Conserve Wildlife Blog

Monitoring New Jersey Ospreys During a Global Pandemic

February 5th, 2021

For every dark day there was always hope for a brighter future. Results from the 2020 New Jersey Osprey Project.

Ben Wurst, Habitat Program Manager

This was likely one of the most challenging, at least in recent years, in the history of the New Jersey Osprey Monitoring Project. From social distancing and working from home (with children) to severe wind events and dealing with the impacts of humans on ospreys, 2020 turned out to be quite the year. Overall, our work was largely unaffected by the global covid-19 pandemic. Most of our work is conducted outdoors and away from mass gatherings of people. It was important for us to ensure the safety of our volunteers and the general public safe.

An osprey family on a natural nest inside Barnegat Inlet. July 2020. Photo by Ben Wurst.

Ospreys arrived as usual in late March and early April. Egg laying usually occurs in late April, but as the climate warms (last summer was the second hottest on record), ospreys are starting to lay eggs sooner. The majority nest on man-made nest platforms and other nests can be found on intracoastal waterway markers, communication towers, utility poles, snags, or anything else near water that will sustain a nest. In 2020, we recorded 53 new nests and many of which were natural nests (not built on a man-made structure).

20/H with menhaden in Oceanport, NJ. Photo by John Bacaring.

Most nests hatch in late May, and this is when the male makes the most effort to find and catch prey to provide for his family. Anecdotal observations by commercial fisherman, recreational anglers and coastal guides reported that menhaden, the primary prey for ospreys during the peak of their nesting season, was plentiful. This helped set the stage for another productive year for ospreys.

Ben Wurst prepares to band three nestlings at a nest inside Sedge Islands WMA. Photo by Randy G. Lubischer.

Nesting surveys were conducted by staff and dedicated volunteers in mid-summer (late June and early-July) in the most densely populated colonies from northern Barnegat Bay to Cape May and west along the Delaware Bayshore. This is when most young are large enough to be seen above the nest rim and old enough to be banded by staff and volunteers. Nests are accessed with an extension ladder and the number of young are recorded. We also use a pole mounted mirror or GoPro to look into nests to reduce disturbance. Many other osprey nests are surveyed from a distance by citizen scientists who report nest activity observations through Osprey Watch, a global community of osprey watchers.

Overall, the outcome was determined in 79% of occupied nests, which is really great considering all the challenges faced. A total of 503 active nests which produced 812 young. The average statewide productivity rate, which is a measure of the health of the population, was 1.61 young/active (known outcome) nest. This was the lowest recorded since 2009, but still double the rate needed to sustain the population. Despite the lower productivity rate, ospreys still had a decent year and continue to expand nesting colonies. 

A natural nest over water inside Barnegat Inlet. August 2020. Photo by Ben Wurst.

Of the 50+ new nests found in 2020, most were located at the former Fort Monmouth military base in Oceanport, where ospreys nest in very close proximity to mixed use development. In other areas, like near Barnegat Inlet, ospreys are nesting on the ground or over open water on snags that wash up on sandbars. This highlights the resiliency of ospreys and their ability to adapt to nest on many different structures and successfully raise young.

Weather can play a role in the success of breeding ospreys. Severe weather with high winds can increase turbidity of coastal waters, making prey harder to catch, and cause nests and/or young to be blown to the ground. There were several severe wind events throughout the breeding season for ospreys and each caused isolated nest failures.

A young osprey stands in its nest after being banded for future tracking. Photo by Northside Jim

A total of 209 young were banded for future tracking. Of those 55 were banded with red auxiliary bands at nests on Barnegat Bay. An amazing 47 banded adults were re-sighted live or recovered as injured/dead. The majority were of live red banded ospreys (35) who have returned to New Jersey to breed as adults, which is the most ever in the history of Project RedBand. Our data shows that males return very close to their natal areas and females tend to wander. Obtaining re-sightings of red banded adults is key to learn more about their life history as adults. Wildlife photographers are encouraged to visit the coast and look for ospreys with red bands when they return in the spring. Anyone who captures a photo of the red banded osprey is highly encouraged to report the band to us and USGS Bird Banding Lab.

Both adult and young ospreys were impacted by plastic marine debris (bag and twine) at one nest located at Island Beach State Park in 2020. Photos by Ben Wurst.

Persistent plastic marine debris continues to threaten both adult and young ospreys. When plastics enter our waterways, it washes up onto high marsh areas and in wrack lines, where ospreys collect nesting material. Plastics like monofilament/fishing line, twine, rope, balloon ribbon, mesh bags, and single use bags can easily entangle or suffocate an osprey. This year we have several incidents where both adults and young were entangled in plastics and emergency rescues were required to free them. We can all make a difference to help ospreys by reducing our use of single use plastics, not releasing balloons, and by picking up plastic litter in coastal areas.

In summary, ospreys faired quite well despite the slightly reduced productivity. Prey was plentiful, but overfishing of forage fish like menhaden is always a threat. Ospreys who are returning to nest here for the first time do not seem to be limited by the availability of suitable nest structures. There were many new (productive) nests that were found this year on a variety of nest structures, which clearly showcase their adaptability. We consider this a look into the future of a changing coast, where the resiliency of ospreys will outdo humans and our development. We look towards a bright future of a healthy and stable osprey population.

Thank you to all of our volunteers for their hard work last year, and the continued support of our donors who support this project. For full results, download the 2020 New Jersey Osprey Project Report (high res. file).


One Response to “Monitoring New Jersey Ospreys During a Global Pandemic”

  1. Jim Merritt says:

    Great report! Thanks so much for all the work you are doing.

    I was surprised to learn about the osprey nesting in new areas- especially at Fort Monmouth. That is great news! But, I was most interested in your statement about the future of a changing coast, where “resiliency of ospreys will outdo humans and development.” A New Jersey coast with more ospreys and less people might be in the future? Time will tell…
    Jim Merritt