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THE STATE WE’RE IN: Last call for winter wildlife watching on Jersey coast

Record-breaking warm temperatures may be welcome to humans, but for wildlife it’s still winter.

Late February and early March are great for wildlife watching in New Jersey, especially along the coast. Winter migrants from the north are still here, and longer daylight means more sightings of seals and birds that haven’t yet returned to their spring breeding grounds.

Grab your binoculars and field guide, and get out to watch our winter species!

Seals – Seals are the only mammals to migrate to New Jersey for the winter, coming from New England and points north to follow mackerel, herring and squid. A great place to see harbor, gray, harp and hooded seals is the Sandy Hook section of Gateway National Recreation Area. Take a walk along the bay beach at low tide, and you may see upward of 100 seals “hauling out” to rest on offshore sandbars. Look for seals and water birds with a naturalist from the American Littoral Society on Wednesday, Feb. 28, from 10 a.m. to noon, at Sandy Hook. For more information, go to www.littoralsociety.org/upcomi ng-events.html. Another seal watching program is planned for Sunday, March 11, from 10 a.m. to noon; call the Sandy Hook Visitor Center at 732-872-5970 for details.

Snowy owls – Fans of Harry Potter know that Harry’s trusty bird, Hedwig, is a snowy owl. These gorgeous owls, with their white faces and startling yellow eyes, are native to the arctic but often head south for the winter in search of food. In the past month, snowy owls were sighted at many points along New Jersey’s coast, including Cape May, Stone Harbor, Edwin Forsythe Wildlife Refuge, Island Beach State Park, Sandy Hook and Liberty State Park. Watch for snowy owls at Liberty State Park on Saturday, Feb. 24, from 10 a.m. to noon, during a naturalist-guided walk. For Interpretive Center events, go to www.eventbrite.com/o/liberty-s tate-park-nature-interpretive- center-9020360599.

Loons – These large diving birds swim underwater to catch small fish. In the summer, they live in Canada and the northern states, but move south in the fall seeking more plentiful food. On a winter day in New Jersey, you may spot common and red-throated loons in bays, lakes and estuaries – or even in the ocean, just past the breakers. You’ll be amazed at how long they can stay underwater before surfacing for air! Loons rarely set foot on land, and need a long “runway” to get from the water into the air.

Tundra swans – As their name implies, tundra swans nest on the arctic tundra and come south to New Jersey in winter. Find wintering flocks on large bodies of water, especially estuaries and protected coastal waters. You can also spot them on the reservoirs of the Franklin Parker Preserve and Whitesbog in the Pine Barrens. Tundra swans utter plaintive, toot-like whistles, hence their former name: whistling swans.

Northern gannets – With spear-like beaks and pointed tails, Northern gannets plunge spectacularly into the sea from 100 feet in the air. Their summer breeding home is coastal Canada and Maine, but they’re often seen in great numbers off our beaches in the winter. From time to time, lucky birders can glimpse what one videographer described as a “waterfall” of gannets diving into the Atlantic all at once.

Snow geese – Like tundra swans, snow geese breed in the arctic in summer and are found in the Garden State in winter. Spot them in plowed cornfields or wetlands, and also in lakes, ponds and marshes. For years, they’ve descended upon Warren County, especially around the areas of Merrill Creek Reservoir, the Musconetcong River valley, and Lopatcong Creek.

Other winter waterfowl include ducks like buffleheads, redheads, canvasbacks, Northern pintails and long-tailed ducks; red-breasted, hooded and common mersansers; scoters and scaup; and brant geese. You may also see razorbills, a common diving seabird spotted off ocean beaches.

For a winter birding program at Cape May Point on Saturday, Feb. 24, go to www.njaudubon.org and click on the February calendar.

So how else do you find winter birds? It helps to know where they’ve been spotted recently, and it’s okay to cheat! The eBird website, where thousands of dedicated birders report their sightings, is a great resource. To see recent New Jersey sightings, go tohttps://ebird.org/nj/region/US -NJ?yr=all. The New Jersey Audubon Society is a regional partner in this worldwide reporting system.

Not confident in your bird identification skills? Check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website at www.allaboutbirds.org for a comprehensive online guide to birds and bird-watching. The National Audubon Society also offers a great online guide at www.audubon.org/bird-guide, as well as a free smartphone app.

Don’t miss our winter wildlife while they’re still here! Soon enough, they’ll be replaced by “neo-tropical migrants,” birds that breed in New Jersey summers but spend their winters in Central and South America.

And to learn more about preserving New  Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

Michele S. Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation in Morristown.

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