Monday, February 28, 2011
Just after dawn I headed to the Sandy Hook peninsula. It was a clear morning with a few clouds. Winds were breezy off Sandy Hook Bay from the north. High temperatures were predicted to be in the high 40s. Low tide occurred around 9am. Perfect conditions to be at the beach to observe seals.
The best time to see seals is within two hours of low tide on a sunny early morning. If conditions are right, many seals can be seen resting, relaxing, and lounging around.
As I walked out onto the bayside beach I could see the familiar silhouettes of seals in the distance. Although distant, they were quite visible. Without a scope or binoculars, one might almost think the seals were not real. It looked as if there were many black and white rocks that dotted the high tide line on this out-of-the-way sandy beach. Yet, that remote beach was alive.
There they were. All 90 or more Harbor Seals in Sandy Hook Bay.
During the winter, the shoals and sandy beaches around Sandy Hook Bay seem to magically come full of life with the sights and sounds of seals. Our Harbor Seals have come home for the winter.
Harbor seals and other marine mammals have been sporadic visitors to Sandy Hook Bay and the much larger Lower New York Bay for many decades. Yet, in recent years it seems the Harbor Seal population has grown. Harbor seals have now become the most abundant marine mammal seen on and off the coastline during the winter.
This is an extraordinary comeback. Harbor Seals were once considered pests of the sea. So much so that states placed bounties on them for hunters. But that practice ended in 1972 when the U.S. federal Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed making it a criminal offense to injure or harass any marine mammal, including seals.
Now people are seeing many more Harbor Seals off the Jersey Shore and the New York City coastline. It is also becoming common to see other seals like Gray, Harp or Hooded seals.
Recently, in Sandy Hook Bay, the winter population of Harbor Seals was estimated to be around 90 to 100. This an increase from a decade ago when there were just a handful.
The reason for this rapid rise may have to do, in part, with where the seals come from. As fall settles in, Harbor Seals begin their trek from Cape Cod, the coast of Maine, and points further north where they breed. They head south in the fall to remote beaches along Long Island and New York Harbor. They travel into Sandy Hook Bay using designated areas as haul-out sites, land bases where seals can rest and find refuge during the non-breeding season.
While U.S federal biologists say it’s clear their numbers are increasing, they acknowledge that they don’t have a solid estimate on how many Harbor Seals there really are. In 2002, a census of the total Harbor Seal population along the New England coast found that there were nearly 100,000 in the water from Maine to Connecticut. This estimate came from data gathered in aerial surveys. Yet, this data is imprecise because most seal surveys focus on a specific area, and many local, remote populations have rapidly increased during the last few decades. Moreover, because seals spend part of their time in the water, observers see only a portion of the total population.
As the seal population continues to grow in New England, so too does the winter seal population in New York and New Jersey. Seals are showing up in more places. Local police are increasingly receiving calls in the winter from worried residents who don't realize that seals often haul out to rest on beaches.
Of course, with more seals comes many questions. Why are some beaches selected by seals as haul-out sites and others avoided? Are the seals returning to areas they inhabited once in the past? Where exactly do they go to feed, in the harbor or out in the ocean, or both. What protections will the state or federal government provide to seal haul-out sites, as currently there is little to none.
No doubt, winter is a good time to see seals in Sandy Hook Bay. A good number of people from all over New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania have come this year to see the seals.
For me, I love seeing the seals whenever I can. Yet, our society needs to do more to protect the seals and their haul-out sites. Without secluded, safe places that are free from harassment or predators, the seals will not be able to rest during the day and could tire out or suffer from fatigue or sickness. They need secluded beaches in the winter to relax and warm up their bodies.
It is essential that you stay as far away from a seal or any marine mammal as possible. Seals are wild animals and should be enjoyed from afar. If too many people disturb a haul-out site, the seals will abandon the place and never return. Remember, seals often select a haul-out site to rest and relax specifically because the place is isolated from people. So, keeping your distance is important for everyone.
By law, you must stay at least 50 yards away, but use your judgment. It is better to be farther away from the seals than too close. About 30 minutes is a good amount of time to observe seals, as they can get stressed out by continual human presence.
Please do not approach or harass in any way a seal or marine mammal. Please do not feed the seals, and remember to keep your pets on a leash at all times and away from the seals.
If you think a seal is sick, hurt or in danger, do not touch or attempt to help it. Instead call the NJ Marine Mammal Stranding Center at (609) 266-0538. In New York, please call the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation at (631) 369-9829.
The seals aren't hurting anybody, so they should just be left alone. They need to be viewed from afar.
Sunday, February 27, 2011
Under a sky of clouds and sun, and brisk winds blowing in from the north, another Common Dolphin was found dead at Sandy Hook over the weekend. This dead dolphin was found exactly a week apart and near the site that another Common Dolphin was found dead at Sandy Hook.
|A Common Dolphin found dead near Spermicetti Cove in Sandy Hook Bay|
This brings to two the total of dead Common Dolphins at Sandy Hook in 2011. Both dolphins were found on the bayside of Sandy Hook.
The latest deceased dolphin appeared smaller than the first dolphin. This dolphin was clearly shorter than 6 feet in length. Whereas the other dolphin was at least 6-feet, though probably more in length. Adult Common dolphins can reach lengths of over 8 feet. Perhaps the latest lifeless dolphin was a juvenile.
|Common dolphins are found in the Atlantic Ocean from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia to northern South America. They frequent offshore waters around the outer continental shelf, often near ridges. They're rarely sighted near shore.|
Officials with the New Jersey Marine Mammal Stranding Center were notified of the dead dolphin and arrived later in the day to pick up the animal and transport it to a marine mammal facility for a necropsy. As of today, an illness or injury that may have caused the death has not been identified. Normally, Common Dolphin can live in the wild between 35 to 40 years.
The latest dead dolphin looked fine, except for a missing eyeball that in all likelihood was removed by a hungry crow or gull. The dolphin was not rotten. It must have died a day or two before.
|Likely it was a hungry crow or gull that removed the eye from this dead dolphin as a meal.|
People reported seeing a single dolphin swimming on the bayside of Sandy Hook during the week. If true and if this was same Common Dolphin then this is very strange behavior. I mean the depth of water in the bay is relatively shallow compared to the Atlantic Ocean. Although Common Dolphins can be found near the coast, they are mostly found in the ocean at depths of greater than 500 feet. This pelagic animal is rarely seen close to the shore.
Common Dolphins have strong family bonds. The bond between a mother and calf is very strong. Similar bonds are present between males and females, and between adults of the same sex.
For all one knows, the latest dead dolphin was seeking its family member or friend that died last week after receiving several fatal cuts from a boat propeller. It might have died from exhaustion, starvation, or stranded itself from depression. We might never know the truth.
Saturday, February 26, 2011
This video is disturbing. Though not directly part of Lower New York Bay, it shows the long-term negative effects of the historic oil spill that happened last summer in the Gulf of Mexico. The idea that so many young dolphins are dying is somehow natural, is typical of the human species. We just refuse to take responsibility for the great damage we have been doing and continue to do to our beautiful natural world. Pollution and oil spills are not caused by wildlife, only humans.
AccuWeather.com - Weather Video - Dolphin Deaths Puzzle Researchers
AccuWeather.com - Weather Video - Dolphin Deaths Puzzle Researchers
Friday, February 25, 2011
The wind howled and the rain came down in buckets. We even heard several claps of thunder today. It was another wild weather day!
Stormy times for Lower New York Bay. Heavy rain, flooding, and gusty north to northwest winds. At 5:30pm, a weather station at Sandy Hook recorded a wind gust over 50 mph.
Deep low pressure is quickly moving off the New England coast tonight. That same low pressure system dumped nearly an inch of rain around here.
On the other side, it was a mild 56°F day. Inshore water temperatures are rising. They are reading close to 40 degrees in some places. On average, though, it is between the mid to upper 30s.
In between the raindrops today, I managed to look up to spot a huge flock of Red-Winged Blackbirds on the tree tops. There were hundreds. I could hear raucously the male's song. It was a loud gurgling conk-a-reeeee or o-ka-leeeee. Though this is normally a territorial song, I suspect due to the amazing number of birds, these blackbirds may not be quite ready to defend a territory. This flock of blackbirds is on the move.
All in all, it was an interesting late winter day.
Thursday, February 24, 2011
A few days ago, some people living in Sea Bright reported seeing a mother seal with a baby seal. If true, this would have been an amazing event. A mother seal nursing a baby seal along the Jersey Shore. Very, very rare!
|A juvenile Harbor Seal near the edge of the water is resting near an adult Harp Seal that is fast asleep.|
In fact, it was an adult Harp Seal and a juvenile Harbor Seal, two different species, resting and relaxing nearby each other on a remote island in the Shrewsbury River, across from Sea Bright.
When I saw the two seals together, a friend with me immediately asked, "Where is the mother seal?" Had the little juvenile Harbor Seal been abandoned and perhaps had the adult Harp Seal adopted the youngster.
Although this makes a nice story, it was most likely not the case. Both seals looked healthy and happy. They had just found a pleasant place to relax for the day. Nothing more and nothing else.
What is often misunderstood by people about is the short bond between mother seal and her child. Females give birth in spring and summer. Females generally give birth to one pup each year in New England or Canada. Mothers nurse their pups for only three to four weeks, then abruptly wean and leave them to live out the rest of their lives on their own.
Luckily, seal pups are able to swim and dive within minutes of birth. Pups are well-developed at birth. Their eyes are open and they can swim and follow their mothers. Soon after birth, the juvenile Harbor Seals will spend the next few years on their own feeding and improving their fishing and swimming skills.
Happily, when together, the bond between mother and child seal is strong. The female is an attentive parent during the nursing period. She noses the pup often. The pup may ride on her back, nip at her flippers, and chase her through the water.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
A raft of thousands of Greater & Lesser Scaup continues to rest and feed, and expand on the Navesink River, near the Oceanic Bridge between Rumson and Middletown Township.
Over the weekend, the population of scaup was around a thousand. Now the population has swelled to 2 or perhaps even 3 thousand. The river waters are getting clogged not with ice, but with waterfowl , as numbers increase more and more.
It's a wonderful spectacle of color as thousands of winter scaup and dozens of other birds mix in including Reddy Ducks, Redheads, Red-breasted Mergansers, Bufflehead, Brant, Black Ducks, and Mute Swans.
It's a vast concentration of avian wildlife downstream from the largest urban coastline in America. How long this remarkable feathered display will last is anybody's guess. Enjoy it while you can.
Monday, February 21, 2011
As cold north winds blew and partly cloudy skies formed on Saturday afternoon, visitors to Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area in Lower New York Bay found a dead Short-beaked Common Dolphin on the bayside of Sandy Hook, in an area known as Horseshoe Cove. Wildlife officials with the NJ Marine Mammal Stranding Center were notified and picked up the dolphin for a necropsy. Its cause of death is not yet known.
|A Short-beaked Common Dolphin was found dead over the weekend along the shores of Sandy Hook Bay|
Looking over the poor creature, however, I could see a long gash below the dorsal fin. Both the fluke and the dorsal fin had pieces of it chopped off. There was also dried blood around the animal. If I had to guess a cause of death it would be from a boat strike or maybe killed accidentally from a commercial fishing net. That is my guess.
|The dolphin has beautiful hues on its body of black, blue, white and yellow.|
Short-beaked Common Dolphins are fast, slender marine mammals. Their body has an amazing coloration that resembles the ocean, with hues of yellow, gray, blue, black, and white. They are found in the Atlantic from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia to northern South America. They frequent offshore waters around the outer continental shelf and are rarely sighted near shore.
|Cuts on the body below the dorsal fin and pieces of the fin and fluke cut off suggest to me that the animal didn't die from natural causes.|
The dolphins can gather in schools of hundreds or thousands, though generally they are found in more modest schools of around 30 or fewer. In fact, someone reported seeing a small school of Common Dolphins off the coast of Sandy Hook a few days ago. Perhaps the dead dolphin was part of this school.
These dolphins might be fast, but they are no match for speeding ships, tankers or ocean liners. It is also difficult for a dolphin to out-maneuver a floating fishing net or line that is tricky to see in the murky and muted ocean waters.
The dead dolphin was fresh, so it must have died just a day or two ago. It hadn't been dead for long because its tail was still flexible and it was not bloated. The dolphin was about 6 feet long.
One of the problems of having a diversity of wildlife existing in and around New York City is the competition for space. Everyone struggles for their own area to live and work in. Unfortunately, the free-for-all goes on to see if nearly 18 million people in the metropolitan region can live with what is left of wild nature.
If you spot a dead or injured dolphin, whale, seal or sea turtle, please do not touch or attempt to help it. Instead call the NJ Marine Mammal Stranding Center at (609) 266-0538. In New York, please call the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation at (631) 369-9829.
Sunday, February 20, 2011
Despite the sunshine, it was a raw weekend. A cold front swept over the Lower New York Bay region, bringing bitter cold and blustery north to northwest winds gusting over 50 mph in some places. Far away were those 60 degree spring-like temperatures enjoyed on Friday.
|An impressive flock of Greater Scaup in the Navesink River, near Claypit Creek over the weekend.|
Yet, in the bluster and cold, I was rewarded with the sight of a large flock of Greater Scaup resting in the Navesink River, near the Oceanic Bridge. While on my way to Fair Haven on Saturday, I noticed a large flock of about 1,000 birds in the water along with a good number of people on land that had stopped to take a closer look.
I met kids, parents, and people from all over the area, many of whom had never seen so many wild birds congregating in one place. In the midst of gusty winds, this might have been the most impressive display of local wildlife that many people have ever seen. Some birds were so close we could hear their wings. This was a real-time natural event that might not occur again for years, or ever.
Yet, many people had no clue the name of the birds or why they were located here in the Navesink River. Some people mistakenly called them mallards. While one gentleman asked me if the birds were here to nest?
Actually, Greater Scaup (Aythya marila) are part of the winter bird population that calls Lower New York Bay, Raritan Bay, Sandy Hook Bay, and the Navesink & Shrewsbury rivers home during the winter season. Along with Buffleheads, Brant, Redheads, Golden-eyes, Long-tails, and other colorful waterfowl, they arrive here from the north in late autumn to rest and feed during the non-breeding season. Among duck-hunters, Greater Scaup are popularly known as a "blue-bill" or "greater blue-bill." The name scaup probably comes from the bird's infrequent call, scaup scaup.
Maybe there were some Lesser Scaup mixed in and certainly there were some Ruddy Ducks as well, but it looked like a great gathering of Greater Scaup to me. The Greater Scaup is more common than the Lesser Scaup in the northern United States, where it is usually seen in large rafts or flocks, often composed of thousands of birds, on large lakes or coastal bays.
According to Ducks Unlimited, any very large flock of scaup on the northeast coast in winter may be assumed to be the Greater. Moreover, US Fish and Wildlife state in their 1997 document entitled, Significant habitats and habitat complexes of the New York Bight Watershed, that Greater and Lesser scaup are not readily differentiated on aerial surveys, although ground counts, band recovery data, and hunters' bags reveal both that the majority of scaup in the New York Bight are Greater Scaup and that these birds represent a significant proportion, probably about 25%, of the total flyway population. Within the study area, the most important wintering area is the Raritan Bay - Sandy Hook Bay area.
A large flock of Greater Scaup was seen a few weeks back in Sandy Hook Bay, and before then in Raritan Bay, near Staten Island. Over the weekend, the birds were probably seeking shelter from the strong winds on the open water in the bay. All of the scaup stayed on the Middletown side of the Oceanic Bridge, near Claypit Creek where it was sheltered from the north winds by the high hills of the Navesink Highlands.
|Can you spot the one Red-head duck among the scaup?|
Greater Scaup arrive to Lower New York Bay from their breeding grounds on the tundra and in the boreal forest zones from Iceland across northern Scandinavia, and northern Siberia. Their long winged migration across Canada takes them to wintering grounds along the Atlantic coast between Cape Cod and Chesapeake Bay, and the Great Lakes.
Once at their wintering grounds, the Greater Scaup feed. They are diving birds and go underwater to feed on aquatic animals, mostly mollusks, such as clams, mussels, snails, and oysters.
Unfortunately, it is their fondness for shellfish that may make scaup more susceptible to toxins in their system, especially of contaminants in polluted areas. During the winter, nearly 80% of Greater Scaup converge in urbanized, coastal areas of North America, such as Lower New York Bay where they face shrinking and degraded habitat and pollution.US Fish and Wildlife tells us that past analyses of scaup kidneys and livers from Long Island Sound have revealed that tissue levels of chlorinated hydrocarbons and heavy metals increased during the winter, and that levels of cadmium, selenium, and PCBs were at levels known to adversely affect reproduction in ducks. Midwinter inventory data show significant long-term declines in scaup, and the declines in Greater Scaup may be even more pronounced.
Interestingly, the Greater Scaup numbered around 1,000 over the weekend. This is a far cry from comments made by Dery Bennett, the former Director of the American Littoral Society who passed away last year. He remarked in 2008 of seeing at least 5,000 birds. This was down from the days when he saw 10,000-bird raft farther out on Raritan Bay a generation ago.
How long will the scaup remain in the Navesink River is anyone's guess. For now, though, enjoy the seasonal sight of Greater Scaup in our local waters. Let's hope they eat hearty and return for years to come so future generations of people may enjoy the arrival of a large flock of Greater Scaup during the winter near the water's edge.
Saturday, February 19, 2011
The good times never last that long. Yesterday, it was breezy and balmy. The high temperature rose all the way up to 67°F, just a degree shy of the record in Central Park. Not too shabby for February.
|Sandy Hook Bay and Lower New York Bay were full of chop and whitecaps from strong winds|
Yet, in less than 24 hours everything changed. Even though the weather was partly cloudy just like yesterday, it was noticeably chillier with high temperatures only reaching into the lower 40s. Then there were the strong north to northwest winds.
Sustained winds of 40 to 50 miles per hour and frequent gusts near 60 miles per hour resulted in downed trees and power outages across the region today. The National Weather Service in Mount Holly stated the blustery conditions were a result of a tight pressure gradient between the low that dragged a cold front through the state on Friday and a high pressure system building in from the west.
All around Lower New York Bay, the tall trees were swaying from brutal gusty winds. The bay was full of chop, foam, and whitecaps. The wind was blowing so intensely that beach sand was hitting my face violently while walking along Sandy Hook Bay. It was painful. Even at 8:30pm, the wind was still gusting around 45 mph.
The weather forecast does not provide much relief. It calls for a mix of snow and rain on Monday, and a high temperature of only 30 degrees on Tuesday.Back to winter.
Yet, in the bluster and cold, I was rewarded today with a large flock of Greater Scaup resting in the Navesink River. More information on that awesome sighting tomorrow.