2009-12-03 / News

Winter brings seals, exotic birds to Narragansett Bay

By Iain Wilson

An abundance of plant life, fish, mammals and avian life call Narragansett Bay home, but come winter time, a shift occurs.

Drastic changes in water temperature and abbreviated daylight send some species south, while attracting a bevy of life from points further north. Dr. Robert Kenney, a marine research scientist with the University of Rhode Island, said these changes affect plant life at the bottom of the food chain, and subsequently alter the rest of the chain.

Despite this change, however, ecological and biological shifts that occur during the winter months are felt to a much lesser degree in the water than they are in the air. Water temperature in Narragansett Bay hovers at approximately 50 degrees Fahrenheit this time of year.

The shifts of the season offer islanders an opportunity to glimpse wildlife not normally seen in the warmer months. At this time of year, enthusiasts often gather to catch a glimpse of the bay’s most adored – and most populous – mammal: The harbor seal.

Kenney said seals begin arriving in the bay in September, and numbers peak in April before they depart in May. Most seals spending their winter in Narragansett Bay are juveniles, according to Kenney.

The seals “may be avoiding really nasty conditions up north because they’re not big enough to handle it yet,” he added.

Though islanders might think Rhode Island suffers brutal winter conditions, most animals, including seals, migrate from much colder locations, Kenney said. During the summer, he added, it’s rare to find a harbor seal south of Cape Cod, while they pup as far north as Canada.

As for changes colder weather might bring to their dining habits, Kenney said seals give little thought to what they eat. Harbor seals tend to eat any creature they can catch and physically swallow, he said, but show a special preference for herring.

Rome Point in North Kingstown offers the premier opportunity to view harbor seals in Rhode Island. When low tide approaches, the viewpoint north of the bridge off Route 1A is tops for seeing larger groups of seals.

The number of seals you’ll see depends on the size of the ledge on which seals can relax. In Jamestown, the number of harbor seals isn’t as high, but there are opportunities to view the creatures on the rocks off Mackerel Cove and at the Dumplings.

Wenley Ferguson, director of habitat restoration with Save the Bay, also suggests “sighting rock” off Rose Island, as well as viewing areas off Brenton Point in Newport.

If harbor seals are the main act, winter avian life around Narragansett Bay is the show’s opener. “If you just sit at a place like Beavertail for a whole day and watch what flies by, you can see some pretty interesting sea birds,” Kenney said.

Exotic animals migrating thousands of miles to spend time in Rhode Island would generally warrant lots of attention, but the avian life around Narragansett Bay goes largely unnoticed, according to Ferguson.

“The bay is actually full of life that we don’t see the rest of the year,” Ferguson said.

Loons and gannetts scour the bay for food through the winter months before returning north. These diving birds feast on mussels, and the level of mussels needs to remain stable throughout the winter – which it does through spawning on rocks throughout the bay.

Harlequin ducks, recognizable by a white patch in front of the eyes and reddish brown sides, are rare, but they can be seen diving off Beavertail.

The water fowl easiest to recognize – the puffin – is also the rarest, surfacing infrequently. Kenney said sightings are rare, but the best chance to catch a glimpse occurs when the water is extremely still.

Ferguson said it’s common to see different species of birds in the upper part of the bay.

“Further up the bay, where it’s a little bit more protected, we get scaup and brants,” she said. Scaup, among the most populous diving birds in North America, sport grey sides and bluish beaks with a black tip. Brants breed as far north as the Arctic Circle, and their distinct black head, neck and chest make the abundant birds easy to spot. Ferguson said these birds typically arrive in mid-fall and stay through spring.

Seal watch cruises

If you’d rather take the guesswork out of seal sighting, Save the Bay offers seal watch cruises. The tour is one hour and launches from Bowen’s Ferry Landing in Newport. Cruises are offered this Saturday, Dec. 5, at 2 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 6, at 2 p.m. Visit www.savebay. org for more information.

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