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The Nature of Things

A blog about nature and the environment

Archive for January, 2009

More snowy owls


New Yorkers aren’t the only ones enjoying visits from snowy owls. I mentioned the one in Albany yesterday and this photo, rather stunning, I think, shows a snowy owl at Jones Beach last month.

But, it turns out the Arctic visitors are turning up farther south than usual.

The mostly white owls of “Harry Potter” fame are spotted in small numbers in upstate New York and other northern states every winter. This year, they’ve also been spotted farther south, in states where they’re rarely seen.

In Tennessee, birders armed with spotting scopes and telephoto lenses scrambled from as far away as Georgia and Alabama to see the first snowy owl reported in that state in 22 years.

The owl showed up in early December in the fields surrounding a General Motors plant in Spring Hill, Tenn. Sightings were still being posted on the Tennessee Ornithological Society’s Web site in late January.

Birding hot lines lit up in northern Virginia with the sighting of a young male snowy owl in early December. The bird later died after it was found, sick and weak, and brought to the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro.

Rarely seen south of northern Ohio, snowy owls have also been reported this year in Kansas and Missouri, according to the eBird.org national bird reporting Web site.

Posted by Mike Risinit on Wednesday, January 28th, 2009 at 5:23 pm |
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Arctic visitors


Obviously these crows weren’t interested in bipartisanship and decided to harass the esteemed snowy owl that hailed from someplace to the north.

This snowy owl visited Albany in recent days. It’s part of a recent wave of feathered Arctic visitors to New York, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Across New York, Snowy Owl sightings are on the rise this winter. From Buffalo to Long Island, from a grassy field in Greene County to the roof of the State Capitol in Albany, New Yorkers are spotting what appears to be an increase in the number of Snowy Owls traveling south from their Arctic breeding grounds, said John Ozard, a biologist who specializes in bird species at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

“Every winter, New York receives some influx of Snowy Owls. But this year, anecdotally, there seems to be more of these birds around than usual,” Ozard said. “And they arrived a bit earlier than normal.”

The likely cause is not what some might think, Ozard explained. While some might guess that the Snowy Owls (Bubo Scandiacus) are flying south because of a shortage of food (primarily lemmings) in the Arctic, the more probable reason is that the birds have had a very productive breeding season and the younger owls – faced with heavy competition for food – are crowded out of their home base.

“This is a good sign for the owl,” Ozard said. “If food were scarce, if there were no lemmings in the Arctic, the birds would react by not raising any young. Snowy Owls are opportunistic breeders. In good times, a single breeding pair can hatch and raise a dozen offspring in a year. When there are excess birds, the young – especially the males – are sort of kicked out of their territory and head south.”

This is not first New York winter with a high number of Snowy Owl sightings. Records show such winters occurred sporadically through the 20th Century.

Ozard cautioned that there is no extensive banding of Snowy Owls and, therefore, it’s almost impossible to determine exactly where these “local owls” originated. The bird typically breeds in the Arctic, in the far north of Canada, Greenland and Norway. The Cornell University Ornithology Lab describes it as “a nomadic species and often unpredictable migrant.” It differs from other owls in being diurnal – a daylight hunter – rather than nocturnal.

News accounts and bird-watching blogs have detailed a number of Snowy Owl sightings since mid-fall. One roosted for several days at the State Capitol. Others have been reported in fields, on buildings and on telephone poles in a number of communities.

The birds will likely stay in the region through late March or early April, depending on weather, while feeding on rodents and small birds. The owls generally are tolerant of people but onlookers shouldn’t approach too closely so as to avoid stressing the birds. Birdwatchers occasionally might spot crows “mobbing” a Snowy Owl trespassing on their turf – a behavior tactic crows use to shoo predatory birds.

Learn more about the birds here. The photos are courtesy of the state DEC.

Posted by Mike Risinit on Tuesday, January 27th, 2009 at 2:10 pm |
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Hike to Pine Island


Counterfeiters were once thought to call Pine Island in Patterson home. The 30 acres of hemlocks and rocky outcroppings rising from the Great Swamp served as a hideout for the funny-money men as they passed out fake Rhode Island currency — and possibly New York and Connecticut script also — in the decades before the Revolutionary War.

The Friends of the Great Swamp bought the parcel in 2004 as part of their effort to protect one of the state’s largest freshwater wetlands. On Sunday, you can hike to the island, which is only truly an island during times of high water. And, it’s easier to get to when that water is frozen.

The Putnam County Land Trust is organizing the sojourn.

Sunday February 1st 1:00 Hike to Pine Island with Judy Kelley Moberg; co-sponsored by the Friends of the Great Swamp. Meet at the Patterson Recreation Center for a two –hour hike to Pine Island in the midst of the frozen waters of the swamp and if weather permits, seeing the tracks of otter, coyote, and bobcat among many signs of winter. Registration Required at 878-7740. (If weather does not cooperate, another route will substitute.)

The photo, by TJN photographer Stuart Bayer, shows former Pine Island owners Stephen and Rebecca Kessman shortly after they sold the land. Pine Island can be seen on the right, just past Stephen’s shoulder. It’s easily visible from either Cornwall Hill Road or Route 22 in Patterson.

Posted by Mike Risinit on Monday, January 26th, 2009 at 12:13 pm |


Pimp my bird


Whenever I see a cedar waxwing, it always strikes me as looking like a souped-up northern cardinal. Whereas a cardinal appears somewhat regal in its red feathers, it also looks docile and sedentary. A cedar waxwing, on the other hand, is like a masked fighter ready for a speedy attack. Go here to see a photo of a cedar waxwing.

Cedar waxwings are mostly winter visitors to the area and big fruit-eaters. It’s a tough diet for the waxwings to maintain, unlike birds who live in the tropics and have easy access to fruit. Their fruit-centric feeding can also be kind of dicey. During the winter, the birds are consuming berries that have been hanging around for months.

“Drunk drivers” can be found in groups of waxwings. Sometimes, waxwings will feed on fermented fruit. The alcohol contained in the fermented fruit intoxicates the waxwings, which then have difficulty flying and even standing when they overindulge.

I spotted a few flitting from tree to tree in a Hannaford’s parking lot yesterday.

Posted by Mike Risinit on Friday, January 23rd, 2009 at 12:40 pm |
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They’re free-range


Mmmm. . .mmmm, and they’re apparently good-eatin’, too. I’m referring to raccoons, which are an overlooked delicacy in Missouri, according to this story.

Raccoon, which made the first edition of The Joy of Cooking in 1931, is labor-intensive but well worth the time, aficionados say.

“Good things come to those who wait,” says A. Reed, 86, who has been eating raccoon since she was a girl.

“This right here,” she says, holding up a couple of brown packages tied with burlap string, “this is a great value. And really good eatin’. Best-kept secret around.”

As the story points out, Missouri raccoons aren’t afflicted with rabies. Here in New York, rabies has taken its toll on the raccoon population. I can remember years ago seeing the masked critters often: crawling out of storm drains, running up trees or getting into the garbage cans. The only ones I see now are flattened3 on the roadside.

Photo by TJN photographer Rickey Flores shows a raccoon trundling along in Cortlandt.

Posted by Mike Risinit on Thursday, January 22nd, 2009 at 1:00 pm |
| | 1 Comment »

Connecting with the Hudson


Scenic Hudson will be developing family-friendly events at its West Point Foundry Preserve and Foundry Dock Park, both in Cold Spring, to “draw more families to its parks to experience nature and the landscapes Scenic Hudson has protected for public benefit as part of its collaborative Saving the Land That Matters Most campaign.”

Scenic Hudson announced yesterday that it received a $15,000 grant from TD Banknorth to help with that effort and a similar undertaking in Beacon in Dutchess County geared toward students. It was the bank’s second grant to the environmental organization.

Posted by Mike Risinit on Wednesday, January 21st, 2009 at 2:24 pm |
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A rising Hudson?


Well, maybe not yet, but the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Sea Level Rise Task Force is working on a series of recommendations for dealing with rising sea levels.

More than 62 percent of the state’s population lives in marine coastal counties, according to the task force. And, the Hudson River is an “arm of the sea.”

The geographic scope of the task force report will include the five boroughs of New York City and the counties of Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk. The tidal waters of the Hudson River to the Federal Dam at Troy will also be included because of the potential risks from rising waters to Hudson River ecosystems, drinking water supplies and infrastructure.

As part of its work, the task force is holding a series of open houses. The closest one to us is tomorrow at Marist College in Poughkeepsie. A link with information can be found here.

Each meeting will feature an informal open house session, followed by staff presentations and a public-comment period. The open house includes exhibits related to various aspects of climate change and sea level rise. Agency staff will be available to explain the exhibits and answer questions. Those interested may come at any time during the scheduled open house. The meetings give the public an opportunity to provide input on the task force’s work plan.

“Global warming is one of the most significant environmental and economic issues of our generation. I commend Commissioner Grannis and his staff for convening this important planning group and urge the public and elected officials to participate in this process that will help the state chart a responsible course on this issue,” said Governor David A. Paterson.

Of course, the issue involves Long Island Sound too. Why should you be concerned? I’ll let the task force explain:

Climate change is resulting in increased rates of sea level rise, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report. Conservative projections of sea level rise by the end of the century are 7 to 23 inches, but some projections predict a rise of more than four and a half feet by 2100.

Rising seas and increased storm surges will
put New York’s coastlines at risk.
Rising sea levels pose serious threats to coastal communities and natural resources around the globe, altering natural ecosystems and affecting the habitability of coastal cities and towns. More than 62 percent of New York’s population lives in marine coastal counties.

According to the Northeast Climate Impacts Assessment conducted in 2007 by the Union of Concerned Scientists, as seas rise,

  • Beaches and bluffs will suffer increased erosion, while the risk of severe flooding and storm damage will increase.
  • Low-lying areas will be inundated, with potential for saltwater to infiltrate into surface waters and aquifers.
  • Sewage and septic systems, as well as transportation infrastructure, are at risk from flooding and erosion.
  • (Photo is by TJN photographer Rory Glaeseman and shows the Hudson off Cold Spring.)
  • Posted by Mike Risinit on Wednesday, January 21st, 2009 at 11:47 am |

    Lost in Yonkers


    This photo could be a bit much for some, so be forewarned. But a red-tailed hawk has to eat. This one, a Yonkers resident, decided to dine on a squirrel. Americo Volpe, 75, who lives on Blair Street near Sarah Lawrence College spied the raptor having his meal. He was coming down the stairs inside his home and spotted the bird through his front door.

    “I’m coming down and I see a very large bird,” said Volpe, a retired book-jacket designer. “I call my wife, Rosemary, and ask, ‘Isn’t this a hawk?’ She says go upstairs and get your camera.”

    By the time he got outside with his camera in tow, the hawk was still feasting on a squirrel it had caught, Volpe said. Despite the frigid temperatures, he stayed outside to photograph the bird of prey.

    “You don’t see a hawk every day, so you don’t mind the cold,” Volpe said. “I never knew there were hawks around Yonkers.”

    All of the above took place Friday afternoon. Thanks to my colleague Hoa Nguyen for passing this along.

    Denizens of field and forest, red-tailed hawks aren’t strangers to more urban environments. Some can be found in Queens and you may remember the story of Pale Male, who lived near Central Park in Manhattan. Rats and pigeons tend to make up a city hawk’s diet.

    Maybe I can get this hawk to come take care of my nemesis.

    Posted by Mike Risinit on Monday, January 19th, 2009 at 2:15 pm |
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    Pheasant reprieve


    Gov. David Paterson this afternoon rescinded his plan to close the state’s pheasant-rearing facility — which would have sent some 9,000 pheasants to the butcher and then upstate food banks — and said the state would work with hunters to figure out how to fund the pheasant farm.

    Paterson last month had said the farm would be closed as part of the effort to close the state’s budget gap. That had upset hunters, who were going to court to stop the farm’s shutdown.

    The game farm near Ithaca is the state’s last pheasant-rearing facility and it provides most of the birds that hunters pursue each fall.

    Posted by Mike Risinit on Friday, January 16th, 2009 at 6:40 pm |
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    Why I hate squirrels.


    This is why I hate squirrels. Maybe they have the right idea over in England.


    He’s definitely going to have the strongest abs among his fellow squirrels.

    Posted by Mike Risinit on Wednesday, January 14th, 2009 at 4:28 pm |

    About this blog
    The Nature of Things provides a chance to talk about the wild denizens that share the Lower Hudson Valley with us and the natural settings that make this place home for everyone. From Long Island Sound to the Hudson River to the Great Swamp and beyond, almost anything related to the environment is fair game in this blog.


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    About the authors
    SBenischekJournal News staff writer Greg Clary writes Earth Watch, reporting on environmental issues in the lower Hudson region. Clary has been a reporter, editor and columnist at the Journal News since 1988 and has covered police and courts, transportation, municipal government, development and the environment in the Lower Hudson Valley, among other topics.
    Laura IncalcaterraLaura Incalcaterra covers the environment, open space and zoning and planning issues for The Journal News. A Boston College graduate, Laura grew up in Rockland, attended East Ramapo schools and has worked for The Journal News since 1993. Laura has written features and covered North Rockland, crime, government and a host of other issues.
    SBenischekMike Risinit covers Patterson and Kent in Putnam County, as well as environmental topics touching on the Hudson River and the Great Swamp. Risinit has been a reporter at The Journal News since 1998.
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