The tempo of cricket chirping slows as the temperature drops on autumn evenings, inducing a calm, observant mood along the riverside. Fortunately, there’s plenty for a quiet observer to see on the Hudson these days.
From mid-September through October, dozens of sailboats pass by the Lighthouse daily on their way to tropical waters, many sporting the Canadian flag. It’s what I like to call the autumn “maple leaf” migration. Originating north of the border, the boats enter the Hudson River from the canal system and are making their way to warmer waters in Bermuda, the Florida Keys, or the Caribbean. Avoiding the risks of the open ocean as much as possible, they are taking the safer inland water route via the St. Lawrence Seaway, Lake Champlain, Champlain Canal, Hudson River, and intracoastal waterway. Rarely are any of these sailboats actually riding the breeze. Sails furled, most are simply motoring in transit, one after another — a succession of naked spars, bare except for the tell-tale red maple leaf. Some pull into the mouth of the Esopus Creek to refuel at the marina. A few anchor overnight. As I drink my morning coffee, I see them departing around dawn when the mist is still rising off the water. One sailboat heading south was aptly named “Snowbird.”
In nature, there are two broad strategies for coping with winter scarcity: seek a warmer climate or stock up on supplies. For those of us whose dream of retiring to a sailboat in the Caribbean is still years off, it’s time to squirrel away what we need for the colder weather. For the Lighthouse, our work barge (dubbed the Yuck Finn) has already carried its first load of winter stores — kerosene for heat. The next load will carry anthracite coal for the antique parlor stove. There’s also firewood to split and storm-windows to hang. Once the creek freezes, we won’t be able to get Yuck Finn to the Lighthouse, so our supplies must be delivered before the cold arrives in earnest, and we need enough to last the winter.
While we busy ourselves stockpiling fuel, waves of migrants pass by the Lighthouse. Northerly breezes following behind cold fronts carry along many migratory species. Low-flying V-shaped flocks of cormorants are headed downriver. Tiny spiders disperse by “ballooning” — extruding fine gossamer threads into the air and getting carried away on the wind. Monarch butterflies are on the move, meandering towards Mexico. Occasionally, a monarch will alight on the beach, resting on its long journey south, drinking the moisture from the damp sand. Late summer wildflowers along the Lighthouse Trail serve as a way-station for migrating monarch butterflies.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds also pause on their journey south for sips of nectar. At this time of year, spotted jewelweed blossoms in abundance in the wet areas of the Lighthouse Trail, and the orange flowers attract the hummingbirds. Conveniently timed with their migration, the flowering of the jewelweed provides ample nectar for the winged travelers. The hummingbirds take advantage of northerly tail winds, stopping here and there to refuel. Without jewelweed, the birds may not find enough to eat along the way to reach their winter homes in the tropical forests of Mexico and Central America. A bird that embarks too late may be out of luck if the jewelweed has already gone to seed.
Since mid-September, the water’s surface has been adorned with bright-green ribbons of duckweed wending their way downriver. Flushed out of creeks and backwaters, the tiny free-floating plants drift with the current and spiral in the eddies. With these green pixels, the river’s subtle movements are made visible. As the tide recedes, stranded duckweed traces the shoreline with bright lines. Why the prolific appearance of duckweed in the Hudson during this time of year? According to Stuart Findlay of the Cary Institute, the duckweed co-mingles with water chestnut, floating at the surface in shallow bays and coves. As the water chestnut beds break apart in the late summer, duckweed is released into the river channel and drifts with the ebb currents. This theory was corroborated by Glasco river observer Dock Shuter. The autumn appearance of duckweed is convenient timing for ducks along the river. Rafts of mallards vacuum up the duckweed in the lead-up to fall migration. Before embarking on their journey south, mallards eat more food to build up their fat stores so they have enough energy to survive the cooler temperatures and long migratory flights.
The local bald eagle pair have renewed their courtship now that the young have fledged the nest. With the business of rearing hatchlings behind them, they seem to be enjoying each other’s company once again. They can be seen together more often, sharing their favorite perch, hanging out at their nest, or soaring over the river. They, like us, will stay here and face the cooler weather while others embark for the tropics.
Patrick Landewe is the Saugerties Lighthouse keeper. His column appears monthly.