Visions from the season’s first Nature Cruise

Visions from the season’s first Nature Cruise

by Eric Pfirrmann, fleet captain

The 2018-1019 seal season is underway, and our first Westerly Nature Cruise down the Pawcatuck River on October 13 was a great start. Ten nature lovers braved a little drizzle and were rewarded with all kinds of fantastic wildlife.

Cruising down river surrounded by the first of the fall foliage, we spotted red tailed hawks, turkey vultures and a number of ducks, and had a lively conversation about the habits of cormorants—the double-crested variety so far, as the great cormorants are still a few weeks away. Belted kingfishers, which tend to aggregate on the river during their fall migration, were easy to identify with their bright colors and “flap-flap-flap-glide” patterns. The tree lined shores of the Pawcatuck River is a perfect habitat, and we saw a dozen or more of these beauties feeding on the peanut bunker—juvenile Atlantic menhaden—still crowding into the river.

Harbor seals resting in the Pawcatuck River.
Harbor seals resting in the Pawcatuck River.

Farther down the river, we started to keep our eyes peeled for visiting harbor seals. Dave Prescott, Save The Bay’s South County CoastKeeper, had spotted a couple of seals in early September, so we were hopeful we’d be lucky on this early season trip. We were not disappointed. Just off Barn Island in Little Narragansett Bay, we spotted three to five harbor seals bottling in the calm waters.

Harbor seals are the most common marine mammal in New England and by far the species we’re most likely to see on our trips. Roughly human sized, with a cute “puppy dog” face, they are always a crowd pleaser. We generally see seals either “hauled out,” resting on rocks above the water line, or in the “bottling” position, floating upright in the water like a glass bottle. For the seals, both of these are resting behaviors that give the seals time to regain energy and regulate their body temperatures, so we are careful not to get too close. Binoculars, which we provide on our tours, bring them into perfect detail for our guests.

We'll provide the binoculars; you bring the camera.
We’ll provide the binoculars; you bring the camera.

While we were checking out the seals, one of our guests spotted the highlight of the trip, a bald eagle perched in a dead tree on the Barn Island shore! The bald eagle population in our area is steadily increasing, but a sighting is still a huge thrill. Little Narragansett Bay and the Pawcatuck River in the fall seem to be favorite spots for our national bird; we have been lucky enough to see them on a number of our trips.

The sun even made a brief appearance during our first Nature Cruise of the season as we slowly made our war back upriver to Westerly. All in all, it was a great way to start the season with many more tours to come. Westerly Nature Cruises will continue every Saturday through the end of the year. Our Newport Seal Watch tours are just around the corner as well, with weekend trips beginning on November 10. Hope to see you out there!

*Please note:  Be sure to access the Johnson & Wales University Harborside Campus through the main entrance on Harborside Blvd. Your GPS may suggest taking Ernest Street to JWU’s Shipyard Street entrance, but that route requires a key card for entry.  

From Route I-95 North or South, take Exit 18 (Thurbers Avenue). Head downhill on Thurbers Avenue to US Route 1A (Allens Avenue). Turn right onto Allens Ave. Continue southbound on Allens Ave. into Cranston, where Allens Ave. becomes Narragansett Blvd. Turn left onto Harborside Blvd. at the traffic light by the Shell gas station. Follow Harborside Blvd. through the Johnson & Wales Harborside Campus. At the end of Harborside Blvd., turn right onto Save The Bay Drive. Save The Bay Drive becomes a circular, one-way roadway as you approach the Bay Center. Parking is available in four guest lots after you pass the main building. Enter the building through the main entrance.

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