The water is clear, the fish are plentiful, the weather has yet to be too bothersome. It's a great time to be an osprey.
On Wednesday morning, Hans Toft, a natural science technology teacher at Cape May County Technical High School in Cape May Court House, took a group of students and researchers from Rutgers University on a quest to band young ospreys nesting in the area.
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What the group found was encouraging to the people who have followed the continuously rebounding numbers of the once endangered bird. Of six nests in the area between the high school and the Great Sound, five nests each had three healthy osprey chicks.
"It's good if you have one (chick in a nest)," Toft said. "Two is really good. Three is great. I've never seen three in a nest before."
When Toft started looking at nests in 1975, they would often be empty, the result of the widespread use of the now-banned pesticide dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, or DDT.
Toft's group is sending the number of chicks found and the numbers on the bands placed on their feet to the New Jersey Fish and Wildlife Service to analyze the status of the population.
Toft said that a number of factors have probably helped the population this year.
Ospreys are visual feeders, meaning that if they can't see fish swimming in the water, they won't catch as many for food. Toft said because there haven't been any really bad northeaster storms this summer, the water is clear, making food easier to catch.
This is important because the ospreys, which inhabit coastal bays and marshes, rely on fish almost exclusively for their diet.
In 2009, there were 485 nesting pairs across the state, according to Kathy Clark, principal zoologist of the Endangered and Nongame Species Program for the state's fish and wildlife program.
The number of nesting pairs dropped to roughly 60 in the early 1970s after DDT caused the egg shells to become thin, making it harder for younger chicks to survive.
Observing three healthy chicks in nests means that more ospreys are surviving their crucial early stages of life.
"We don't know for sure, but we believe there were about 500 nesting pairs," prior to the widespread use of DDT, Clark said. "We're getting close to those numbers again. They're doing really well."
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