Rapturous Raptors: Ospreys Return To The Garden State

Ospreys are enjoying a return engagement at the Meadowlands.

Ospreys in New Jersey
Photo by Jim Wright/New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.

The Meadowlands may seem an odd place to raise kids. Tractor-trailers rumble by on the New Jersey Turnpike, whole sections of the neighborhood have been tarred over with endless parking lots, and the hulking monstrosity once called Xanadu mars the view.

But none of this seems to bother the family of ospreys that makes its home atop an inoperable, rusty bridge near the eastern spur of the Turnpike, not far from MetLife Stadium. For the most part, it’s a comfortable life of nesting, mating and hunting for fish. The ospreys like it so much, they’re expected to return almost every spring.

Striking in their ruffled majesty, adult ospreys stand as much as 2 feet tall, with wingspans of 4-½ to 6 feet. They sport dark brown wing feathers and a white underbelly. Distinctive brown bands run like racing stripes from their watchful golden eyes down their broad necks, suggesting speed and power. Sharp, piercing beaks and opposable talons made for seizing prey add the threat of violence.

Birders and environmentalists regard the osprey with awe and wonder. The presence of this particular family and four others like it in the Meadowlands seems like a mirage. Dwindled to endangered status in the 1970s, ospreys—and fellow raptors, the American bald eagle and peregrine falcon—have returned to the wetlands of Bergen and Hudson counties and the salt marshes of the Jersey Shore, ample evidence that their Garden State habitats are rebounding.

The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife and the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey estimate the state’s osprey population at more than 500 nesting pairs, believed to be the highest level in about 60 years. The Meadowlands, often regarded as an unsightly expanse of landfills and garish sporting venues, share in that success.

“If somebody would have told me years ago that we’re going to have eagles nesting and peregrine falcons here, and we [would] have five osprey nests, I would have thought they were crazy,” says Don Torino, a Moonachie resident and president of the Bergen County Audubon Society. “I didn’t think in my wildest dreams that that was going to happen again in my lifetime.”

The state Department of Environmental Protection reports that, beginning in the late-1800s, ospreys declined sharply, mostly through hunting, egg collection and the eradication of trees for nesting by encroaching human settlement. Habitat loss was the first punch; a near-knockout blow was delivered by the infamous pesticide DDT, first used in New Jersey in 1946. “DDT contamination inhibits calcium metabolism in birds, reducing the thickness of the eggshell,” the website of the state’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program (ENSP) explains. “When an adult bird attempts to incubate an egg with a thinned shell, the egg will break under the weight of the bird.”

Before the introduction of DDT, the state had about 500 osprey pairs, according to official estimates. By 1975, only 68 pairs remained, according to the ENSP. It took a combination of the state’s 1968 ban on DDT, classification of the osprey as endangered shortly after the state’s list was established in 1974, and an osprey reintroduction program that began in 1979 to eventually turn things around.

In the Meadowlands, the ospreys’ return, starting around 2006, is also linked to the improved state of the Hackensack River, says Jim Wright, communications officer with the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC), a zoning and planning agency that oversees wetlands in 14 towns along the Hackensack River. The preservation of the wetlands and cleanup of once-contaminated sites along the river have largely led to the Hackensack’s resurgence.

The osprey connection to bodies of water is no surprise; the birds, after all, were once known as fish hawks. “If you don’t have a viable ecosystem with fish in it for them to eat, they’re not going to be here,” says Wright, author of The Nature of the Meadowlands. “As the [Hackensack] River has gotten cleaner, we’re getting the fish back…. The river still has problems, all of the man-made variety. It’s a legacy of pollution, and some of that mud is still pretty tainted down at the bottom.”

These days, the river abounds in a number of species of fish that are perfect prey for ospreys and their piercing talons. Hugh Carola, program director with the Hackensack Riverkeeper, an advocacy group, says that menhaden, young striped bass, blue fish, white perch and American eel are all welcome at the ospreys’ dinner table.

A 2001-2003 study by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission showed “significant” differences in the fish communities in the upper and middle portions of the Hackensack River as compared to a 1987-1988 study. The commission cited “large increases in the abundance of desirable game species, such as white perch, striped bass, weakfish and bluefish, and forage fish.” Still, the area has not fully recovered. The report also states that the more industrial lower portion of the estuary saw no difference in the fish community in the same span.

Of the five nests in the Meadowlands, two rest on man-made osprey platforms, one built by PSEG on its property in Jersey City and one built by the Meadowlands Commission in Lyndhurst. These scarecrow-like structures look like solitary, dead trees with a horizontal piece of wood across the top. The birds weaved the other nests on an antenna post in Kearny, a radio tower in Carlstadt, and that rusted bridge near the Turnpike at the Kearny/Secaucus town line.

On a tour of the Meadowlands in late August, Wright broke out his camera and spotting scope in hopes of catching the raptors near their nests. He headed on foot to the overgrown, rocky edge of the Hackensack River and set up his equipment. In less than a minute, four ospreys were sighted, swooping through the air, fishing and tidying up their nest atop the rusted bridge.

“Here come two ospreys down the river,” Wright said, almost giddy as he spotted the birds flying his way. “Maybe they’re fighting for the same food source.”

Wright often narrates tours for birders near the osprey nests on NJMC-sponsored pontoon boat cruises. The unique perspective offers passengers several optimal vantage points to observe the raptors and their spirited flight.

Carola also leads cruises on the river. He reports a near-perfect track record of catching a glimpse of the “charismatic mega-fauna,” as he refers to the osprey. “It’s pretty much a guarantee any day from [early] May to mid- to late-September,” he says.

Carola is impressed the raptors can see into the cloudy water. “Generally, the turbidity allows you to see up to 3 feet max from the surface down,” he says. “So these birds have incredible eyesight. The fish are there. They can find them, and if they miss the first time, very often the second or third time they’ll make it.”

Ben Wurst, habitat program manager with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, has studied ospreys around the state since 2004. In addition to conducting air and ground surveys, Wurst leads a team on a yearly boat tour of New Jersey’s osprey nests, covering approximately 70 percent of the population.
The 2012 survey found an average of 1.81 young per active nest. (The record is 2.07 the previous year).

The highest numbers were generated near estuary marshes from the Maurice River, located in South Jersey near the Delaware Bay. That area is home to 60 nests and 111 young. Similarly, near Great Egg Harbor and Ocean City, researchers counted 60 nests and 74 young. Other thriving locations include areas around Barnegat Bay and the Shore communities of Avalon and Atlantic City. The Meadowlands is so new to the resurgence that Wurst’s study doesn’t have data on nests by the Hackensack River from 2008 to 2010.

A Garden State without ospreys would be bad news for humans. “They definitely are an indicator species, where basically they feed on some of the same species of fish that we eat,” Wurst says. “When they do well, it shows that the marine environments are healthy.”

Finding a food source is not the only challenge for the birds. Young ones are dependent on the father of the nest; if the adult male dies, the female must hunt, leaving the young in the nest unprotected from predators such as raccoons, large gulls and great horned owls. A 20-second YouTube video, recorded in New Jersey, shows a great horned owl landing on a young osprey, taking a look around, then whisking the bird away like a kidnapper. The video, in black-and-white without sound, is a literal snuff film and has garnered more than 11,000 views. Wurst also reports seeing young ospreys entangled in the trash and plastic debris the birds use for nesting.

Despite danger, Wurst has witnessed many successes. He has built more than 125 platforms with the aid of Eagle Scouts and other volunteers, creating a string of raptor motels up and down the state—most with a loyal clientele.

The birds winter in northern South America, then return to New Jersey and “occupy the same nesting platform from year to year,” Wurst says. “When they come back, the male returns first, kind of claims his platform, and then the female returns.” A courtship ritual usually ensues in which the male performs a “sky-dance,” an undulating flight that’s accompanied by a bird call and fresh kill in his talons. That leads to copulation, sprucing up the nest and eventually welcoming the eggs in late April. The cycle is so routine in the Meadowlands that regular birders can catch all phases of the osprey lifespan, knowing when the chicks are due and when they’re likely to fledge (the moment young leave the nest for the first time). If they escape predation—they are most at risk in their first year—the birds can live a decade or more. Wurst says the oldest osprey documented in New Jersey was a 16-year-old female.

Carola says the outlook for the Meadowlands osprey community is bright. In addition to the five occupied nests, two nonbreeding pairs have been spotted, and nine fledglings survived in 2012. “When you…look at any natural area and see apex predators, whether it’s black bears in the Highlands, ospreys in the Meadowlands, seals in the waters off the Jersey coast in the wintertime,” he says, “you’re looking at a productive, diverse habitat that is doing what nature intended, which is be a home for a variety of creatures.”

Wurst plans to expand his monitoring with the installation of more cameras on nests around the state, allowing 24-7 visual access to the birds. “We’re not just a concrete jungle,” he says of New Jersey. “There’s a lot of wildlife out there that people can get out and see, even in their own backyards.”


Take an Osprey Tour
Care to see this bird of prey yourself? The New Jersey Meadowlands Commission offers pontoon eco-cruises, which provide optimal vantage points for osprey viewing. The cruises, lasting approximately two hours, are intended for ages 10 and up.

This summer’s schedule calls for Saturday cruises on June 22, July 27, August 10 and September 7. Weekday cruises are offered once or twice per week June 4 to September 26. The cost is $15 per person, and pre-registration is required. For details, contact the NJMC’s Gabrielle Bennett-Meany at 201-460-4640.

The Hackensack Riverkeeper also operates eco-cruises from May to October on select dates. The suggested donation is $25 for adults and $10 for children ages 4 to 12; private charters are available. Reservations are required. Visit hackensackriverkeeper.org for further information.

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist based in New Jersey.

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