Volume 20, Number 42 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | March 2 - 8, 2011
Downtown Express photos by Terese Loeb Kreuzer
Western Atlantic harbor seals share a rocky promontory on Swinburne Island with a variety of seagulls.
Great Black-backed Gulls fly in front of an abandoned building on Swinburne Island, now a bird sanctuary. Great Black-backed Gulls are the largest seagulls in the world.
A special cruise for winter wildlife enthusiasts
BY Terese Loeb Kreuzer
It was cold on Saturday, February 26, when a New York Water Taxi with around 100 people aboard left the South Street Seaport and headed toward Governors Island, but that didn’t keep most of the passengers from crowding the boat’s upper deck, binoculars and cameras in hand. They had signed up for New York City Audubon’s annual winter seals and water birds cruise and didn’t want to miss anything.
As the boat made its way through Buttermilk Channel, a tidal strait separating Governors Island from Brooklyn, tour leader Gabriel Willow spotted bufflehead ducks, brants and red-headed mergansers. All are winter visitors to New York City but spend their summers in Canada and the Arctic.
The Water Taxi turned into Erie Basin, a manmade harbor in Red Hook, Brooklyn, created in the mid-19th century to receive grain shipments from the Midwest. Three purple sandpipers were foraging on the rocks at the entrance. Weighing approximately three ounces each and around eight inches long when full grown, these diminutive visitors to New York City fly thousands of miles each year from their summer home in the Arctic. They have the northernmost winter range of any shore bird.
Among Erie Basin’s handsome, brick warehouses, the rusted remains of the Revere sugar refinery and barges owned by the Hughes-Reinauer Company, Willow pointed out the head of a harbor seal, bobbing in the water. The seal quickly ducked under and wasn’t seen again.
Willow said that it was unusual to see a seal in Erie Basin, but added that seals “could potentially be in any waterway around New York City.” They had been common in the New York area at one time, but then disappeared. “They were first reported again in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s,” he said, “and are now regular visitors.”
No one knows exactly why this has happened, Willow said, but speculation is that the Clean Water Act of 1972 caused a resurgence in the fish population. Adult harbor seals can weigh as much as 375 pounds (males) or 331 pounds (females) and eat 10 to 18 pounds of food a day. “Around New York City, they’re probably eating herring,” said Willow, although they’ll also eat other fish as well as crustaceans and mollusks.
The Water Taxi sped toward the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, startling flocks of gulls and a few mergansers as it passed. It was headed toward two manmade islands, Hoffman and Swinburne, off the coast of Staten Island. Both opened in the 1870’s to quarantine immigrants to New York City, who often were ill with cholera, typhus and other diseases when they arrived. Swinburne closed in 1928 and Hoffman was diverted to other uses not long after. Now both islands are bird sanctuaries where herons, egrets and cormorants build their nests and gulls perch on the rocks. In winter, Swinburne is where the harbor seals and an occasional gray seal like to hang out. There was a collective “oooh” as the boat drew close enough to Swinburne to see the quizzical faces of numerous seals, lounging on the rocks and inspecting the visitors.
Willow explained that these were Western Atlantic harbor seals. No one seems to know exactly how many there are. Estimates vary from 10,000 to 70,000. There are around half a million harbor seals of various kinds worldwide.
It’s illegal to kill a marine mammal, Willow noted. Nevertheless, fishermen sometimes kill harbor seals because they view them as fishing competitors. Willow said that harbor seals normally live around 25 years, bear one pup a year and have a gestation period of nine to 11 months. Some of the female seals on the Swinburne rocks were undoubtedly pregnant.
“They’ll probably be leaving for their summer home any day now,” Willow said. “They summer from the Gulf of Maine north to the Arctic.”
As the boat left Swinburne, there was one more treat for the passengers – a great cormorant perched on the pile of a wooden pier, sporting its breeding plumage.
It was a good day.
See More Audubon tours
Support our print edition advertisers!