The Osprey is both a bird of the raptor class (usually meaning hunter/killer) and the name of a boat that plies the waters of Cape May, New Jersey’s back bays. The Osprey bird is a fish eater and can often be seen swooping over the water looking to nail its prey for itself and its young.
The small, rectangular Osprey boat seats up to 20 people. In the front it has an open deck that allows birders to get up close and personal with the birds and the water, with both often swooshing around them. (http://www.ospreycruise.com/)
What a treat bird-boating those back bays of Cape May is! At the helm of the Osprey boat is the knowledgeable and quite humorous Captain Bob Lubberman. He is accompanied by a naturalist. On our last the trip in October, our naturalist was Thomas Baxter, a young man who knows the ins and outs of the birds inhabiting the back bays during migratory season; and, yes, some of these back-bay birds stay all year round.
On this particular trip we had about 15 people on board, all carrying their binoculars. A few were rank amateurs on their first trip—I am no longer such a rank amateur; you might say I am just rank.
Right off the bat, across from the dock about 100 feet away on the far side of the inlet were several Cormorants, Herons and Oyster Catchers. Baxter pointed them out and so our October tour began before the boat had moved an inch.
“Look in the air, about eleven o’clock, is a Red Tailed Hawk,” said Baxter. All our binoculars shot upward. There the hawk was, gliding beautifully on the air currents.
“For those of you who are new to birding and the use of binoculars,” said Baxter, “When you see the bird with your naked eye, do not bend your head to get your binoculars; just bring them up to your eyes. Keep the bird in your normal vision and then you will not lose him when you raise the binoculars. If you move your head when you try to use the binoculars you will lose the bird.”
We were out about a few hundred yards and the mudflats were filled with shore birds. “At one-o’clock,” said Captain Bob, “you’ll see a couple of Surf Scoters diving, these are large ducks.” These male ducks are black with white and black heads and seemingly orange beaks—caused by the sunlight bouncing off them.
Now my wife, the Beautiful AP, is a photographer learning her trade and she will zoom over to the area of the boat’s open front deck where she can best photograph the birds being identified. Occasionally she runs over me. I am zooming as fast as I can to the right spot but my zoom is closer to an amble. Her zoom is closer to Usain Bolt’s 100-yard sprint.
There are other camera-carrying birders and they do the same thing—zoom to the best area of the open front deck to get a picture of the indicated birds. “Brants over to the right at three o’clock!” Zoom, every photographer careens to that side of the boat. “Great blue heron at ten o’clock!” Zoom.
The Osprey boat can at times land on those massive mudflats and some birders have the courage to exit the boat in order to forage for and munch on the plentiful “salt” grass.
“Mmm, yes, it is so salty!”
Of course, it’s salty, that’s why it’s called salt grass!
Sorry, this type of naturalist eating is not for me; I want my salad prepared by a gourmet chef; not nature’s mud where birds have been (I’m going to be indelicate here) dumping their brains out. I actually don’t want to think that what I eat is or was alive so don’t bother writing me to tell me that everything I eat sooner or later can be traced back to living nature. When I was in Japan and the fish was served with its head still there and its eyes gazing into my eyes…well, no thanks.
Although my wife took some great close-up pictures of Ospreys in our August bird cruise, our October trip saw us see no Ospreys as these beautiful birds had left for their winter homes; but we did spy a host of birds of every type—even amazing Peregrine falcons living in the metal and concrete works of a drawbridge.
These two Peregrines were alert when our boat stopped under the bridge in order for us to gawk and photograph them. Captain Bob explained why they were so annoyed and aggressive: “At first when they made their home here, the opening and closing of the bridge didn’t seem to concern them. But as summer came and the tourists flooded the area, that bridge opened and closed so often that the birds became ill-tempered. Now they associate any boat passing under the bridge with the bridge opening and treat it as an annoyance or a threat, so you see why they are taking off and flying at us and around us.”
These are beautiful birds and the fastest creatures on earth, being clocked at up to 200 miles per hour! Even birders with cameras can’t move that fast (my wife is close though).
On this particular two-hour trip we saw a myriad of birds. Here’s a list taken from my memory: Scores of Cormorants and the same with American Oyster Catchers. There were so many Brants that they rivaled the thousands we see on Long Island. Of course, Canada Geese, honking and craping like crazy and found in all areas. Yes, we had Blue Herons and Snowy Egrets and Surf Scoters. Add to these the many Royal Terns and Caspian Terns and Dunlins and Dowitchers. Couple these with Bald Eagles and Peregrines and Red Tailed Hawks and Kestrels and Sanderlings. Finally, so many various Gulls I actually couldn’t keep up with which ones they were.
There were more species but I was too busy zooming and missed them.
We also saw a small school of dolphins in the back bays, which is unusual because the water is not very deep in most parts. Captain Bob told us there were probably a lot of fish present and that lured the dolphins.
If you are in Cape May, do try to take an Osprey bird-boating tour. I think you’ll enjoy it…but stay off the salt grass; it will give you high blood pressure.
Photos by Alene Scoblete
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