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February: Harbor Seals

"Sea dogs" -- harbor seals -- have made a comeback, especially at Montauk Point.

harbor seals

Harbor seals are sometimes called "sea dogs," and they truly do look like a blubbery relative of man's best friend. They have small, rounded heads and blunt, whiskered snouts, but it's their huge, soulful eyes that establish the resemblance.

It's a relatively good time to be a harbor seal in the western Atlantic. No longer harried by hunters and enjoying the recovery of sea herring and other favorite foods, harbor seal populations have steadily increased over the last decade. When temperatures in their North Atlantic breeding grounds begin to fall, harbor seals migrate south. Good numbers of them spend their winters in the Harbor Bight region, feeding in near-shore waters or taking their ease on rocky islets or sandbars.

Like other marine mammals, harbor seals use their keen hearing, their eyes and their whiskers -- which are in fact sensors, with blood and nerves -- to find food underwater. A harbor seal's thick, short fur is made up of fine, dense hair with an overlay of coarser guard hairs. Coloration varies widely in harbor seals; individuals sport blotches, spots, and rings of various colors over a background of gray, tan or brown.

Harbor seals are "true seals" -- smaller, quieter and more skittish than relatives such as sea lions. Their small front flippers make getting about on shore very difficult; to do so, they must flop along on their bellies. But they are gifted swimmers, able to catch fish on the fly and dive as deep as 1,500 feet and as long as 40 minutes.

harbor sealThe western Atlantic seals seen along our coasts mate in mid- to late summer. Pups can crawl around and even swim within an hour of birth. A new mother is extremely protective of her pup; she will sometimes carry it on her shoulders or force it beneath the surface of the water to avoid danger. A pup nurses for three to six weeks before setting off on its own, often traveling a considerable distance before discovering a new habitat. Harbor seals are mature at 4 to 6 years of age. Adult males range from 5 to 5 1/2 feet long and weigh from 200 to 250 pounds; females are somewhat smaller, between 4 1/2 and 5 feet long and weigh 150 to 200 pounds. They're believed to live 25 years or more in the wild.

Harbor seals are not listed as threatened or endangered, but they are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Where to See Them: You might spot a harbor seal at Montauk Point at any time of year, but you'll see many of them -- and relatives such as gray, hooded, harp and ringed seals -- in the winter months. Between November and May, Long Beach, Jones Inlet, Fire Island Inlet, Moriches Inlet and Shinnecock Inlet on Long Island are also likely haunts; in New Jersey, check Sandy Hook and Brigantine.

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A Year in the Harbor Bight Click on the months below, and see what's wild throughout the year.

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More Highlights Sanderlings: Watching flocks of sanderlings waltz with the surf, often a pleasure of winter walks along mid-Atlantic beaches, may not be so easy for future generations to do. Small, chunky shorebirds with long black bills, sanderlings skitter along just in front of the waves as the tide ebbs, feeding on small marine worms and crustaceans.

They fly incredible distances during their spring and fall migrations, but have been in decline due to habitat loss, stress caused by human disturbance (they will tolerate the presence of humans, but not humans with their dogs and not cars), and perhaps the loss of food. Populations along the Atlantic Flyway have decreased by at least 80 percent in the past 30 years. But some can still be seen along any of the Harbor Bight's ocean beaches, including Jones Beach, Fire Island, Sandy Hook and Long Beach Island.

sanderling

Photos: Don Riepe/Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

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