Fifty years ago in the bay behind Ocean City an osprey sighting was rare. The pesticide DDT ravaged their population by rendering their eggshells to thin to support the weight of an incubating adult. Now, they are background music for many who ply this vast wild area. A playground for man, and home for many creatures, the bay has gone through many changes in my lifetime. Travel the ICW in the summer between Sea Isle City and Atlantic City and you will see a hundred man-made osprey nest platforms inhabited by twice as many birds. Osprey have truly returned! Before the nesting platforms, osprey utilized channel markers to build their nests. This did not sit well with the Coast Guard, since the rather large stick nests tend to obscure the marker, making it useless as a navigational aid. Prior to the arrival of full time inhabitants to this area, nests were built on barrier islands, on the dead trees and large shrubs. Ospreys have proven to be a tenacious survivor, adapting to the presence of motorboats, kayaks jet skis, and every other form of man-made device. They go about their life of hunting fish and raising a family, right in our busy backyard. The bay is healthier and more productive now than it was just a short while ago. Boats run cleaner, farm run-off is almost non-existent, factories are gone from the Great Egg Harbor River, and raw sewage no longer overflows into the bay on busy summer days.
So, how did all these nest platforms get here? Mostly organized by Ben Wurst of Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ and Eagle Scouts earning a badge. Add to the mix, volunteers that care about the welfare of ospreys. We always meet when the weather is bad, windswept, rainy if possible, out on the marsh on cold winter days to trudge through the mud, carrying a sixteen foot six by six with a next box on top. Five minutes of fun with a post hole digger, two people on ropes, a little straining and there stands a proud new summer home.
Adult male Osprey show up here around March 20th, give or take a few days. They stand sentinel in the cold, wet early days of spring, their lifetime mates are usually not far behind. They migrate here because they can. Their powerful wings enable them to make the treacherous journey from the tropics to feast on the long hours of sunlight and abundant fish. Maybe some of the same reasons we migrate to warmer climes when the seasons change. An osprey returns to its area of origin, known as nest philopatry, an innate mechanism that draws them back, year after year to the same place to raise a family. With a little luck, eggs are laid in April and chicks hatch five weeks later. The adult male must be adept at catching fish to provide for the voracious young and begging female. Look up in the summer, over the shallows of the bay, you are likely to see a hovering bird with a five foot wingspan searching for his next meal with eyes that can see into the murky water and are able to adjust for refraction. With a little luck, you will see a steep glide, and the feet first plunge into the water, resulting, half the time, in a meal. A truly magnificent spectacle of nature, right in our back yard. The male will return to his favorite eating perch to have his fill, and take the remaining fish to the nest. His constant foraging keeps him in peak condition, able to supply the family with sufficient food. If all goes well the rapidly developing chicks will fledge in early August. The parents' work is not over however, now begins teaching the young how to catch fish. The sky seems to be filled with chirping calls of families of ospreys all focusing on their young and the task at hand. In two weeks the parents are gone, the juvies are on their own, and have hopefully learned the skills necessary to survive. The young birds will stay a few more weeks and then make their way south, not as a group but as individuals flying off to some pre-programmed place on the other side of the Caribbean. Large numbers of ospreys are seen over the mountains of Cuba, where they gather up waiting for favorable winds and perhaps the courage to make the leap to South America. We have learned of these migration patterns only recently through the use of tiny GPS transmitters placed on the backs of a few birds.
Locally, we have an osprey camera project on the nest across from The Bayside Center that was started 10 years ago by a partnership with the City of Ocean City and The Wetlands Institute. Over the years the equipment needed upgrading and NJ Fish and Wildlife wanted the camera and associated equipment separate from the nesting pole. So in February, I sent out an email to 50 friends asking for ideas on how to raise money to construct a new system that could provide a live stream online video.
My wildest dreams were surpassed when Tackle Direct and Bay Cats offered to pay for most of the $5500. The system was designed by, and purchased from JES Hardware Technologies of Miami Florida. It consists of a solar panel to power a video camera, an IR projector for night viewing, and a transmitter to get the signal to shore. March on the bay can be a challenge, and the race was on to get everything installed before our dear friends returned to their nest. Good thing they were a few weeks late. They accepted the foreign objects in their neighborhood and went about their housekeeping chores of rebuilding the nest.
Osprey are creative junk collectors of objects found washed up on the marsh, they are capable and willing to carry all sorts of trash home for nesting material. From Barbie dolls to Afro wigs, fishing line to flip flops, the camera caught it all. Only the wig had to be removed when the female found it more interesting than her mate.
These magnificent creatures are known to biologists as an indicator species. It is nice to know the bay is healthy enough to support a large population of these fish hawks. The camera is now a fully functional tool, providing insight and information for so many people interested in the lives of, quite possibly, the world’s best fisherman.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!