The wait is over. Old Man Winter has arrived to New York Harbor. Long nights, cloudy skies, chilly temperatures and gusty north winds are bearing a message to wildlife, the advent of winter.
All forgotten was the mild, dry autumn. Notice is now given to below freezing temperatures, wind chill readings, snow and ice. Winter has not even officially arrived and already serious winter weather is near.
On top of the hills and mountains far north surrounding the watershed, white snow and slick paths have become familiar to animals, along with waters freezing over. Down along the lower reaches of the watershed, deciduous trees are bare and exposed, not a leaf to be found. Air temperatures in the twenties the last few nights have frozen up puddles and the edges of freshwater ponds.
In cedar swamps, such as those found at Cheesequake State Park near Raritan Bay, blustery north winds were blowing through the evergreens for several days. Wind moving through cedars and pines made an almost ghostly and fragile whistle. A strong signature sound of winter often overlooked during dark, cold days.
Animals were certainly getting ready for another winter season, as shown by the increased activity at my bird feeder. There were the usual cast of characters, including red bellies, downy, and hairy woodpeckers, cardinals, blue jays, house finches, chickadees, and titmice. Plus there were some new visitors from up north. Dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows have shown up to spend winter near New York Harbor.
These two “snowbirds” of the eastern United States almost always appear just as winter sets in. Dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows fly in to New York Harbor from nesting sites across Canada and northern New England. They often arrive tired and exhausted from a busy breeding season. They seek solace and a good meal to recharge batteries. They find a haven in parks, backyards, and woodsy suburbs. Put out some birdseed this winter and you are almost guaranteed to see these two little compact birds hopping on the ground near your feeder at least once during the winter.
Not every animal is active though. Bull and green frogs are hibernating in the mud and muck or in pond water itself, insulated against freezing temperatures, in part, by a layer of ice on top of the pond. Overwintering painted turtles, snapping turtles, and various aquatic insects, plus a durable muskrat or two, often join the frogs. Along the pond edge, look for cattail colonies that are bleached and pale, with weathered clumps of fluff and seeds. Spring peepers are hibernating as well, but in the woods beneath several inches of soil
Down along the coast, water birds and ducks are arriving daily from breeding grounds up north, such as mergansers, long–tailed ducks, buffleheads, brant, Bonaparte’s gulls, Great Cormorants, and loons. They will remain for the winter foraging on aquatic plants, fish or shellfish. Winter flounder too have entered estuarine waters. They are getting ready to spawn in the bay using the shallow waters of the coves and harbors as a nursery.
Strong northerly winds have sweep down the bay, replacing summer southerly breezes. As a result, estuarine waters have started to cool significantly from an average of 75 degrees in the summer to an average of 35 degrees in the winter.
December is New York Harbor’s darkest month of the year. The Northern Hemisphere is tilting farther away from the sun in the solar system to reduce the duration of daylight to a minimum of about nine and a half hours on Wednesday, December 21, the winter solstice. Compare this low number to about 15 hours of daylight in June, during the summer solstice.
With nights at their longest, microscopic plant activity that once fueled much of the life in and around the bay – primary production – during the summer has slowed appreciably as the days grow shorter and less sunlight is available for photosynthesis. Those who were able have migrated south for the winter. Food resources around New York Harbor are insufficient during the winter to feed large numbers of mouths. Only the hardiest now endure.
Old Man Winter has brought cold and ice for another season around New York Harbor. It’s a time for many animals to brave and have endurance, wait it out until the days get longer and the landscape changes once again.