Conserve Wildlife Blog

Press of Atlantic City Op-Ed: Osprey recovery successful, but we can still help them thrive, says Ben Wurst

May 2nd, 2019

By Ben Wurst, CWF Habitat Restoration Manager

Ospreys have made great progress toward recovery in New Jersey, rebounding from a low of 50 nests in 1974 to 589 active nests in 2018. This progress should be celebrated, and victory can and should be declared, as The Press of Atlantic city suggested in their March 1 editorial “Maybe it’s time NJ declares victory in restoration of ospreys.”

But as a biologist who has studied ospreys for many years I also know that declaring victory doesn’t just mean we should walk away and abandon them.

Ben Wurst banding an osprey nestling. Photo by Northside Jim.

In all actuality, New Jersey has already declared ospreys as being restored to historic numbers. That was six years ago, back in 2013 when they finally reached the historic population estimate of over 500 nesting pairs before DDT and habitat loss decimated their breeding population. Their recovery has been a testament to the success of the modern environmental movement including the banning of harmful military grade pesticides, preservation of open space, and clean air and water legislation.

As the editorial mentioned, their recovery was also in large part due to the installation of man-made osprey nest platforms. What was not mentioned was the most critical piece of the puzzle — why those platforms were needed in the first place. Ospreys need platforms to supplement their natural nesting habitat (dead trees on barrier islands and high marsh habitat) that was destroyed while most of the New Jersey coast was cleared and paved over after World War II. Today those needed natural areas are gone. And not just in New Jersey; habitat loss continues to be the greatest threat to wildlife worldwide.

Construction of osprey towers, like the one above, is a critical part of the birds’ continued recovery.

In addition to the factors above, the hard work and dedication of scientists from the State Endangered and Nongame Species Program and nonprofit Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ have helped the species rebound and remain stable, so that they can be eventually delisted from the New Jersey Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1973. We monitor nests and have installed close to 200 nest platforms using dedicated (and strong) volunteers and funding from philanthropic foundations, businesses, and members of the public who appreciate a healthy coastal environment, of which ospreys are a prime indicator species.

The size and health of the nesting osprey population is a clear sign that our hard work has paid off. Yet there are still concerns that warrant future monitoring and wise management, whether the species is listed as “threatened” or not.

  1. Overfishing is a huge threat to ospreys, whose diet consists exclusively of fish. Global fish stocks are expected to decrease as biodiversity declines. In the Chesapeake Bay the reduction in menhaden has caused declines in osprey productivity.
  2. As top tier predators, many environmental contaminants bioaccumulate in ospreys, which can affect their reproductive rate. While the levels of DDT/DDE in their eggs has declined, heavy metals (lead/mercury), perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), have increased. Luckily pollutants aren’t at a high enough level to affect osprey reproduction, but they are rising.
  3. Persistent plastic marine debris is becoming a global problem with dire consequences for marine wildlife, including ospreys, who can be entangled or suffocated by it.
  4. One last threat (of many more) worth noting here is climate change and the rise in global sea surface temperatures, which are causing fish to migrate to northward, thus altering many common food sources for migratory ospreys.

If we were to stop maintaining all man-made nest sites in New Jersey today, then there would be few “natural” places for them to nest. The argument that we can just “leave them alone” got them into trouble in the first place. Unfortunately we cannot just let them do their own thing and build nests in all the “tall trees” along the coast. Not every tree will do. Ospreys require dead trees or trees with broken tops in open areas near water to build nests. If there were no platforms for them, they would likely nest atop every utility pole with two crossbars along the entire coast, which would be a nightmare for our local utility companies and their customers.

Conserve Wildlife Foundation recently concluded a fundraising campaign to purchase a new boat to continue our proactive work to monitor and manage ospreys in the future. Thanks to the tremendous support from those who value a healthy coast and a robust population of ospreys in New Jersey we were able to exceed our goal and secure matching funds from the Osprey Foundation. Anyone who would like to help us protect New Jersey’s wildlife, including our work to ensure ospreys continue to have safe places to nest and raise young, can offer their support online.

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One Response to “Press of Atlantic City Op-Ed: Osprey recovery successful, but we can still help them thrive, says Ben Wurst”

  1. richard gauer says:

    I am an 83 year old vet who has been invlved slightly with the eagle program. I know where there is an osprey nest thsat is incubayting Now. It is in point pleasant boro, nj. If you need more info please contact me. Thank you.