph Szur

11/5     Overcast but still warm today and unusually quiet. The katydids are silenced at night, but there are still a few crickets calling. Louder by far is the crunch of the leaves while walking through the forest. The ocher of beech and browns of oak leaves liven the scene, but most of the autumn color now is from plants not native to our forest: The bright reds are from burning bush and Japanese maples. Yellow maple leaves are Norway maples. Lemon-yellow leaves are oriental bittersweet. And bright orange accents are Japanese barberry.

Vivid greens, however, persist on mosses and ferns, especially the robust Christmas fern. In summer these are not especially noticeable, but in the snowy season, the fresh-looking fronds attract the eye. Look closely at the “leaves” – each has a triangular ear on the upper side at the base, and looks like a Christmas stocking. Nature’s holiday decorations rival ours.

Photo of Christmas fern

Another kind of Christmas evergreen. Photo: Beth Herr

11/6     Not ready to say farewell to autumn beauty? An easy ride to the Hudson River or down to Manhattan is like driving through the season again. The moderating effects of the Hudson fjord, and the warming effects of city streets make autumn last far beyond the hills of Kent. A visit to Central Park or The New York Botanical Garden brings back the birds, too. Yellow-rumped warblers (formerly called myrtle warblers and sometimes butter butts for their pretty yellow plumage) are active and sometimes stay through winter, flitting about and feeding on berries.

11/7     I stumbled into what appeared to be common ravens gathering to a communal roost. While driving just beyond the Bear Mountain Bridge, I noticed a half dozen or so. At the Route 6/202 overlook, I watched one small group after another come off the mountain above [Anthony’s Nose] and fly past the overlook. Altogether, I estimated 40-50 birds. I was not aware of this being done by common ravens, but I can see it considering their lineage.  — Steve Walter

Only a 20 percent chance of precipitation today and wow, what a slice of weather it was. Afternoon squalls with blustery winds swirled tiny snowballs, bringing a taste of winter to come. The snow rained down like hail, heavy and fierce.

Photo of tiny balls of snow on brown-leather gloves

Catching snowballs in the wind. Photo: Beth Herr

11/11     Gray, heavy fog further muted the season’s drab drapery. As the clouds lifted, the sun warmed up the air, brightening the colors, bringing out the bees and bumbles. The pleasant and quiet autumn afternoon belies the buzz of activity in nature unseen. Centipedes and millipedes scurry under logs and litter. The fat groundhog leaves its fair-weather burrow and retreats to its winter lair deeper underground. Tree frogs back their way into deep duvets, able to withstand a deep freeze. Turtles rock and pitch, backing ever deeper below the frost line. Imagine if our metabolism stalled for six months. We might live twice as long!

11/12     A biting polar vortex churned its way from the Bering Sea across the country, slamming snow and ice as it went. By the time it arrived in Kent, it had moderated a bit. Still, our town saw a 30° plunge in temperature.

11/13     A short but impressive burst of red-shouldered hawk migration (45) at the Chestnut Ridge Hawk Watch was accompanied by a goshawk and a peregrine falcon in mid-afternoon. Current selected season totals were 2,189 sharp-shinned hawks and 2,326 turkey vultures. Also counted were three common loons and 90 common grackles.  — Tait Johansson and Bill Anderson

The weather change announced its approach with an inch of snow, transforming the Kent hills into a magical and peaceful landscape. The snow may stay a little given the prediction of a week of chilly temps and nights of freezing.

11/15     We had another visit from our neighborhood black bear at Copperhead Cut. It had visited our garbage and left its paw prints on a construction dumpster ten days ago. It returned and this time succeeded in getting the bird feeders out of the trees. Now we shall be more proactive and take the feeders down in late afternoon until the bear dens up in a couple of weeks. I am always impressed by what good climbers they are; tonight it just sat up in the tree and watched us, then left to move on.  — Connie Mayer-Bakall, Cold Spring

11/24     An offshore nor’easter produced relentless winds to 50 miles per hour. Entire tree lines were bending. We got a good look at an early arrival immature rough-legged hawk teetering on a power line before making its way onto a nearby swaying tree.  — Tom Lake, Phyllis Lake

11/17     Pouring rain. Winterberry fruit brightens the dreary landscape and provides food for bluebirds, cedar waxwings and robins.

11/21     Third day of sub-freezing temps. Winter came early to Kent. Most lakes are frozen and suddenly color is gone.

11/22     On Saturday at noon, as we crossed the causeway on Nichols Road, nearly 100 ducks flapped their way out of the water and flew overhead. The bright sun prevented us from identifying the variety, but it was an awesome sight. We longed to take wing and join them as they sought warmer weather.  — George and Kaye Baum

11/24     Last week’s polar blast drove migrating waterfowl to Kent’s lakes. White Pond had several hundred birds rippling its surface: buffleheads, mergansers, ruddy ducks, mallards, a few Canada geese and many American coots. Winter is at their heels, but they’ll land here until the ponds freeze over. Lake Carmel had a raft of ruddy ducks. The Horsepound Brook end of the Middlebranch Reservoir hosted hooded mergansers.

American coot are water birds related to rails and gallinules. Instead of webbed feet, they have lobed toes that open and fold when the coot is paddling in the water. They are duck-like, can dabble like a mallard and dive like a bufflehead, yet they are not ducks. They swim well underwater, a strategy that often allows them to evade bald eagles. They have stately black plumage, a distinct ivory-white bill, and shiny red eyes.  — Rich Guthrie.

Spied some movement in the leaf litter next to the house foundation. A young garter snake was seeking winter shelter.

Photo of very small eastern garter snake in leaf litter

Just trying to find a safe place for the winter. Photo: Beth Herr

11/26     Snow was falling by daylight and lasted most of the day. A heavy, wet snow, it bent and bowed the branches. The shape of the snowflakes changes throughout the day. The crystals form in six different basic shapes: star, plate, column, needles, column capped with plates, and dendrite – all of those are six sided. Activity at birdfeeders was fierce as the nor’easter cranked up.

11/27     A white Thanksgiving! Six inches of snow blanket Kent’s countryside, the skies stay white with clouds all day. The dark branches and tree trunks contrast the brightness and make the mundane look magical. The horn blast of Metro North trains in Patterson travels all the way to Kent, the low atmospheric pressure easing the passage of sound waves.

It’s a tree-day for the birds: 30-50 chickadees and titmice feed on the cones of the black birch. Yesterday’s storm was not as windy as predicted, and today is calm. Snow and seed clusters remain on the branches. It is high-hanging fruit, but easily eaten before blown. And there are fewer predators to watch for up in the canopy.

Photo of tulip tree axes (the remains of the fruit) each covered with a thick frosting of snow

Tulip tree seems to bloom again in winter’s first big snow. Photo: Beth Herr

Photo of snow-covered woods and blue sky

Magic after the storm. Photo: Beth Herr

11/28     The still-warm soil melts the snow cover from below. Ski tracks have already melted through. Twilight drains the world of light before five o’clock.

11/30     The snow melts and skiing is slow. Lake Carmel is mostly skimmed with ice, but open water at its center hosts common mergansers and ruddy ducks.

In December watch for:

  • The many moods of this month ‐ days of drizzle or gloomy fog; deep, rich, pure blue skies; wintry storms.
  • The Full Long-Night Moon on December 6
  • The peak of the Geminid Meteor Shower on the night of December 13-14
  • The winter solstice at 6:03 pm on December 21
  • Bird nests from the past season, now visible in the trees
  • Raccoons seeking shelter in tree cavities
  • Wood turtles going into hibernation
  • Orion looking down at us all night long

Coming in the new year: Details of the Kent Nature Almanac photo competition.

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