Project of the Hudson River Estuary ProgramCompiled and edited by Tom Lake, Consulting Naturalist
During our three week Holiday pause (21 days), we had a Winter Solstice, two major Holidays, a storm of Christmas Bird Counts, a deluge of rain, and several rare bird occurrences. This edition of the Almanac does its best to fill us in.
Across three weeks, there were several candidates for Highlight, but John Hershey’s tufted duck seemed the most notable.
1/4 – Saratoga Lake, HRM 182: While birding around the lake today, I came upon a rare, tufted duck. It was swimming among a large raft of mixed scaup and canvasbacks. I had never seen one in this region before and Will Raup, keeper of such records, said it was only the fourth record ever.
– John Hershey
Photo Courtesy of David Hastings
[The tufted duck is a rare winter vagrant to North America, where it is almost always found singly among flocks of scaup. Those we see in the Northeast U.S. come from Europe, especially Iceland and the UK.
– Stan DeOrsey, Ralph T. Waterman Bird Club]
12/17 – Albany County, HRM 145: Our 38th annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) yielded 79 species. This made it the second highest total in the history of the count (81 species were found in 2001). The average number of species found over the years is 71. The number of individual birds counted was 10,900, 10% below our average.
Among the highest ever numbers for species found on the count were Carolina wrens (63, previous high 40), red-winged blackbird (492, five times the previous high), rusty blackbird (ten, only the third time found on the count), common yellowthroat (only the 2nd record), and the Kent/Lowery/Alden team found a flock of 29 Atlantic brant (a new count species).
– Alan Mapes
Photo Courtesy of Caroline Quinn
[The Christmas Bird Count replaced the Victorian era side-shoot, a discontinued “sport” in which guests went out to shoot as many different bird and mammal species as one could 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. That first year, 27 observers took part in the count in 25 places in the United States and Canada. The count totaled 18,500 individual birds belonging to 90 species.
The National Audubon Society, which Chapman helped organize, sponsors this annual tradition now enjoyed by over 50,000 participants throughout the western hemisphere each year, gathering data that can be used to identify bird population trends from year-to-year, which in turn can help scientists understand environmental impacts of weather, habitat loss, industrialization, human impact, and other factors. Richard Guthrie]
12/17 – Orange County, HRM 55: I went to the Newburgh waterfront today thinking about gulls and waterfowl. I should have been thinking about warblers! On Waterfront Trail, I was pleasantly surprised to find a palm warbler. A little later, I came upon a northern parula warbler. Even later, Bruce Nott found a Tennessee warbler. Not bad for mid-December.
– Matt Zeitler
Photo Courtesy of eBird
12/18 – Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: The weather seemed to be as out-of-place as the warblers. Today’s air temperature was 64 degrees (a new record high for the date). The day also featured a deluge that left 5.0 inches of rain.
– Tom Lake
12/18 – Correction: Fish-of-the-Week, 12/11 brown trout. “There is also a variety (sterile hybrid), brown trout x brook trout (tiger trout). This cross is unusual in that the parents are members of different genera. DEC no longer stocks tiger trout. However, a decade ago, DEC collected a dozen or more tiger trout in a tributary to Sawkill Creek (Dutchess County). Both wild brown trout and wild brook trout were also found there, and DEC theorized that they were naturally hybridizing. Bob Schmidt caught a 16-inch tiger trout in the Sawkill in April 2017 (Michael Flaherty).”
12/19 – Kingston, HRM 92: I am a longtime fan and reader of the Almanac. I read with interest the entry for 11/25 about the unusual sundog seen in Greene County. That afternoon we were walking on the Brickyard Trail in Kingston (at Sojourner Truth State Park) and saw two sundogs and then a partial rainbow straight overhead. It lasted for at least twenty minutes. Upon researching the phenomenon, I discovered that it was a circum-zenithal arc. Like the sundogs seen at the same time, it is caused by the refraction of sunlight through high atmospheric ice crystals in cirrus or cirrostratus clouds. Supposedly they are not very rare, but it was the first we had ever seen. It was beautiful!
– Rosalind Dickinson
Photo Courtesy of Rosalind Dickinson
12/19 – Manhattan, HRM 7.5: New York City Audubon, in cooperation with the New York City Parks Department, concluded our 124th annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) in Central Park today. Central Park has never missed a year of the count since it began in 1900. Hundreds of volunteers flocked to the park and were divided into teams counting birds in designated sections of green-space. The final count was 9,673 birds representing 54 species. Many of the species’ ranges have moved northward by as much as 200 miles because of Climate Change, according to scientists.
Among the birds counted were 1,079 “street” pigeons (Columba livia domestica). Birders counted 2,593 house sparrows, the most plentiful feathered creature in the park, representing 27% of the park’s total bird count. One of the more unusual sightings was a yellow warbler that typically winters as far away as South America.
A review of data since 2012 from the National Audubon Society’s Central Park CBC shows birds once thought of as migratory southern species, such as cardinals, are now wintering in the New York area. In 2012, CBC birders spotted 71 cardinals. This year, the number was 90. American robins no longer migrate because of warmer winters — 550 were counted on this year’s CBC. In 2012, counters spotted 97. Red-tailed hawks were one of the winners of the 2023 count. Birders counted a dozen of the majestic raptors, about double compared to a decade ago.
“The CBC is like a reality check on what the resident birds are; this is the baseline,” said Jeffrey Kimball, a 15-year veteran of the Christmas Bird Count and president of the board of directors at NYC Audubon.
– Rosemary Misdary (Gothamist)
Photo Courtesy of George Hodan
12/20 – Hudson River Watershed: Fish-of-the-Week for Weeks 248-250 is the pigfish (Orthopristis chrysoptera), number 184 (of 235) on our watershed list of fishes. If you would like a copy of our list, e-mail – email@example.com.
The pigfish is the sole representative of the grunts (Haemulidae) documented for our estuary. As for the family, most grunts are well known to snorkelers in near shore tropical seas. Grunts range from the New York Bight, where they are considered a temperate marine stray, down the Atlantic coast to Bermuda, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico. Pigfish inhabit coastal waters, over sand and mud bottoms, where they feed on crustaceans and smaller fishes. While they can grow to 18-inches, most are about a foot-long.
– Tom Lake
[Briggs and Waldman (2002), in their Annotated List of Fishes Reported From the Marine Waters of New York, classify pigfish as “rare.” Nichols and Breder (1926) call them “occasionally common” in New York Harbor.
The pigfish was originally listed for the Hudson River estuary, and added to our list of documented fishes, based on a single 1985 record (111.5 mm) from Indian Point (river mile 42). The fish was cataloged as number 78936 in the American Museum of Natural History’s fish collection. However, when I searched online for their catalog number 78936, the record was blank other than a statement, “Reserved-NAI,” i.e., Normandeau Associates (consultants for Consolidated Edison at Indian Point’s Nuclear Power Generating facility). The note suggested that NAI had yet to transfer the fish.
They led us to two possibilities: Either the specimen was never transferred, or the specimen was misidentified and discarded. The latter possibility is not unrealistic. Small pigfish are not easy to identify, especially if taken off intake screens at a power generating facility. Without the fish, we were left with no voucher specimen.
Then along came Peter Park on August 13, 2021. While seining in the East River at Little Bay Park in northeast Queens, Peter caught a young-of-year pigfish (30 mm). Even though our species list had carried the pigfish for 36 years, Peter’s fish is now the current best record we have for the species in the Hudson River watershed.
– Tom Lake
[Note: One-inch equals 25.4 millimeters (mm). Tom Lake]
Photo Courtesy of Alex Bulanov (by permission Smithsonian)
12/21 – Hudson River Watershed: The Winter Solstice arrived this evening at 10:27 p.m. ushering in the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere (conversely, in the Southern Hemisphere, it is the longest day of the year).
Sunset last night was 4:31 p.m.; sunrise today on the Solstice was 7:16 a.m., giving us 14 hours and 45 minutes of night. Sunset today was one minute later, 4:32, giving us 9 hours and 16 minutes of daylight — long night, short day, aptly named by the Mohican as the “Month of the Long Night.”
– Tom Lake
Photo Courtesy of Tom Lake
[The Winter Solstice is the astronomical moment when the path of the Sun in the sky is angled farthest south (23.5 degrees south latitude) relative to the Northern Hemisphere. The Winter Solstice marks the beginning of slowly lengthening days and shortening nights. Tom Lake]
12/22 – Hudson River Estuary/New York Bight: With real winter upon us, a season that will extend through March, please keep an eye out for stranded sea turtles. We have run this sea turtle advisory before and, and with a recent spate of cold-stunned sea turtles, we will run it again as winter moves along.
Sea turtles that have not yet migrated south can become victims of paralyzing “cold stunning,” similar to hypothermia. It gives sea turtles the appearance of death, but really, they are in dire need of resuscitation. Do not put them back in the water. The Atlantic Marine Conservation Society recently collected two sea turtle (Kemp’s Ridley and Atlantic Green) that had been cold-stunned but rescued in time for them to recover.
If you see an injured or sick marine mammal or sea turtle, do not approach the animal. Please call the 24-hour New York State Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Hotline at (631) 369-9829. If you have photos or videos, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more information at NOAA Fisheries website and DEC’s Marine Protected Resources webpage.
– Kim Durham, Co-New York State Sea Turtle Coordinator for the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society
Photo of Leatherback Sea Turtle Courtesy of NOAA
12/23 – Town of Goshen, HRM 40: I began the long Christmas weekend in the Black Dirt this evening with a sizable but skittish flock of snow buntings, a bird for the season, in beautiful light.
– Matt Zeitler
Photo Courtesy of Matt Zeitler
[The black-and-white wing patches of the snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) are distinctive. In breeding season they are primarily white; non-breeding birds are overall white below with warm brown and orange tones on their head and back. Snow buntings breed on tundra at northern latitudes and then form flocks in winter and move south, often joining up with other species of field birds such as horned larks and Lapland longspurs. In winter they acquire rusty tones that help them blend in with their winter homes of bare ground and crop stubble.
12/24 – Green Island, HRM 153: It was Christmas Eve at the head of tide. The day was chilly, rainy, foggy, and altogether unpleasant. Still, it always feels special to be at the head of tidewater, watching the last pulse of energy from the sea,160 miles away.
It is rare to not see a bald eagle here (there is a nest not far away). A short distance down the shore, an adult was perched, its white head glowing in the even light of the gloomy gray day. The river was racing over the Federal Dam at Troy and the strong current left only few small inshore eddies. Four black ducks came in for a landing, made a five-second touchdown, then lifted off together. This was no water for dabblers.
– Tom Lake
12/24 – Hudson River: This is a tale of a bitterly-cold Christmas Eve thirty years ago and a hundred miles from the sea. Legendary riverman Everett Nack and I launched a 20-foot jon boat at Rhinecliff and went up the river in search of shortnose sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum) to tag for a wintering stock assessment. We were armed with a 200-foot, six-inch-mesh gillnet, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service numbered tags, and a fish finder, the latter of which helped us find a reach of the river where the bottom seemed carpeted with wintering, 2-3 foot-long, shortnose sturgeon.
I still shiver when I recall the frigidly-cold air. A stiff west wind slapped the river against the boat creating a spray that froze on the gunwale. We shared a thermos of hot coffee. Everett brought some home brew (Dandelion Wine) that never did its job.
Shortnose sturgeon are stocky, uniformly brown, terete in cross-section, stubby-headed (their colloquial name is “round nose”), cartilaginous fishes. Their odd countenance looks every bit of their 70 million years of ancestry. Our hands were freezing as we caught, measured, tagged, and released as many shortnose as we could before dusk fell, and we headed back to shore. Merry Christmas, round noses!
– Tom Lake
Photo Courtesy of Amanda Higgs
[Shortnose sturgeon occupy large rivers and estuaries along the eastern North American coast. The species was in danger of extinction throughout its range before being listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act on March 11, 1967 (the ESA became law on October 15, 1966).
The Hudson River shortnose sturgeon population in the late 1990s was composed of approximately. 61,000 fish of which about 57,000 were adults participating in the annual spawning, migration, and adult wintering concentrations. Current field studies (including tag, release, recapture) indicate the Hudson River population has recovered from its endangered status.
The Hudson River appears to support the largest population and most individuals of the species on the Atlantic coast. Data on size composition and body condition suggest the Hudson River shortnose sturgeon are healthy and mainly adults indicative of an unexploited, long-lived fish population.
– Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission]
12/26 – Manhattan, HRM 13.5: After some busy times of the season, I finally carved out a couple of hours this afternoon to put a line in the Hudson River from Inwood Park’s Dyckman Pier. The full moon spring tides had lifted all manner of flotsam off inshore areas and now the river was filled with debris — not good for fishing. Undaunted, I baited up with supermarket shrimp and caught a gorgeous nine-inch white perch! The fog on the water gave a beautiful, slightly eerie, glow to the river.
– Nicola Lagonigro.
Photo Courtesy of Tom Lake
[Among Hudson River anglers, it is well-known that our pedestrian fishes will accept less expensive store-brand shrimp! Tom Lake]
12/27 – Hudson River Watershed: Among indigenous peoples, full moons have long been labeled with fanciful names that are rooted in oral traditions, indigenous memories, and ethnographic accounts. Among Mohican people, whose ancestral homeland lies wholly within the Hudson River watershed, the December full moon is known as The Long Night Moon (Kwne tpoʔkut Neepã), in the Mohican dialect. December is the month that includes the shortest days and longest nights of the year.
Tribal translations of full moons pre-date colonization and generally reflect the seasonality of the lunar phase. Moon phases, in fact, were used by indigenous people as measurements of time.
– Larry Madden, Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians
12/27 – Ulster-Dutchess: Our 13th annual Ulster/Dutchess counties Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was conducted under cloudy, damp, but mild conditions. Wind was barely detectable and there was no ice on any water bodies. However, with a full moon and heavy recent rains, Hudson River tides were exaggerated, and water levels were high everywhere.
Forty-eight birders in twenty field parties, along with four feeder watchers contributed to the count that included parts of the Towns of Hurley, Woodstock, Ulster, Kingston, Saugerties, and the City of Kingston in Ulster County, parts of the Towns of Rhinebeck and Red Hook in Dutchess County, parts of the Towns of Clermont and Germantown in Columbia County, and the tiniest slice of Greene County near Cementon.
Our 48 birders counted 21,298 individuals representing 85 species (the 12 year average was
18,441 individuals and 84 species. Two new species were added to the composite count list, now standing at 134 species: a hen Barrow’s goldeneye and a great egret.
There were exceptional showings from hooded merganser (61, with a 12-year average of 25), and golden-crowned kinglet (84, with a 12-year average of 20).
– Mark DeDea
Photo Courtesy of Jim Yates
12/28 – Town of Wappinger, HRM 67: Today’s three inches of rain was not quite the deluge of ten days ago, but it added to the eight-inch total across ten days in two weather events. These rainfall amounts, especially in single torrents, seemed quite uncharacteristic.
– Tom Lake
[Climate change has become associated with an increased frequency of all manner of storm events. Data compiled from climate research institutes, as well as NOAA and NASA, suggest that, globally, the year 2023 had the warmest average air temperature since 1850. New York Times]
12/28 – Newburgh, HRM 61: While perusing the Newburgh waterfront today, we came upon two significant birds that seemed out of place. First was a yellow-throated warbler near the Newburgh Boat Launch, and then a Wilson’s warbler near the Newburgh water treatment facility. The former was the first ever winter sighting of the species for Orange County.
– Bruce Nott
Photo Courtesy of Matt Zietler
[Three days later (12/31), a yellow-throated warbler (Setophaga dominica) was spotted directly across the river in Beacon. While this was the 8th sighting for the species since 1970 (still, very uncommon), this was also a first winter record of the species for Dutchess County.
Yellow-throated warblers are southern birds that have slowly expanded their range north in recent decades. In our area they are presently designated as a “casual visitant.” Yellow-throated warblers were first found nesting in New York State in 1984. While they may be seen annually, usually in the spring, they are commonly seen in winter from South Carolina on south.
Wilson’s warbler (Cardellina pusilla), a small, active bird, is a late arrival migrant in spring, usually in mid-May, from wintering locations areas in Mexico. Conversely, their autumn migration occurs in August and September, but seldom in October, and rarely, if ever, in winter. Stan DeOrsey, Ralph T. Waterman Bird Club]
12/29 – Town of Poughkeepsie: With scope and binoculars we were searching for the residents of the newly-constructed bald eagle nest NY62. The new nest, put together in the last several months, was huge — Heinz Meng famously described a full-blown bald eagle nest as looking as though someone had stuck a VW Beetle up in a tree.
NY62’s previous nest was a nearby tall tulip tree that carried a couple of lightning strike scars. When the pair build the nest in 2011, we doubted the tree would last. The new nest now resides in a tall white pine, an “eagle tree” (easy in, easy out), several hundred feet north with a clear and spectacular view of the Hudson River.
No one was presently home in the nest, but we managed to find one of the adults perched along the river, white head, and tail glowing in the even light of an overcast sky. Even at a distance, we could hear the bird calling, a soft chortle. We wondered where its mate was, a question soon answered by Bob Rightmyer, watching the nest from a short distance away. He came to tell us that he heard a second soft chortle coming from a wooded hillside near the nest. The two eagles were keeping in touch.
– Tom Lake, Bob Rightmyer, Christopher T. Lake, Chris Lake
Photo Courtesy of Bob Rightmyer
[The NY62 bald eagle territory is now 24 years-old and at its fourth nest-site. Across 23 breeding seasons, the female (27 years-old) has had 29 nestlings — a remarkable story in resiliency. Tom Lake]
12/31 – Essex County, HRM 295: Charlotte Demers offers a wonderful photo that captures the essence of the Adirondack Wilderness in winter. There is so much peace and solitude in the image that you can almost hear the “ank ank” of red-breasted nuthatches and the melancholy music of winter wind blowing through conifers.
– Tom Lake
Photo Courtesy of Charlotte Demers
1/1 – Bronx, New York City: This has been a very good winter for warblers (Parulidae), some of which seem out-of-place. Two rare, for New York City in December, warblers — Townsend’s warbler and MacGillivray’s warbler— have been present in the Bronx for several weeks.
Photo Courtesy of Peter La Tourette
Townsend’s warbler (Setophaga townsendi) breeds in mature coniferous forests in northwestern North America and winter from the Pacific Coast of the U.S. to Costa Rica, with large numbers especially in the highlands of Mexico and Guatemala.
MacGillivray’s warbler (Geothlypis tolmiei) is found in thickets, clear-cuts, open mixed forests, and riparian zones primarily in mountainous regions of western North America, where it breeds. They winter from Mexico to Costa Rica. eBird]
1/4 – Germantown, HRM 108: One of our outdoor nighttime motion sensor cameras picked up a black bear slowly ambling around on our patio. Our dog, although kept on a leash outdoors, goes wild over squirrels, so we stopped putting out bird seed between December and March so as not to attract them. There are no other attractants, such as food or compost, that might lure a bear to our rural yard. We can usually count on one black bear sighting each year in spring, and we assume that they are just passing through. It appeared that this one was also on its way somewhere else.
– Cynthia Reichman
Photo Courtesy of Nathaniel Peck
[Cynthia’s video showed a handsome black bear (Ursus americanus), probably a young male. While it seemed very relaxed, it was certainly on the prowl, looking a few pounds shy of what it will need for denning when winter gets serious. Tom Lake
1/5 – Hudson River Watershed: How do waterfowl that spend all or part of the year on the ocean survive drinking salt water? Seabirds and many shorebirds have a gland above each eye which functions like an extra kidney and draws salt ions out of the bloodstream. Activated by the higher salt levels in the bird’s body, the glands excrete the excess salt through a duct that leads to the bird’s nostrils. From there the salty solution runs down the bird’s beak and back into the sea.
Gulls, terns, petrels, albatrosses, grebes, knots, puffins, loons, penguins, pelicans, sea ducks and geese are some of the birds that possess salt glands.
– Mary Holland
Photo Courtesy of Mary Holland
Women in Science Speaker Series
Please join us for the DEC’s free virtual winter “Women in Science” (PDF) speaker series. The series provides listeners the opportunity to meet and learn from scientists, community leaders, and environmental educators who work at the intersection of research, education, and environmental and social justice. See this flier (PDF) for our speaker line up and information on how to register.
Hudson River Miles
The Hudson is measured north from Hudson River Mile 0 at the Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan. The George Washington Bridge is at HRM 12, the Tappan Zee 28, Bear Mountain 47, Beacon-Newburgh 62, Mid-Hudson 75, Kingston-Rhinecliff 95, Rip Van Winkle 114, and the Federal Dam at Troy, the head of tidewater, at 153. The tidal section of the Hudson constitutes a bit less than half the total distance – 315 miles – from Lake Tear of the Clouds to the Battery. Entries from points east and west in the watershed reference the corresponding river mile on the mainstem.
To Contribute Your Observations or to Subscribe
The Hudson River Almanac is compiled and edited by Tom Lake and emailed weekly by DEC’s Hudson River Estuary Program. Share your observations by e-mailing them to email@example.com. To subscribe to the Almanac (or to unsubscribe), use the links on DEC’s Hudson River Almanac or DEC Delivers webpages.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration online tide and tidal current predictions are invaluable when planning Hudson River field trips. For real-time information on Hudson River tides, weather, and water conditions from sixteen monitoring stations, visit the Hudson River Environmental Conditions Observing System website.
DEC’s Smartphone app for iPhone and Android is now available at New York Fishing, Hunting & Wildlife App.