If you’re looking to get outdoors to see some of Long Island’s most curious and rare wildlife, the last weeks of winter are your chance to seal the deal. Four species of seals, two types of spotted salamanders and enough rare birds to fill a Peterson Guide can be spotted this winter on hikes or bay cruises.
Here’s how to safely see Long Island’s amazing winter biodiversity in its natural habitat.
If you want to see seals
November through May, seals turn local beaches and bays into a winter resort for sunbathing and water sports. Most are harbor seals, but gray, harp and hooded seals may also be around, says Annie McIntyre, regional environmental manager for New York State Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation, which leads seal walks on Long Island.
To spy seals on your own, scan coastal waters "for a head like a shiny bowling ball," McIntyre says. If you encounter seals on the beach, for safety’s sake "stay at least 150 feet away, and if it [a seal] reacts to you, move further away," says Arthur H. Kopelman, president of the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island.
Kopelman says that if you see a sick or injured seal, call the New York Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline (631-369-9829).
If you're seeking a cruise, baby seals are stealing the show on Capt. Lou VII seal-watching trips from the Nautical Mile to Merrick and Freeport back bays. Recently, passengers "literally cheered on" a baby seal "trying to get up on land," says Jessica Schaeffer, the Capt. Lou Fleet’s project manager.
To curb the spread of COVID-19, the 85-foot boat, which has a heated cabin and a snack bar, is currently sailing at half capacity, with a limit of 75 passengers, Schaeffer says.
"Right now, we’re seeing mostly harbor seals, which are silver and tan or black with speckles," Schaeffer says. The seals jump, swim around and munch on seal-to-table mackerel.
Giving a hoot about snowy owls
Yes, these majestic owls from the arctic tundra resemble Harry Potter’s pet, Hedwig, but state parks officials are asking hikers not to seek out or reveal the locations of their real life counterparts. "They [snowy owls] have never seen humans before and may think you are a predator," says Frank Quevedo, a naturalist and executive director of the South Fork Natural History Museum in Bridgehampton. That said, if you harass a snowy owl for a photo, you’re a Slytherin.
Long Islanders are lucky ducks when it comes to bird watching opportunities. The Island’s shoreline and its location along "a major migratory flyway … gives us a whole host of birds that people inland usually don’t see," says Jennifer Wilson-Pines, conservation chair for the North Shore Audubon Society.
On a winter birding expedition on elevated walkways spanning the saltwater marsh at Oceanside’s Marine Nature Study Area, you might see harlequin, canvasback and redhead ducks, razorbills and an "occasional surprise like spotting a Great Horned Owl," Wilson-Pines says. Sign up for rare bird alerts at the Cornel Lab for Ornithology website, ebird.org
Spotlight on amphibians
Spotted and blue-spotted salamanders are the Hamptons’ most reclusive nightlife — they emerge from underground only in late winter when they can be seen at local watering holes known as vernal ponds, says Jake Kushner, an environmental educator at the South Fork Natural History Museum in Bridgehampton.
Kushner, who guides the museum’s salamander searches, says "for the most part, we are pretty successful" because, "I do some scouting beforehand." To join the search, you’ll need to wear a mask and gloves, don rain boots and carry a flashlight.
WHERE & WHEN
New York State Parks Seal Walks: Montauk Point State Park, Feb. 27, 28, March 6, 7, 10, 13, 20, 21, meetup times vary, more dates through April 18. Jones Beach Energy & Nature Center, Jones Beach State Park, Wantagh, March 1, 2, 3, 4, 12, times vary.
INFO 631-668-5000, eventbrite.com/e/seal-walk-tickets-133735519539, $4
Capt. Lou Fleet Seal Watching Cruises: Two-hour cruises leave from 31 Woodcleft Ave., (the Nautical Mile) Freeport, at 1 p.m., on Saturdays and Sundays, through April 11.
INFO 516-623-5823, LIwhaleandsealwatching.com, $39
North Shore Audubon Society Bird Walk: March 3, 9:30 a.m. to noon, Marine Nature Study Area, 500 Slice Drive, Oceanside. Free, but limited. Preregister at firstname.lastname@example.org
South Fork Natural History Museum Salamander Search: March 6, 13 and 20 7:30 p.m., Register at 631-537-9735 or email@example.com. Walks will take place only if there have been heavy rains.
INFO 631-537-9735, sofo.org, $10/adults, $7 children 3 to 12; free for 2 and younger and museum members.