As Ben Wurst and Steve Mars walk toward the osprey nest with their ladders, one of the chicks inside stands up to full height and urgently, almost desperately, flaps its wings.
And nothing happens.
The bird is too young to fly, which is why Wurst and Mars are out now — in late June and early July — to visit local osprey nests and clamp identifying metal bands on the legs of the chicks they find inside.
They’re from the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, a nonprofit group that bands young ospreys from Atlantic City up to Monmouth County. Along with marking the birds, which helps track their travels from South Jersey in summer to as far as South America in winter, these banding missions also help monitor the population of these historically endangered birds.
The osprey is doing much better now — the state’s count, which had dropped to just 50 or so nesting pairs in the early 1970s, is estimated at closer to 500 pairs today. Wurst expects to band about 100 new chicks himself in this summer’s short window of time and bird development, between when their legs grow big enough that the numbered, coded aluminum bands won’t fall off and when their wings get strong enough that the birds can fly off if they sense danger approaching.
He and a handful of others who have the training to do the banding — and who hope to find close to 400 chicks born this season around the state’s shoreline — have no desire to threaten the birds, of course. They’re out to help.
Still, there are actual dangers in the job for the humans who do it, both from ospreys and from other humans.
As he went to a nest in the bay between Absecon and Atlantic City last week in Conserve Wildlife’s
17-foot boat, Wurst, 33, of New Gretna, remembered a stop a few years ago at an Ocean County nest.
“This huge yacht comes by and puts up 5 feet of water,” he told Mars, a volunteer from Port Republic out for his first training in osprey banding — although he has experience in other wildlife-protection projects. “It almost broke over the side (of his boat). If it had, it would’ve sunk us.”
Wurst tells that story as he pulls up to his first nest of the day, where the adult female in residence is obviously no threat to the human visitors.
As much as one of her chicks may object — and show it with that unsuccessful attempt to fly off the man-made platform that holds up its home — the mother appears to have little interest in what the two men are doing in her nest. She flies over them a few times when they set up their ladders and climb up to the platform, but then she flies away while Wurst bands her two chicks and makes observations on their feathers and other development.
And once the alarmed chick realizes it can’t fly away, it joins its sibling in simply lying down on the pile of branches, twigs, straw and mud that make up its nest. Wurst, who has banded hundreds of birds over the last eight years, says most young ospreys just try to play dead — although with their orange eyes wide open — when these trained humans make their brief, annual visits to the nests.
But the reception is much different at the next nest. Both osprey parents are sitting on their platform, guarding the nest, when Wurst pulls his boat up on a nearby bank. The adult birds fly up reluctantly as the humans approach with their ladders — the mother grasping a whole, small fish tightly in her talons. Then the ospreys circle overhead repeatedly, watching the nest closely as the visitors are there. The male even starts into a dive on a few of its passes overhead, but it pulls out and veers off probably 30 feet above its nest.
“There’s a lot of variability among individuals” in how ospreys react to these human intrusions, says Kathy Clark, a biologist with the endangered species programs in the state’s Division of Fish & Wildlife. “There was one nest we did where (the mother) did everything she could to hit you. There are individuals that will literally stop at nothing. What’s more typical is that they do a lot of calling, but mainly circling over you while you’re in the nest.”
One apparent variable is how old the chicks are — when they’re newly hatched, the adults are more protective.
Wurst saw — and felt — that rule in action about six years ago, when he was checking nests and banding birds a bit south of his current territory, in the bay behind Avalon. His head had just gotten over the top of the platform to let him look down on two chicks that appeared to be about 5 days old when “the (mother) came down and hit me right in my neck,” he says.
“Basically, it felt like somebody hit me with a baseball,” he continues — a fastball, definitely, only one with talons attached to it. But he was lucky: “It felt like her talons were closed, not open, when she hit me. ... It felt like she hit with her feet balled-up.”
Wurst could see blood coming from his neck, but he was fortunate again because his volunteer partner that day was a trained paramedic, who checked him and found his only damage was “surface cuts.”
That memory sticks with him, of course. But as he does what he does, he is more concerned with threats to ospreys than with ospreys threatening him.
“If we see ones that are overly aggressive, we just go up and come back down as quickly as we can,” Wurst says. “We don’t want to stress out the adults.”
In spite of their ability to defend themselves, there are threats to ospreys all over their world. At that second nest, with Atlantic City’s skyline in its background, Mars pointed out the remains of an osprey chick on the ground just below the nest. It was badly decomposed, and there was no way of telling what killed it.
But Clark is certain last Saturday’s freak wind storm gets the blame for the deaths of three chicks she found blown out of their nest, near Sea Isle City, earlier this week. So she and Wurst and others have been checking nests with extra care since that storm blew by with wind gusts as high as 80 miles per hour.
Wurst has already heard of the storm knocking another pair of chicks out of their nest in the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Galloway Township — and the chicks being returned to their nest by a sharp-eyed member of the refuge staff. At last report, the birds were still surviving.
Clark points out more danger to ospreys. In their winter range in the Caribbean and South America, they have fewer legal protections, and are still sometimes hunted for sport. Some ospreys also go looking for food in South American fish farms — and get shot for doing it.
But danger can also come in far less dramatic forms. Last Sunday night near Tuckerton, in Ocean County, Wurst was visiting a nest and heard the peeping of a very young chick. He couldn’t see the bird, but he did see a hole in the nest. So he looked on the ground under the hole and found “an egg that fell out of the nest and was hatching ... right in front of me.”
He picked up the egg/osprey, put it back in its nest, and quickly fixed the hole. As soon as he left, he saw a female land and start attending to the new bird.
“Talk about timing,” Wurst says. “I’ve never seen a young chick right after it hatched” — even after hundreds of nest visits. “It’s so vulnerable, basically blind ... but the mother came right in and instinct took over and made her care for that chick.”
Fortunately, in this case — and in hundreds of other nests around New Jersey — the adult osprey had a little help.
(For more information on Conserve Wildlife’s osprey project, see: conservewildlifenj.org/protecting/projects/osprey/.)
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