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The Osprey Whisperer Of Island Beach

Paul D. "Pete" McLain's efforts to save the dwindling osprey population back in the 1970s have paid off

Visitors who click on the Friends of Island Beach's osprey cam are often entranced by the sight of the osprey pair keeping watch over their clutch of four rust-and cream-colored eggs.

But it wasn't always this easy to keep tabs on the ospreys of Island Beach State Park.

Environmental conditions were grim for the large raptor birds back in the early 1970s. Nesting sites were hard to come by, due to the rapid development of wetlands. DDT and other chemicals had been heavily used in 1950s and 1960s for mosquito control and worked their way into the food chain.

Osprey nests were dwindling. By 1968 there were only 12 osprey nests at Island Beach State Park. By 1974, the number had dropped to just one. Osprey eggs laid during those years were too thin and brittle for the chicks to survive the incubation period.

Enter Paul D. "Pete" McLain, an environmental hero to many in Ocean County. McLain joined the state Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife in 1951. By 1974, he had risen to the position of deputy director. He decided to try and bring back the osprey to the Jersey Shore and Island Beach.

"What an amazing legacy Pete has left to us," said Becky Laboy, a park naturalist at Island Beach State Park at a recent seminar at the park's interpretive center. "We are so honored to have you here today, Pete."

McLain founded the Osprey Project along with Teddy Schubert, a conservation officer with the Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife. The two traveled to Maryland, where osprey eggs were healthier because there was less pesticide contamination and more nesting areas.

"It was amazing what happened to the poor devils," McLain said, referring to the ospreys' plight years ago. "I had some very fine people to help me. The program just blossomed after that. I did have the help and it was nothing I did by myself."

McLain and Schubert made the often perilous climbs to osprey nests high in the sky - sometimes dropped in by helicopter, sometimes by clambering up utility poles - and removed some of the healthy eggs.

The healthy eggs were put into incubators, then trucked back to New Jersey. They were then gently placed in osprey nests at Island Beach and down the coast, in the hopes the osprey parents would accept the new eggs.

Within 20 minutes, the adult osprey returned to the nests and began incubating the new eggs. The egg transfer program continued from 1975 thorough 1981, when there was no longer any need for it.

Their work was chronicled in the vintage documentary film "The Osprey - A New Jersey Success Story."  Click on the video above to watch the film, much of which is narrated by McLain.

McLain and Schubert also had a group of hardy volunteers who helped build and erect osprey nests. They came up with the "New Jersey design" nest, whic featured a square basket at the top that provided protection for the eggs and chicks and provided a perching area for adult birds, according to the film.

"Before we could even stick the pole in the ground, the osprey were trying to nest in it," McLain recalled.

Sixty nests were built between 1975 and 1981 and were well accepted by the adult birds. The egg transfer program ran from 1975 through 1981, when the osprey population had grown to the point where it was no longer needed.

Ben Wurst - habitat program manager for the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey - is carrying on McLain's legacy. 

"He's the real osprey man," Wurst said, pointing to McLain during the seminar. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for all of his hard work."

Osprey make the long journey down to Central and Northern South America each year in the fall and spend the winter there. They return in late March. The femal usually lays a clutch of two to three eggs, Wurst said.

This year the female osprey in the "Osprey Cam" nest just down the road from the park's Interpretive Center laid four eggs.

"This is a rarity," Wurst said. "The most I've ever seen in the project's history."

The baby birds hatch in late May or early June. And they eat a lot over the next seven to eight weeks.

"Three fledglings need six pounds of food..." Wurst said.

Now there are close to 500 nesting pairs of birds up and down the New Jersey coast, he said. But the birds still face obstacles, including predators and plastic refuse, like balloons.

"This is a huge amount of debris," Wurst said. "I find chicks every year entangled in ribbon. It's getting worse and worse."

To view the Island Beach Osprey Cam, visit  http://stream.friendsofislandbeach.org/

A Polymath May 18, 2013 at 11:20 PM
Great website! Please restore the updates: when the parent birds arrive, when eggs are laid, hatchings, first flights, etc. Fascinating to view, very educational.
Mister Matt May 19, 2013 at 04:18 AM
Well done, my good man.
Terrence Brown May 19, 2013 at 04:17 PM
First of all, Thank you Pete! I followed the program through the seventies and it is truly one of the greatest environmental success stokes ever! We had our own mini-success stories here in Point a few years ago. An osprey couple began building a nest on the half-painted water tower which caused a flurry of media attention. The pair successfully raised two young. But when they returned for a report performance the following year, the tower was no longer "available". They resettled to a newly-built tower at the Nellie Bennett marsh and eventually fledged two, then three, then two young over the next few years from a pole near Sea Gull Terrace in Sunshine Harbor. Now the sad news: Good ole Sandy took away that nest site and the pair has not returned. I can only hope that, like so many of us are trying to do, they are able to "bounce back" and be able to resettle nearby.
diana j connelly May 19, 2013 at 04:48 PM
I have always checked off the box for the donation . I am happy to see some of the worthy results Great Job!
Pat May 22, 2013 at 09:52 AM
I am proud to have known both Pete McLain and Ben Wurst, two hard-working, dedicated men with a vision.

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