MIDDLE TOWNSHIP – Visitors to the Wetlands Institute can see an osprey nest from the picture windows overlooking the marsh.
But most people gravitate to the big-screen TV instead. It broadcasts a live close-up of the nest. This webcam and one like it at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge give an intimate peek into the secret lives of ospreys.
The fish hawks are a ubiquitous icon in South Jersey: the mascot for Stockton University, inspiration for tour boats and a symbol of all things shore-related.
“Everyone celebrates their return. It’s like the changing of the season. The osprey are back!” said Lisa Ferguson, director of research at the Wetlands Institute.
“I love their song. Looking at this big bird you would expect a big sound. But they just have a very delicate sound,” Marketing Director Christine Mattera said.
The webcam features high-definition video and sound. And its infrared camera, hardwired to the building, even catches the osprey’s less-known nightlife.
“Sometimes at night I’ll check in on them, especially when it’s stormy,” Ferguson said.
Last year, webcam followers caught the drama of a late-summer hatchling. Ferguson said people were worried the baby bird would not survive since ospreys, like shore visitors, leave New Jersey after Labor Day.
They named the bird Chance. When September came, the bird was still in its nest strengthening her wings for the maiden flight.
“We had people from all over rooting for this fledgling that she would make it and fly. And she did! It was a pretty exciting event we could share through the live webcam,” Ferguson said.
Ospreys have recovered since the 1970s when their population crashed from poisoning by DDT. The now-banned pesticide made eggshells so thin they cracked under the weight of the parents.
Last year the state identified a record 534 nesting pairs of ospreys, up from just 50 pairs in the 1970s.
Schools, homeowners and civic groups continue to put up new osprey nesting platforms each year. Equally important is repairing storm-damaged ones, said Kathy Clark, zoologist with the state’s Division of Endangered and Nongame Species.
Like many coastal residents in Cape May County, ospreys had to repair their homes damaged by Winter Storm Jonas.
“They’re such hard workers,” she said. “You see how fast they can rebuild what they had.”
Visitors and residents alike seem to embrace ospreys, she said. Unlike more skittish birds, ospreys generally tolerate boaters and fishermen.
“Ospreys are coastal residents, too. It’s gratifying to put up a new nest structure and see them come and use it,” she said. “You don’t get that much in wildlife. There’s a bond.”
While ospreys are still listed as threatened in New Jersey, they are doing very well, Clark said.
Bob Lubberman, of Lower Township, runs a Cape May business called Birding by Boat on the Osprey. He takes eco-tourists out on the marsh in his pontoon boat The Osprey every year to enjoy wildlife.
Ospreys are creatures of habit, returning to the same perches to eat their fish, preen or watch for predators such as eagles. Lubberman said he gets to know them pretty well by the end of summer.
“They all have their own personalities,” he said. “What makes them so successful here is the availability of menhaden. There’s a lot of bunker to catch and young birds have an easier time learning to fish for them.”