On July 13, an osprey chick was sighted flying overhead by cameras set up by environmentalists in conjunction with the energy company PSE&G.
This marks the first time in approximately 50 years that the birds have successfully mated in the Meadowlands along the Hackensack River.
Although the nesting took place 100 feet away from Secaucus, expectations are that next year, some of the endangered birds will be making homes throughout all of the Meadowlands.
"If they survive the migration south, there's a good chance that they'll come back to the Meadowlands," said Riverkeeper Captain Bill Sheehan.
The Hackensack Riverkeeper is an environmental organization that protects the Hackensack River and surrounding wetlands through advocacy, education and conservation programs.
Sheehan explained that the younger birds will typically pick a place to nest, not with the parents, but within the vicinity of the place they were hatched. "They'll come back to the general regions," Sheehan said.
Osprey, or "fish hawks," are on New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP)'s list of endangered and/or non-game animals.
One of the reasons that the birds have not been nesting in the area is due to pollution in the Meadowlands. Since they only eat fish, they have to be in areas with non-contaminated fish.
But information from the Riverkeeper and from the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC) shows that the levels of pollution have steadily gone down since 1983.
Empty nest syndrome
Sheehan said that although this is the first proof of a successful mating in the past 50 to 75 years, osprey have been sited in the area for the past 10.
"You'd see them on a perch or something, fishing in the river," Sheehan said.
Once the sightings became more frequent, Sheehan began researching osprey trends in migratory and nesting patterns. He saw that they were steadily nesting more and more northward each year, starting at Sandy Hook and then at Raritan Bay. Based on the osprey's diet and necessary living conditions, Sheehan could guess what was coming.
"The next logical spot was the Meadowlands," Sheehan said.
In preparation, he, along with members of PSE&G, began to create nesting sites for the endangered species and in 2005; one of them started seeing activity.
"There were a couple of osprey that were attempting to build a nest. Younger birds need to practice housekeeping before they start raising young," Sheehan explained. The same birds came back last year and managed to lay a few eggs. Due to the parents' inexperience with nesting, however, both parent birds left the nest at the same time, at which point other predators in the area attacked the eggs.
With more experienced parents, and maintenance work around the site finished early this year in anticipation of the bird's return, the osprey were able to successfully hatch a family for themselves.
As its nickname suggests, the osprey eats nothing but fish. Sheehan said that a survey performed by the NJMC in 2003 concluded that marine life in the Meadowlands had increased drastically. He suggests that this is largely due to the continued decrease of pollutants in the waters.
"We just released a sediment contaminate study," said Dr. Francisco Ortegas, director of the Meadowlands Environmental Research Institute. "From that study we learned that many of the heavy metals have gone down between 70 and 80 percent since 1989."
Heavy metals found in the sediment of the Meadowlands region include copper, zinc, and calcium among others.
"These metals are essential for life," said Ortegas. "But, if you were forced to be in, say, a concentrated zinc environment, you're not going to do well."
The only heavy metal that has not gone down in the region is mercury. Ortegas said, however, that the metal is slowly eroding into the water and dissolving steadily.
Even though the numbers look promising, the fish in the area are still deemed too contaminated for human consumption. Despite this fact, both Sheehan and Ortegas believe that the osprey will be returning in good health for years to come.
How can you help
Since the area is still considered contaminated, and the osprey themselves remain on New Jersey's endangered species list, there remains a lot to be done in order to ensure the safety of the birds.
Both Sheehan and Ortegas believe that storm drains are a major factor in the continued polluting of the area and that a major help for, not just the osprey, but also all forms of life in the area, is to not throw pollutants into them and to report to the authorities anyone who does. People can also participate in River Cleanups.
The next River Cleanup will be on Aug. 16 from noon to 4 p.m. at the Mill Creek Marsh in Secaucus. Those wishing to attend should contact the Riverkeeper at 201-968-0808, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Dunphy can be contacted at: email@example.com.