Osprey – A Jersey Cape Hallmark

bald eagle

Posted July 17, 2009
by Clay and Pat Sutton

The insistent whistling had been sporadic the entire time our boat was within earshot of the Osprey nest, but now, all of a sudden, the calls became constant, loud, and plaintive. We wondered about a competitor or even a predator, but the cause of the female Osprey’s agitation soon became evident.

High overhead, her mate appeared, and in a long, spiraling, descending glide, he dropped to the large salt marsh stick nest. The large fish he was carrying was cumbersome, and at the last moment, he deftly turned into the wind to allow him to gently alight on the rim of the nest.

He presented the fish to his mate and their two rapidly growing chicks, then quickly launched off the nest on yet another fishing foray.

The hungry family required a constant supply of fresh fish and he was committed to providing for them.

Now is the prime time to enjoy Osprey around Cape May. They are active and noisy as the growing young near their fledging dates. The parent Osprey are fishing constantly to provide their voracious chicks (one, two, or sometimes three) with the food they need. Osprey are being seen daily and in numbers, fishing off the beaches and over the back bays and inlets.

To characterize Osprey as industrious is an understatement. They arrived in mid-March and endured cold, early spring rains and storms as they resolutely rebuilt nests, sat on eggs, and dutifully caught fish daily, no matter what the weather. Eggs hatched in May, and now the youngsters are nearly full size, jostling about and crowding the nests.

Photo by Pat and Clay Sutton

Osprey, or “Fish Hawks” as many locals still call them, are a true hallmark of the Jersey Coast. Many would argue that no other bird may be as iconic of our beaches and bays than the Osprey. Their very habits and habitats make them highly suited to represent all that is Cape May – they eat fish exclusively and they are directly linked and dependent upon our clean waters and unspoiled vast salt marshes.

The last official Osprey census in New Jersey measured the population at 400 pairs, yet this figure is no doubt much higher today as Osprey continue to recover from the twin ravages of DDT and water pollution in the 1960s. They have strongly bounced back, and populations continue to grow.

Photo by Pat and Clay Sutton

There are several hundred nests in Cape May and adjacent Cumberland County alone. Near Cape May City, the most easily viewed nests are along Ocean Drive on the north side of Cape May Harbor. Osprey are constantly in sight from the Nature Center of Cape May’s observation deck on Delaware Avenue. The Wetlands Institute, on Stone Harbor Boulevard, offers excellent views and interpretation of a number of Osprey nests.

Photo by Pat and Clay Sutton

One of the best ways to enjoy Osprey, and particularly to witness their exciting family life (parents feeding hungry chicks), is by taking a “Salt Marsh Safari” – a back bay cruise on a pontoon-boat nature cruise offered at Cape May.

These nature cruises offer excellent close-up views of the massive and bulky Osprey nests. Most are constructed on man-made nesting platforms erected in the salt marsh (a key management technique that has provided more stable and more available structures than the dead trees sometimes used by Osprey).

Photo by Pat and Clay Sutton

Plan to go soon. Seasons change quickly here at the Cape. By late August, most adult Osprey are winging their way south to wintering grounds in Florida, Cuba, Venezuela, and even the Amazon Basin. Their young, fully fledged, independent, and fishing on their own, will follow about a month later, leaving Cape May in September and October.

So, enjoy our favorite Cape May hallmark while you can. Now is the prime time to not only enjoy the sleek raptor shape and consummate fishing skill of Osprey, but also to glimpse their intimate family life as the kids grow up on the dramatic and often gigantic back bay nests. Always listen for the Osprey’s determined whistling, a call which never fails to evoke the drama of the life cycle of our favorite symbol of the Jersey Cape.

Clay and Pat Sutton are noted Cape May birders and the authors of Birds and Birding at Cape May.


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