Searching for Seals | New York Harbor

By Alyssa Arcaya

Sometimes it can feel like the only wildlife that thrives in New York City are roaches, rats and pigeons.  While we have plenty of these critters, New Yorkers who visit the city’s amazing parks and recreation areas know that city is home to other animals as well.  I’ve seen wild turkeys in Battery Park, bats flying through Prospect Park at dusk and, earlier this month, harbor seals swimming in the waters near the Verrazano Bridge.

Brant geese fly near Governor’s Island

In partnership with New York Water Taxi, the New York City chapter of the Audubon Society organizes winter trips in New York Harbor to visit harbor seals, which can be seen in this area from November to March, as well as migratory birds that make New York City their winter home.  Serious birders know that the New York City is a great place to see birds- over 400 species have been spotted in the five boroughs!  Some of these birds spend their summers above the Arctic Circle, where the Arctic tundra provides ideal nesting ground and abundant mosquitoes provide plenty of food.

During one of the last days of this not-so-chilly winter, the Audubon group was able to spot at least 18 species of birds, including double-crested cormorants and peregrine falcons.   Still, birdwatching off a boat in a highly urbanized harbor ecosystem had its challenges.  At one point, our knowledgeable Audubon guide spotted Purple Sandpipers feeding on some rocks off Erie Basin, near the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook.

The shores of Swinburne Island are a favorite spot for birds and harbor seals

The tiny birds, which have a slightly purplish hue, are rare in this area and quite small.  Even with binoculars, some people on the boat had trouble spotting them.  Our guide provided some helpful direction.  “Directly below the juice bottle, near the orange plastic bag,” he called out.  “Ok, now they’ve moved three rocks over from that large piece of Styrofoam.  If you think you saw a rat, it was probably a sandpiper!”

We left the waters off Brooklyn and headed along the coast of Staten Island to check out Swinburne and Hoffman Islands.  These manmade islands were constructed in the late 1800’s as quarantine stations for immigrants from Ellis Island.  The remains of hospital buildings and a crematorium are still visible on decidedly spooky Swinburne.  Part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, these islands are now off limits to people and serve as bird sanctuaries.   While we weren’t lucky enough to see the seals sunning themselves on the islands, we did spot their shiny heads bobbing in the water as they came up for air between dives.   Although my hands and feet were freezing by the end of the trip, seeing seals swimming against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline made it worth braving the cold.

About the Author: Alyssa Arcaya serves as EPA Region 2’s water coordinator.  She came to EPA through the Presidential Management Fellows program, through which she also worked for EPA’s Office of International and Tribal Affairs and the Water Team at the U.S. Department of State.  She graduated from Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies with a Masters in Environmental Management.

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