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Whistling with Osprey in Cape May

by Clay Sutton

We first picked up the Osprey way to the south and very high. Flying into the fresh northwesterly breeze, it alternated between its characteristic choppy, deep, pumping flapping and long glides on swept-back wings. It was working hard, covering ground - something about the bird told you it was on a mission. It was heading north, determined, moving resolutely, fast.

It was coming home.

osprey in cape may
Osprey by Jerry Liguori.

It was mid-March. This wasn’t my first Osprey of the new season, that had been about twenty minutes before, farther down the Maurice River, a bird already back and proudly perched on its nest from the year before.

It was nonchalantly preening, doing little to give away the fact that it had just covered probably 2,000 miles on its return journey north.

But this one, my second Osprey, was high, and resolutely heading due north, returning to its river home.

As the Osprey came closer, we could see it was carrying a fish, “packing its lunch” in the parley of hawkwatchers, and hear that it was whistling constantly, incessantly. As it neared our riverside observation point, still quite high, it began to circle, soaring, but the circles were descending.

The Osprey circled ever lower, and finally, feet down, it glided in to perch on the edge of a nest platform.

He (almost surely a “he”- males seem to return a few days before the females) continued to whistle, to call, as he fluffed his feathers and made himself at home, calling to any nearby Osprey, maybe the perched Bald Eagle about a mile to the north, and maybe just to the mighty river now filling with spring-run herring. Or, maybe the Osprey was only calling to himself, but he was announcing a major milestone - he was back.

The Osprey had returned home.

Perhaps it was fanciful, but I swear I saw him, as he began to pick at his fish, continually scan the sky to the south, anxiously anticipating and awaiting “her” arrival. But it wasn’t fanciful that for us, the watchers, the promise of spring had been fulfilled.

The return of our Osprey is a milestone of the spring - a milestone on the rivers and coastal wetlands, and a milestone for birders, fisherman, and all nature-lovers. It is an early harbinger; our very first Osprey generally show up the first week of March - even late February in some mild seasons.

They arrive among our earliest spring migrants, about the same time as Laughing Gulls, Piping Plover, Eastern Phoebes, and Tree Swallows. They are though far from our first signs of spring in the avian world.

By the time Osprey return, Great Horned Owls (our earliest nester) have already hatched young, Bald Eagles are on eggs, and Woodcock, Mourning Doves, and Red-winged Blackbirds are all busily courting.

But somehow the return of the “Fish Hawk” for me will always be the bellwether, the final word on when spring is finally here. Perhaps, as a fish-eater, this bird symbolizes not only rebirth on the land, but the renewal, the revival, of our tidal waters too.

Now is the time to enjoy Osprey. They will continue to arrive through April, and in May settle down to nesting. The exuberant courtship lasts throughout the spring (and even into summer for younger birds trying to establish new nests and territories).

The male performs one of the more elaborate and lengthy aerial courtships of the raptor world. He carries a prized fish high in the sky, and then hovers and swoops, whistling all the while. He’s clearly, loudly saying, to his mate and all comers, “Look at Me!” Also fun is the animated group soaring, sometimes six or eight Osprey together, as they work out territorial boundaries and squabbles over prime nest-sites and perches.

Osprey have returned in more than one sense. The poster-child victim of the ravages of DDT, we unbelievably almost lost one of our commonest birds. Osprey pairs in New Jersey numbered in the thousands in colonial times, and even into the 1940's it was estimated that there were over 500 pairs in Cape May County alone. They dwindled to less than 50 pairs statewide before recovery slowly began in the 1970's, following the banning of DDT.

osprey in cape may
Osprey Nest in Cape May Back Bays..

Today over 300 pairs are found in New Jersey, with dozens of nests in Cape May County and about forty on neighboring Cumberland County’s Maurice River. On the Maurice, they had all but disappeared; when I first started going there in about 1974 there was only one remaining nest. Today, they seemingly are everywhere, due not only to recovery from the DDT-era, but also to the yeoman nest platform construction program of Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River (www.cumauriceriver.org).

That Osprey have returned is maybe in part a miracle, but a lot of it is due to the hands-on hard work of wildlife agencies and their dedicated workers and volunteers.

Osprey have long been a hallmark of the Jersey Cape. John James Audubon wrote at length of his encounters with them in South Jersey, and his Osprey plate in “Birds of America” was painted at Great Egg Harbor. Witmer Stone, in his classic“Bird Studies at Old Cape May” wrote of Osprey extensively and fondly. It is only fitting and right that they again fill our bright blue spring and summer skies.

Osprey are fascinating birds, and we continue to learn more about them. Satellite tracking has recently revealed that most if not all of our local nesting Osprey spend the winter in South America - Venezuela, Guyana, Brazil and so on, crossing the Caribbean twice on their annual journey. They are long-lived - one adult female Osprey banded on the Maurice River lived at least twelve years, raising twenty chicks in the eight years she was monitored.

Today, Osprey are hard not to see at Cape May. Almost anywhere you can enjoy them soaring overhead, fishing in the back bays or off our beaches, or as sentinels perched on their iconic nest platforms. Our “own” local Osprey are here until about mid-August before they depart for warmer climates, and migrant Osprey from farther north can be seen through November (the peak fall Osprey migration is the first week of October - when hundreds are seen). In fact, Osprey have been seen every month of the year in southern New Jersey. “Lingerers” are sometimes seen on the Christmas Bird Count, and this past winter one was amazingly seen the first week of January.

With such a protracted season, there is maybe no hurry to see Osprey at Cape May, but make sure you don’t miss the great opportunity. If I may offer a humble opinion, they are one of our best birds. Few would argue that they are a fine symbol of the vast Jersey Cape wetlands.

Maybe, if you are lucky, you will get to see the return of an Osprey, the actual arrival of a bird from the south, at the end of its long, arduous journey north. If so, share the bird’s exuberance, and revel in the return of spring.

Celebrate that Osprey have returned, both seasonally and over time. During my recent encounter, I for one couldn’t help myself, and whistled right back to the bird, imitating his strident, excited call. I don’t think he heard me, but you know, .....well, it sure felt good to once again be whistling with Osprey! Welcome home, friend.


Clay Sutton is a noted Cape May birder and author.

Read more about Clay Sutton.

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