October – December 2012

The editor of the Almanac begs forgiveness for the lack of reporting. A book deadline and Hurricane Sandy derailed nature writing, but not nature observations.

October brought a few surprises. There was a sudden, and unusually early arrival of boreal birds. Northern species such as pine siskins, crossbills, and redpolls were seen at feeders in great numbers. A snowy owl was spotted in Kingston. This led to a buzz of speculation: Does their early appearance portend a bad winter with ice and snow? No, more likely the lack of mast in Canada has sent them south in search of food.

Hurricane Sandy meant suffering for many, but not for birders who are "life listers." The high winds brought in pelagic species like shearwaters, petrels, and jaggers who usually spend their days far out at sea. Also seen were northern shrike, western tanager, Lapland longspur, Iceland gulls, red-necked grebes. Birders went wild.

The northern shrike is a boreal songbird whose presence in the Hudson Valley in winter is often associated with severe weather to the north. Raptor-like in habit if not appearance, it typically perches at the tip-top of trees or other vantage points to search for prey, and will often impale its catch – smaller songbirds and rodents – on thorns and barbed wire. This has earned the shrike the scientific name Lanius excubitor, meaning "butcher watchman."  — Tom Lake

I was surprised to find this confused or stunned warbler perched on my backpack right outside my garage door. It stayed still for hours, giving me time to identify it, but it still wasn’t easy. It’s one of the confusing fall warblers – first year babies and adults that have lost their breeding plumage are difficult to differentiate. Could it be a young worm-eating warbler? What else has a bright yellow stripe atop its head? Do you know?

Yellow-striped warbler on backpack
Are you stunned or just confused?

 

Brendan Murphy, Watershed Forester, from the Watershed Agricultural Council is overseeing an inventory of the trees in the 300-acre Model Forest Project at Clearpool in Kent. He passed on pictures of two large trees that were found while out with a DEP Wetlands team: One is a beech tree that was found on the southeastern slopes,

Watershed forester Brendan Murphy next to large beech tree
Brendan at the beech

 

and the other is a black gum found adjacent to a small woodland pool (yet to be classified by DEP) just west of the red trail near the north end of the lake.

Man standing next to large black gum tree next to woodland pool
A large black gum tree in Clearpool Model Forest

 

It’s not hard to believe that more will be found as more features of the forest are inventoried!

Also in October, several evenings after sunsets ducks were counted as they came in to Ice Pond for the night. Some evenings over 1600 migrating wood ducks, black ducks, and mallards came in pairs, in groups of 10 to 25. After splashdown, the ducks chatter and chirp until all is quiet for the night. What a thrill to see so many at once. And while waiting for the show to begin, I spied a great blue heron’s shadow.

Great blue heron at dusk by Ice Pond
Can you spot the heron?

 

It took a moment for the bird to register as it was so well camouflaged. The wetland complex around Ice Pond is beautiful and sometimes exciting!

10/13    I encountered several huge split boulders in the Adams Unit of the Horsepound NYC DEP area. They are 8ft tall roughly. All of the halves match well. Curious natural phenomenon, I suppose. Glacial erratics having undergone some kind of misadventure in eons past. Frost likely.

They are clustered in a relatively small area which, by the way, is not easily accessible because of lots of rocks and boulders (some truly gigantic, much bigger than these), fallen trees and branches as well as steep terrain (although the area is relatively close from the road).

Large glacial erratic boulder split neatly in half
Amazing remnant of long-melted glaciers

 

Probably not due to Indians, Early Irish , Medieval Europeans or Extraterrestrials, I think. 🙂  — Jean-Claude Chastang

12/15    The ruddy ducks have returned to Lake Carmel, and will stay until the ice comes.
Hooded and common mergansers were filling up the tributaries reminding us that winter has reached the northern parts of the the state.

12/21    Winter’s solstice. Watch the sunrises and sunsets; the days will start getting longer by December 26. Even though it may feel like the "dead" of winter, already the spring parade beings: queen bees start to lay eggs in the hives, and owls begin to mate.

12/28    The full "Long Night’s Moon"

Today is the Putnam County Christmas bird count. Numbers are low; most likely weather affected the birds as snow was coming down heavily by 11 am. A full count will be shared here when available. Some notables: green-winged teal, bald eagles, red-shouldered hawks.

The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is the longest running citizen-science effort and is held throughout the country in the weeks around Christmas. It replaces the Victorian era “side-shoot,” during which guests went out to shoot as many different bird and mammal species as possible on Christmas Day. In 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman organized a group of friends to observe, count and share information about bird species without shooting them. The National Audubon Society, which Chapman helped organize, now sponsors this annual tradition. As an enlightened alternative, thousands of people go out to count and document as many bird species as their group can in a sporting, competitive way. The result has been the gathering of significant data which has monitored changes in bird populations and distribution over the years.  — Rich Guthrie

12/31    The last day of the year. It is freezing, and the ice is thickening on local water bodies, but not enough for ice fishing…yet

Our winter world is so still and cold. While the silence suggests that all is in the "dead" of winter, the opposite is true: many species remain active and in search of food, others have moved to warmer climes, while still others have simply "paused" their life cycle and await the warmth of spring. Wood turtles brumate submerged in rivers getting enough oxygen to survive through the skin on their necks and underarms; box turtles do the same hunkered down in the muck of swamps; wood frogs and peepers lie frozen solid. Remarkably, their cells contain an antifreeze — glycogen — that prevents ice crystals from destroying the cell walls. If you could bring one inside, you could literally watch it come alive as it defrosts.

Incredibly, there are three species of butterflies that overwinter in their adult winged phase: the Mourning Cloak, Compton’s Tortoiseshell, and the American Comma butterflies.

Most butterflies have short adult phases and die at summers’ end leaving their eggs or caterpillars to start the cycle next season. But the above mentioned butterflies live up to 10 months. With wings and legs tightly folded, and in a snug spot hidden under tree bark or in rock crevices, these butterfly-icicles await the first warm days of spring. (Called diapause, this period of rest suspends all growth activity.)

For them it is better to get all tucked in and then miss a few warm fall days than it is to get caught by an early killing frost.

When the sun warms the hills and valleys in spring, the sleepy butterflies unfold their wings, and search for early nectar and dripping sap from winter-broken branches. They are fast flyers, rarely lighting for a close look. They need to be quick as they are easily seen before leaves emerge and other flyers join them.

If you see a butterfly flying in February or March, it will likely be one of these three.

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