Mary Conti is the public relations manager for The Nature Conservancy in New Jersey.
So what if the forecast was a humid 102 degrees and the greenhead flies were as thick as lentil soup? It was osprey banding day and nothing was going to stop us from exploring the platforms dotting New Jersey’s Maurice River Township marsh, a Public Service Electric & Gas estuary enhancement restoration site, for all things small and feathered.
For our guide, stewardship coordinator Damon Noe, this was old hat — he has been banding osprey for years, with more than his share of adventure. Like the time his ladder slipped and he briefly disappeared into the marsh, alarming his colleagues on the boat until he popped up again, covered with mud. Or the time a storm came across the bay unexpectedly and the 10-minute cruise from the Delaware Bay into the creek turned into an hour-long ordeal of navigating 6-foot swells.
“Indiana Noe,” we like to call him.
But for me, the New Jersey chapter’s PR rep, and IT manager Nigel Robinson, it was a far cry from our regular desk jobs. Joined by South Cape May Preserve coordinator Adrianna Zito-Livingston, we donned our hip waders, sprayed on copious amounts of sunscreen and insect repellant, and eagerly made our first-hand foray into raptor territory.
It was hot. July-in-NJ hot. And the flies. The FLIES! But when Damon pulled the boat up onto the marsh grasses next to the first platform, all thoughts of discomfort dissipated. There, on the perch at the top of our ladder, were three large, healthy juvenile osprey, laying still for protection and staring back at us with soul-piercing orange eyes. The same amazing species that only four decades ago was nearly extinct in New Jersey, thriving here right in front of us. We felt incredibly fortunate, and incredibly proud of the contribution The Nature Conservancy has made to the osprey rebound over the last 13 years.
Damon obviously knows the drill. A favorite pastime of his is to climb a ladder across the platform and wait for the banding-newbie to peer into the nest. Camera ready to go, Damon captures their surprise and wonder upon seeing the osprey right in front of them. It’s such an incredible and mesmerizing moment. (See our LEAF intern below!).
“I was surprised how the babies play dead,” says Nigel. “It seems contrary to their big talons and beak.” (Note: he was not complaining…) “The experience also made me think how naturally ill-equipped people are, because just to visit the osprey’s habitat we needed a truck, trailer, boat, waders, ladders, flotation vests, sunscreen and bug spray.”
We learned that some osprey parents like to build big nests and others use a just few sticks; and that some osprey parents become anxious and territorial as their young are banded (the sound of their wings flapping nearby is fearsome!), while more experienced birds glide quietly overhead, knowing the quick and harmless process is over quickly. We saw innumerable other birds, diamondback terrapins and lots of mussels indicating a healthy marsh system.
All in all that day we visited six platforms and counted 14 young osprey, just a fraction of New Jersey’s now-booming osprey population, estimated at more than 500 nesting pairs from a historic low of 50 pairs in the 1970’s.
The Conservancy sends the season’s nesting information to organizations that monitor overall osprey populations, including the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Fish & Wildlife and Endangered and Nongame Species Program.
Since the leg bands each have a unique number, the osprey will be identifiable no matter where in the world a biologist may encounter them in the future, providing vital information about their migratory patterns and other habits.
This summer’s crop of babies will migrate with their parents to South America in September. The juveniles will spend two years there before they return north, while the adults will fly to their NJ nesting spots next spring.
While our journey down the Garden State Parkway may not be as epic as the migration of these fantastic birds that soar between continents, like them, we plan to be back next year.
[Top image: Osprey banding at Maurice River Township marsh, NJ. Image source: Mary Conti. Second image: Surprise! A Nature Conservancy LEAF intern spots her first osprey. Image source: Damon Noe]