February can be a gloomy and glum month, and dark too. Despite the fact that it's the shortest month of the year, days are often grey and cold, and new snow no longer seems so attractive. North winds blow strong and stormy, and friends and family are frequently sick or suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Can you guess that February is not my favorite month?
Anything good that comes in February for me comes in the shape of long white feathers or faces with whiskers, critters that can be found along the shore. Seals and snowy owls seem to magically bring to life the frosty and frigid shoals and sandy beaches around New York Harbor.
February is one of the best times of the year to see seals, especially Harbor Seals, and snowy owls on bay beaches, including on remote islands and along sandy Atlantic shores. Not many people know, but February is the height of seal and snowy owl season in New York Harbor.
Both warm-blooded animals come down from the north seeking safe places to rest and forage for food. While some years are better than others, the probability is always pretty good that you can at least catch a glimpse of one of these wild animals every winter.
Harbor seals are now common winter critters. They usually arrive in small numbers starting around the end of November from cold coastal waters of eastern Canada and Maine. As waters start to freeze and ice-over up north, more and more seals migrate southward seeking relatively ice-free waters. By February it’s not uncommon to see more than 60 or 70 Harbor seals hauled out in a particular area in New York Harbor, resting and relaxing after a busy evening foraging for various aquatic species including sandlance, flounder, squid, cod, clams, or crabs.
As temperatures rise and waters warm up in the spring, more and more seals will head off northward back to coastal Maine and eastern Canada to start breeding. Usually, adult seals are out of here by mid to late April.
The sight of a seal is a remarkable natural event. Over thirty years ago, seals were almost never seen in New York Harbor. Now waters are cleaner, populations of certain fish are starting to rebound, and the number of seals have increased to the point that a casual beachgoer can spot a seal either swimming or resting on a beach. It helps that Congress in 1972 passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits the killing or harassment of any wild seal within waters of the United States.
Harder to find around the harbor during the winter is a snowy owl. They don’t always show up every year. Maybe every four or five years just one will show up somewhere in New York or New Jersey. An owl might favor a particular place for weeks, other times it's a one-day event. Sightings are highly variable and the owl's wanderings are unpredictable. There are no exclusive snowy owl vantage points around New York Harbor. The owls just appear anywhere, like magic.
When a snowy owl does appear, it’s usually a young male or female born last summer in eastern Canada. They can be identified by black or dark brown markings on mostly white feathers. Mature adult males usually are completely white, and are more likely to stay closer to their home range in the arctic.
No one is quite sure why a snowy owl might leave the arctic to arrive in New York Harbor. A common theory is that a few juvenile snowy owls are seen during what is called an irruption or a lemming irruption. It's a natural event linked to lemmings, a small rodent that accounts for around 90 percent of a snowy owl's diet. When lemmings are in abundance, the population of snowy owls increase. When winter begins on the tundra, the lemmings are hard to find. With too many owls for the available food supply, numerous snowy owls, primarily young birds, fly south in search of other prey.
The most favored location to see young "snowies" around or close to the harbor is on an ocean-side beach. At first, you might think there is little in common between a sandy beach and the barren lands of the tundra. But it turns out the similarities are relevant. Both landscapes are largely open with hardy, fast growing grasses, sedges, dwarfed shrubs and small evergreen trees. The wide-open, windswept landscape looks and feels very similar to a snowy owl breeding area in the tundra.
Abundant food resources are also available along the coast. In the past, people have reported seeing snowy owls eat on small mammals, such as rabbits, voles, and squirrels, and other birds too, including ducks, geese and grebes. The young snowy owls will often rest during the day and hunt for prey right before sunset. They usually watch for prey and then pursue it in a swift, noiseless flight, catching prey in its talons.
Unfortunately, not all of the snowy owls that fly south will survive. Although some owls will live on and perhaps even return in future years, others will not be able to deal with the stress of migration, the strain of foraging in a busy urban-suburban environment, the hassles from interacting with ospreys and other coastal wildlife, the possible lack of food, the burden from parasites and poisons meant for rodents, and collisions with planes, cars, and power lines. It’s not an easy time, nature and people can be cruel.
If you spot a seal, snowy owl, or any wild animal this winter, please give it plenty of room and do not disturb it. Enjoy the sight from a distance. Wild animals need safe places to rest and digest food; otherwise they will get sick or too tired to hunt for food. It’s always best to view wildlife from a distance. Give owls and seals some space and let them relax in peace.
If you see a seal that appears injured, entangled, sick, or being harassed by a person, in New Jersey call the Marine Mammal Stranding Center at 609-266-0538. In New York, call the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation at 631-369-9829. These two organizations have the authority to help stranded or sick marine mammals and sea turtles. Wildlife experts with the help of trained volunteers will determine if an animal is in need of medical attention, needs to be moved from a populated area, or just needs time to rest.