By Dan DeFeo
On Long Island, we share the winter months with some atypical visitors. The snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) is one such visitor that makes their way to the coasts of Long Island during the winter months migrating from areas within the Arctic Circle. Covered in thick white feathers, this bird with beautiful plumage can be spotted along sand dunes. Unlike the species of owls that you may be more familiar with, the snowy owl is diurnal – which means it is mostly active in the daytime. The journey from the Arctic Circle doesn’t necessarily end here on Long Island, as they have been seen on beaches along the Atlantic coast, escaping the harsh arctic environment and favoring a more temperate climate while preying upon small game.
Another winter visitor arrives by sea throughout November and stays until April. The harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) may be spotted enjoying a rest on the shore. While there are a variety of seals, the harbor seal makes up approximately 95% of all seals seen on Long Island. These seals arrive to the coastal areas of New York from as far as Nova Scotia. Despite spending half of their time on land sunning themselves, they are incredible swimmers and are capable of traveling at 12 miles an hour using their strong muscular flippers.
Photo: Harbor Seal by Kevin Ferris
If you decide to explore the beaches in these cold months, you might also be surprised to come across a stunned sea turtle on the shore. Sea turtles are subject to “cold stunning”, a condition that affects these marine reptiles when overcome by cold waters. Due to being a cold-blooded animal and unable to thermoregulate themselves, they are greatly affected by the temperatures of the water. Here on Long Island, when temperatures of the water drop to below 50 degrees it can effectively “stun” these animals. Their respiratory and cardiac functions decrease and they float along the surface listlessly, being taken along the water currents and washing ashore. Should you come across a sea turtle in need, you too can help by not warming the turtle in your car, and contact the New York Marine Rescue Center.
Please remember that there are very specific laws in place for wildlife that must be respected if you are to venture out and experience the joy and beauty of spotting these creatures on their winter journey. By providing an adequate distance (mandatory 150 feet for seals), you not only give them the space they need, but you provide an example of the right thing to do for other animal “watchers.” Being an ambassador for wildlife is an integral part of the experience and provides safety for yourself and the animals you may be trying to see.
Maybe now it becomes clearer where the term “snow bird” came from.
Photo: Snowy Owl by Mike Firestone