The State We're In

Ospreys: Too soon for a victory dance?

Jul 3, 2024

By Jay Watson, Co-Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

If it’s true there are no second acts in American lives, as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, ospreys never got the memo.

The raptors, once endangered in New Jersey, still perch uneasily on the state’s list of threatened species, but they’ve staged an impressive comeback since the 1970s, when the pesticide DDT caused their population to plummet here and in other states along the East Coast.

Ospreys, sometimes called fish hawks, are among our state’s biggest birds of prey, with a wingspan of more than five feet. They’re water birds, surviving almost exclusively on fish they dive for feet-first. But they’re not just seabirds. Look up while cruising along the shore and you’re apt to spot an osprey nest atop a towering platform or at the crown of a tree. Keep a skyward eye out along the upper Delaware River and you’ll find them there, too.

You may not find them with their plumage puffed in celebration of their renewed ranks, though. Ben Wurst, a senior wildlife biologist at the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, which helps to run the New Jersey Osprey Project with the New Jersey Endangered and Nongame Species Program, lately has noticed a troubling trend: several osprey nests haven’t produced eggs this year. “We’re not really sure what’s going on yet,” he said. “We’re all kind of perplexed by it. It’s abnormal.”

Summer, for Wurst, is nesting survey season. Ospreys start arriving in New Jersey from their winter homes in Florida and points farther south in late March. In early April, they’re nest-building and breeding. By late May, after about a month of intense incubation preparation — during breeding season, male ospreys have been known to protect their turf by performing a menacing aerial “skydance,” complete with screaming calls — hatchlings, usually three, arrive. A pair Wurst has been watching for years in Barnegat Light, nicknamed Daisy and Duke, didn’t produce eggs this year.

“Then I heard from a woman who watches a nest near the southern end of Long Beach Island who reported the same — pair present but incubation was never observed,” he said. A third report of an eggless nest came from a watcher on the Mullica River. Wurst emailed colleagues in other states. They, too, are seeing what researchers call “nest failures.” And not for the first time. In 2023, The Center for Conservation Biology documented the highest rate of osprey nest failure ever recorded within the lower Chesapeake Bay.

A lack of food, the likely cause of the 2023 nest failures, is usually the culprit, Wurst said. The trouble with that theory: there’s no evidence to support such a shortage this year. “We haven’t seen any severe weather along the coast to limit the availability of prey,” he said. Menhaden, a fish the birds favor, has been plentiful.

The empty-nests mystery isn’t the only reason we might want to revisit our concern for ospreys in 2024. In early June, the Murphy administration proposed delisting ospreys and bald eagles from the state’s endangered list. Ospreys’ status would improve from threatened to stable, marking a victory in their preservation. But the upgrade in status comes with a risk of people caring less about about their protection.

“Ospreys will still require management,” Wurst said, because they’re federally protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Act. And given that they’ve rebounded from a low of 50 nests in the 1970s to more than 800 in 2023, he is hopeful they’re out of the woods. But “we have to tread carefully, because we don’t know how climate change is going to affect a species like ospreys. With warming oceans, we don’t know how fish populations are going to react. And bigger storms and more severe weather will have a bigger impact.” More development at the Jersey Shore could pose a risk; so could overfishing.

The Osprey Project, now past the half-century mark in its tracking efforts, will continue to monitor the 75 percent of birds that nest on manmade platforms to help ensure their stability. And technology is keeping nature lovers interested. Live cams offering a peep into osprey habitats have been popping up from wildlife preserves to research facilities. Barnegat Light has one that Wurst regularly blogs about. So does Cape May, on its Nature Chat site.

Watching the birds can be a thrill, or heart wrenching — Cape May’s site has a recent post about nest tenants Hera and Zeus, who lost two chicks, possibly to an owl.

Observing the birds can tell us about the sturdiness or fragility of our own habitat. Ospreys are a bioindicator species, meaning they reflect the health of their surrounding environment. This spring, according to the Barnegat Light Osprey Cam page, ospreys gave our shoreline a passing grade: “They indicate we’re doing a good job of protecting our coastal areas,” it says.

Egg shortfall and delisting efforts aside, Wurst is feeling hopeful. “Overall, I think we’re in a good place,” he said.

To find out more about the New Jersey Osprey Project, go to https://www.conservewildlifenj.org/protecting/projects/osprey/

And for information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

About the Authors

Alison Mitchell

Co-Executive Director

John S. Watson, Jr.

Co-Executive Director

Tom Gilbert

Co-Executive Director, 2022-2023

Michele S. Byers

Executive Director, 1999-2021

View their full bios here.

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