Long Island’s Winter “Wing – Footed” Visitors

A highlight to any winter beach walk on a Long Island State Park beach is the sighting of a seal, either hauled out on sand bars during low tide or swimming off the beach at high tide.

Harbor and grey seals, and more rarely hooded, ringed, and harp seals can be seen off of Long Island from late fall through early spring.  These seals belong to the family Pinniped, meaning “feather-footed” or “wing-footed.”    They are considered true seals – meaning they have no ear flaps, their front flippers are short, and their necks are short.   Seals are excellent divers; they can hold their breath for 40 minutes, swim up to eight miles an hour, and dive up to 600 feet.  They eat a variety of fish and invertebrates including crabs and squid.  Thanks to a thick layer of fat and a dense coat seals keep warm in winter.

The best time to see large groups of seals is at low tide when they haul out of the water to rest and sleep on sand bars and rocks. When seals are hauled out at low tide they hold their head and tail up in a “banana-shaped” position.  Be sure to watch the seals from a distance since seals can be easily scared.

Harbor Seals are the most common seal that you will see.  These 4-1/2’ – 6’ seals range in color from tan to brown to light gray with irregular black spots.  They have a smallish head that looks like a Cocker Spaniel in profile.  This profile gave them the nickname “sea dog.”  Their nostrils are “V” shape when seen from the front.  Harbor seals weigh 250 lb.

Harbor Seal
U.S Fish and Wildlife Service accessed from http://www.fws.gov/refuge/willapa/wildlife_and_habitat/harbor_seal.html.


Gray Seals are a large seal with gray coloration. Interestingly, adult males are dark gray with small black markings and adult females are light gray or brown with dark patches.  Males can be 8’ long and weigh 800 lb., females 7’ and weigh 400 lb.  They have a distinctive “horsehead” profile and their nostrils form a “W” when seen from the front.  Females have a slightly smaller head than males.

Grey Seal
Andreas Trepte accessed from Wikicommons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Grey_Seal_Halichoerus_grypus_pup.jpg.


Hooded Seals are the largest seal that winters off of Long Island; males are 9’ long and females are 7’ long.  Males weigh 900 lb., females 670 lb.  The coat coloration of silver-grey with irregular black spots is the same in both adult males and females.  First year pups have a slate colored coat.  All female and juvenile male hooded seals have a larger head and broader muzzle than the harbor seal.  Adult males have an unusual nasal apparatus that they will inflate when they are angered or threatened.   Juvenile males do not have this nasal sac.

Hooded seal
From NOAA Fisheries accessed from Wikicommons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8f/Hooded_seal.JPG.


It is always a thrill to see harp seals and ringed seals because they are rare visitors to Long Island.

Harp Seal adults are white with a dark harp- or saddle-shaped pattern on its back and flanks.  The more common juveniles have a light coat with dark blotches.  Harp seals look similar to harbor seals in profile but they are slightly larger (both males and females are 6’ long and weigh 400 lb.) and they have a stockier body than the harbor seal.

Harp Seal
Progressive Charlestown accessed from http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-hd_U5dR-kbk/U5sgdGx-4GI/AAAAAAAACmY/qzeNoJxoiUA/s1600/Puck+Back+Home.jpg.


Ringed Seals are the rarest and smallest seals found off of the New York coast in the winter; they measure between 4’-5-1/2’ long and weigh between 150-250 lb.  Generally, the coats are a gray-black color with numerous dark spots surrounded by light areas that look like rings. Juvenile ring seals have a fine silvery coat. From a distance, ringed seals have a slightly smaller head than a harbor seal and their nose is more pointed than a harbor seal.

Ringed Seal
From Osaka Aquarium accessed from Wikicommons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pusa_hispida_(Osaka_Aquarium_KAIYUKAN).JPG#.

Join us for a seal walk at either Jones Beach State Park or Montauk Point State Park. Be sure to bring your binoculars!

And please keep your dog at home.  You wouldn’t want your dog scaring the seals.


Katona, Steven, Rough, Valerie, and Richardson, David (1983). A field guide to the whales, porpoises, and seas on the Gulf of Maine and Eastern Canada : Cape Cod to Newfoundland.  New York: Charles Scribner and Sons.

New York State Department of Conservation (n.d.) Harbor seals http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/60840.html accessed 01/22/2014

Dig Deeper in to Seals:

Bonner, Nigel (1994). Seals and sea lions of the world.  New York : Facts on File.

Kalman, Bobbie (2006) Seals and sea lions.  New York : Sierra Club Books.

Marine Mammal Stranding Center: http://mmsc.org/education/marine-species

The North Atlantic Seal Research Consortium: http://coastalstudies.org/programs/seal-research/cape-cod-seals/

Post by Susan Carver.






Safety, Streams & Salts

Whether you’re enjoying one of the numerous recreational opportunities of the season, or keeping warm by the cozy fire, one thing is on every New Yorker’s mind- snow! This frigid ice blanket provides more than a slick surface to ski, sled, and snowboard on; it can also create a hazard on our roadways and sidewalks. New York State, along with several other northeastern states, has historically used salt to melt any existing ice, prevent further ice from forming, and improve traction. While this method of salting has greatly improved the safety of our roadways, it has an acute impact on the environment- particularly on New York State’s reputable freshwater lakes, ponds, and streams.

snowfall at Allegany_KH
Fresh snowfall at Allegany State Park. Photo taken by Kate Haggerty, NYSOPRHP EMB Water Quality Unit (12/1/2010).


Cleared roadway over stream xing_Allegany_DM
Cleared roadway over a stream crossing in Allegany State Park. Photo taken by Dan Munsell, NYSOPRHP EMB Water Quality Unit (1/08/2013).


During the washout period of the spring, when snow and ice melt due to increasing outdoor temperatures, residual salts (and other chemicals) wash off of roadways and into our freshwater waterways. In large amounts, these salts can be toxic to aquatic organisms by altering the chemical composition of our waters. Several of our favorite fish, amphibian, and plant species aren’t adapted to these saltier environments, which can lead to substantial changes in the aquatic food web.

Currently, innovative alternatives are being studied to reduce the amount of road salt needed in the winter. This includes the use of granular volcanic material, beet molasses, and fireplace ashes to minimize or even replace road salts. Innovative infrastructure designs, such as pervious (porous) concrete roadways have also been suggested to reduce the amount of water (and ice!) accumulated on street and sidewalk surfaces. These innovative alternatives could ultimately eliminate the need for road salt use during New York’s winters, while still providing safety for drivers and walkers alike!

In order to decrease the environmental impacts of using road salt, while also ensuring the safety of our patrons, NYS Parks adopted a policy to minimize the use of road salt in our parks. By focusing the use of road salt on high-risk park roadways, and using other materials to improve traction (such as sand and gravel), NYS Parks reduces the amount of salt needed, which has further protected our park enthusiasts and our beloved freshwater resources!

Post by Nate Kishbaugh, photos by Dan Munsell and Kate Haggerty.






Special Sighting: A Crested Caracara at Bear Mountain

The following is a personal account of a Crested Caracara sighting by Ed McGowan, the Director of Science and the Trailside Museums and Zoo for the Palisades Interstate Park Commission:

Bear Mountain State Park, Doodletown – Jan 5, 2015 – Normally a time of year when New Yorkers head south, on this blustery winter day a Floridian made a rare visit to the skies over Bear Mountain State Park. Fellow League of Naturalists volunteers Gerhard Patsch, Dave Baker, Mike Adamovic, and I watched in amazement as a Crested Caracara soared overhead in the late morning sun. The bird circled several times, drifted north out of view but then returned overhead before heading east towards the Hudson. The field markings and overall gestalt of the bird were unmistakable. To our knowledge, this is the first record of a Caracara in New York State. We later learned that one of these southern raptors was photographed in Berks County, PA just a week earlier, so perhaps our sighting was the same bird blown north by the previous day’s violent winds. Wherever it came from, it was a sight to behold, a tropical apparition on a brisk winter’s day.

crested caracara wikicommons
By Manjith Kainickara (Flickr: Crested Caracara) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
 Post by Ed McGowan.

Read about the Crested Caracara sighting in Berks County, Pennsylvania. 


Snow Birds: New York’s Winter Bird Population

There are many species of birds that do not migrate to warmer or more temperate climates, but remain to take advantage of available local food sources.

For some of these smaller birds, specifically chickadees, spending the winters here in the frigid Northeast is possible due to a short-term hibernation state called torpor. During this period, energy expenditure is reduced due to exposure to extreme cold, food shortages, or severe droughts. Throughout this process of thermoregulation (maintenance or regulation of internal body temperature), metabolism, body temperature, and heart rate are decreased in order to help conserve energy and maintain body heat during the harsh winter months.

All of our fine feathered friends depend on specific habitats to obtain food and provide a safe place to nest and nurture their young. By protecting and conserving a wide range of habitats throughout our State Parks, we are ensuring the health and viability of New York State’s resident bird populations.

OPRHP has partnered with Audubon New York in efforts to enhance awareness regarding the conservation of state priority birds within designated New York State Parks. The “Audubon in the Parks” initiative concentrates its efforts on maintaining and conserving essential habitat in Bird Conservation Areas (BCAs) and Important Bird Areas (IBAs) for the over 300 bird species that reside on Park lands.

Currently, 67 out of the 136 IBA sites that have been identified in New York State are located inside our Parks, and 25 out of 59 statewide designated BCA’s also fall within park boundaries. These programs provide activities ranging from bird walks to data entry, and even larger habitat restoration projects.

This joint partnertship fosters public engagement through outreach, environmental interpretation, and habitat restoration in several NYS Parks. In addition, this initiative encourages members, volunteers, birders, and  “citizen scientists”  to participate in these programs by identifying, monitoring, and conserving essential bird habitat.

Audubon New York and OPRHP are focused on restoring and improving existing bird habitats in State Parks with designated bird BCAs and IBAs sites through partnerships, education, and habitat improvement efforts.

Below are examples of some winter birds commonly found in New York State that you might see in our State Parks. Most commonly you will find these birds perched in a tree, gliding over a open field or even enjoying a snack at your backyard feeder.


The term passerine refers to perching song birds. The vocalists of the bird world, these birds have a repertoire of song, calls and voices; each used for specific  purposes. All members of this group have similar physical characteristics. The foot of a passerine has three toes facing  forward and one toe directed backwards, which allows them to hang on to tree branches, reeds or any vertical surface. These common bird species can often be heard and seen visiting backyard feeders.

Chickadee black-capped 2-6-05 - 0012
Photo by NYSOPRHP.


Black-capped Chickadee: Poecile atricapilla

Habitat: Common to mixed wooded areas. Mixed wooded refers to tree species that shed their leaves annually (deciduous) and evergreens or conifers (coniferous).

Diet: Mostly seeds, insects, spiders, berries and small fruit.

Auditory recognition: Chickadee dee dee dee.

Identifying characteristics: Small and fluffy with distinguishing black cap and throat, and white cheeks.

Cardinal close 3-5-05 - 0039
Photo by NYSOPRHP.


Northern Cardinal: Cardinalis cardinalis

Habitat: Commonly found in brushy areas next to the edges of woods.

Diet: Seeds, fruit and insect larvae.

Auditory recognition: Teeooo, teeeooo, whoit whoit whoit.

Identifying characteristics: Both have large triangular shaped bills. Male cardinals have bright red plumage with a black face and red bill. Females have reddish-brown plumage and red-orange bill.

Tufted Titmouse-Photo Taken by Lilly Schelling
Photo by Lilly Schelling.


Tufted Titmouse: Baeolophus bicolor

Habitat: Commonly found in mature deciduous (shed leaves annually) wooded areas.

Diet: Mainly seeds and insects.

Auditory recognition: Peter peter peter peter.

Identifying characteristics: Pale grey color with orange flanks, small pointed grey crest, black forehead and a broad tail.

Tree Sparrow  close 3-5-05 - 0037
Photo by NYSOPRHP.


American Tree Sparrow: Spizella arborea

Habitat: Brushy or weedy areas in proximity to trees, open fields, woodland edges, marshes, and suburban areas.

Diet: Seeds from grasses and plants, few insects and berries.

Auditory recognition: A series of high-pitched sweet whistles and trills. Swee swee ti sidi see zidi zidi zew.

Identifying characteristics: Bicolored bill, white bands on wings and a dark spot on center of chest area.

Dark Eyed Junco post 3-5-05 - 0052
Photo by NYSOPRHP.


Dark- eyed Junco: Junco hyemalis

Habitat: Common to open woodland and brushy areas, along the roadside and at backyard feeders.

Diet: Mainly seeds and insects. Usually seen foraging on the ground beneath feeders.

Auditory recognition: High-pitch trill resembling the ring of an old rotary dial phone.

Identifying characteristics: Grey to grey-brown in color, pale pinkish-white bill, white underbelly, and white outer tail feathers.


All species of Woodpeckers have stiff tail feathers which are used like props, allowing the birds to cling to tree bark while in search of food. Another common characteristic that is shared among woodpeckers is a strong chisel like bill which is used to tap and excavate insects from beneath the bark of trees. They are the percussionists in the world of birds. During a walk in a State Park, Woodpeckers can often be heard tapping on trees as they look for insects to eat.

Downy Woodpecker very close vertical best master
Photo by NYSOPRHP.


Downy Woodpecker (Smallest Woodpecker in North America): Picoides pubescens

Habitat: Common to deciduous wooded areas consisting of patches of smaller trees and brush.

Diet: Variety of insects (beetles, ants, gall wasps and caterpillars), seeds, berries.

Auditory recognition: High-pitch whinny with a distinctive high-pitched pik.

Identifying characteristics: Both males and females have a white patch on their back and white spots on their wings. Only males have a red patch on the back of their heads, females do not have this added patch of color.

Pileated Woodpecker-Photo Taken by Lilly Schelling
Photo by Lilly Schelling.


Pileated Woodpecker (Largest Woodpecker in North America): Dryocopus pileatus

Habitat: Mature hardwood and mixed forests and woodlots.

Diet: Creates a distinctive oval or rectangular hole while foraging on dead trees and logs searching for carpenter ants, termites, larvae of wood-boring beetles, other various insects.

Auditory recognition: Series of 6-8 high-pitched wuks. Wuk, wuk-wuk-wuk, wuk-wuk.

Identifying characteristics: Large in size with a long neck, black plumage on wings, chest and back, notable red crest, and white patch on underside of wings.


Owls belong to the Raptor family, also commonly known as birds of prey. Due to their carnivorous appetites which consists of small mammals (rabbits, moles, ground sqirrels, and mice), these skilled and efficient hunters have razor sharp talons, a hooked beak with sharp edges, acute eyesight, and distinctive facial disks which allow them to search for prey.

Snow Owl_Lilly Schelling
Photo by Lilly Schelling.


Snowy Owl (Heaviest Owl): Bubo scandiacus

Habitat: Perches on ground or fence posts in open fields and marshes.  Snowy owls migrate to New York State from Canada and Alaska (also known as the Taiga region of North America).

Diet: Often hunts during the day for small rodents and birds in open fields. Have been known to feed on prey as large as geese.

Auditory recognition: Brooo brooo brooo.

Identifying characteristics: Large and sleek, mostly all white plumage. Face and underwing always white.

Barred Owl-Photo Taken by Lilly Schelling
Photo by Lilly Schelling.


Barred Owl: Strix varia

Habitat: Prefers hardwood swamps, woodlands or mature forests consisting of both evergreen and deciduous trees in close proximity to water, and wooded river bottoms.

Diet: Most active at night but has been known to hunt for small mammals and rodents during the day in fields and forests.

Auditory recognition: Hoo hoo ho-ho, hoo hoo ho-hooooooooaar (“who cooks for you”, “who cooks for you-all”).

Identifying characteristics: Brown in color with lighter spots, wings and tail barred brown and white, bold streaks on chest and distinguishing dark eyes.

Barn Owl-Photo Taken by Lilly Schelling
Photo by Lilly Schelling.


Barn Owl: Tyto alba

Habitat: Woodlands, groves, farmland, marshes, and cliffs.  Prefer to nest in old barns and man-made structures.

Diet: Hunts at night in search of small mammals and rodents (voles, mice, small rats, shrews, and juvenile rabbits).

Auditory recognition: Shiiish or kschh (screech).

Identifying characteristics: Long legs, pale tawny and white plumage with dark eyes surrounded by a white heart shaped border.

Even in the wintertime, these birds depend on specific habitats to obtain food and provide a safe place to nest and nurture their young. By protecting and conserving a wide range of habitats throughout State Parks, OPRHP is ensuring the health and viability of New York State’s resident bird populations.

For more information on the birds depicted here and additional species:

Audubon New York

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Click here for more information about Audubon in the Park.

Click here for more information about Bird Conservation Areas (BCAs) and Important Bird Areas (IBAs) within New York State Parks.


Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. 2003. New York.

Peterson, Roger Tory. Peterson Field Guides: A Field Guide The Birds of Eastern and Central America. 1980. New York.

Nature Instruct. Dendroica: An aid to identifying Western Hemisphere birds. 2013. USGS. Web.

Post by Melyssa Smith.




Ice Fishing in Central New York

Every winter, thousands of anglers take to New York’s frozen waters in quest of their ice fishing bounty.  Ice fishing can be a relatively easy and inexpensive way for the entire family to enjoy some mid-winter outdoor fun.  Terrific ice fishing opportunities can be found within or in close proximity to many state parks; with several free fishing clinics and derbies occurring each year that introduce new ice fishing anglers to the sport.  Chances are one of these hard water fishing opportunities is close to you!

Anna&IzzyHughes Jan 18 2015 Tully
Tom’s (the author’s) 6-year-old daughters Anna and Izzy Hughes caught their first fish through the ice from Tully Lake on January 18, 2015. They worked together to land two pickerel, which they later had for dinner that night.


2013 Glimmerglass Stephanie Smith pickerel
Former OPRHP Park & Recreation Aide Stephanie Smith landed this chain pickerel near Glimmerglass State Park in 2013 fishing with a tipup baited with a golden shiner.


Ice fishing does not require a lot of expensive gear to get started, especially compared to other winter sports like skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling.  Unlike open water fishing, you don’t need a boat to get out on the water…just a nice pair of insulated winter boots.  Once out there, you can use all sorts of tools to get through the ice to access your fish, including axes, ice spuds, augers and power augurs.  Fishing techniques include actively fishing with small jigging rods or setting tipups (fish traps) rigged with live bait (e.g., shiners or suckers).  Many types of fish are active and feeding under the ice throughout the winter months, including bass, pike, walleye, trout and panfish.

2014 Tom Hughes northern pike Owasco
OPRHP Natural Resource Steward Biologist Tom Hughes (author) shows off a northern pike caught from Owasco Lake. Believe it or not – every season, pike twice as large as this fish are hauled through the ice from Delta Lake near Delta Lake State Park, near Rome!


To learn all about the basics of ice fishing and what you will need to get started, visit the NYS DEC webpage for “Ice Fishing Basics.”

When you feel you are ready and dressed appropriately for New York’s winter weather, come out and join our OPRHP and NYS DEC staff and volunteers at an ice fishing clinic or derby near you!

Coming up in February, there are two ice fishing clinics scheduled for Central New York – February 14th at Canadarago Lake, OPRHP Marine State Park and February 18th at Otsego Lake, Glimmerglass State Park.  Both clinics are free fishing day events, with no fishing license required for participants.  For more information on the 3rd annual ice fishing clinic at Canadarago, contact NYSDEC Region 4 Bureau of Fisheries at 607-652-7366.  For more information on the 6th annual ice fishing clinic at Glimmerglass, call 607-547-8662 or visit the OPRHP events calendar.

Click below to watch a video of Anna & Izzy Hughes catching their pickerel. (Note: You must be using Internet Explorer in order for the video to stream properly).

Click below to see another angler Derek Conant from Otisco catching his first fish through ice on Otisco Lake.

Post by Tom Hughes, photos by Tom Hughes and Matt Fendya, videos by Tom Hughes.


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