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Just south of where Snooki and The Situation carry on, there's a new hit reality show at the Jersey shore: A web camera lets viewers look in on a nesting pair of ospreys and their young, including two eggs that could hatch at any time.
The site has been viewed more than 113,000 times, and has 1,500 people on Facebook contributing thoughts, observations and interpretations of what they're seeing online.
The project was started in February by Friends Of Island Beach State Park, a group of about 100 volunteers who want to share the Ocean County park's environment with as many people as possible.
"People are really excited; they love it," said Rita Carey, chairman of the group's osprey committee and a former pharmaceutical industry worker. "Some people are really glued to it."
Wednesday morning, the male osprey returned to the nest clutching a stick in its talons, for use in burnishing the nest. That apparently did not sit well with the missus, who, expecting a fish dinner, squawked loudly, and the male was back in the air in a matter of moments, headed out over the ocean.
"She was screeching," said Justin Auciello, who helps operate the camera and manages the social media component of the project. "It was like a signal: You didn't come back with any food! What's up with that?"
But 20 minutes later, the male was back, clutching what appeared to be a bluefish, and all was well again in the nest.
A few moments later, in an office building at the park that the group uses, a computer monitor showed the female osprey tearing the fish into small pieces and feeding it to her eager chick, who devoured it as fast as she could provide it.
The female tends to the nest virtually around the clock, relying on the male to feed her and the one chick that hatched on Sunday. In situations like this, the male could bring back as many as 10 fish a day to feed the group, Carey said.
There are just over 500 pairs of ospreys in New Jersey, based on a 2009 survey. They are considered threatened during breeding season, but are classified as stable during the rest of the year, said Bob Considine, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
He said a new count might be undertaken next year, but in general, the DEP feels ospreys are approaching the population levels they had before use of the pesticide DDT started reducing their numbers several decades ago.
Bird cameras are growing in popularity.
The DEP maintains a camera on a group of Peregrine falcons in Jersey City, and a park in Cape May County also has a closed-circuit camera on ospreys there, although it is not connected to the Internet and must be viewed from within the park itself, Carey said.
The University of Montana has cameras showing osprey nests on the Clark Fork and Bitterroot rivers near Missoula.
In Monmouth County, the county parks system has a telescope sighted on an eagle's nest, but it too has to be viewed from a building within the park.
Friends Of Island Beach State Park originally wanted to do a similar project, visible from within the park's boundaries, but decided it could reach many more people if it went online. The project has cost $10,000 so far, and the group hopes to raise at least $3,000 in donations this year toward offsetting some of that cost.
The nearby Seaside Heights public works department donated the pole on which the camera sits, and its fire department installed it in February.
The birds took up residence in the nest on March 22, and by April 17, the first egg was spotted. Others followed on April 20 and 21. Ospreys usually mate for life, and incubate the eggs for about 5 weeks. The young birds leave the nest about 8 to 10 weeks after hatching. The male and female head south for the winter, traveling to separate locations as far as South America, yet return to the same area if not the same nest the following year, Carey said.
They prefer to nest on high ground near water, since fish account for 99 percent of their diet. An osprey can see a swimming fish from 100 feet in the air, swoop down and grab it with their talons.
They also scavenge trash to use in the nest — a stark reminder of how humans' trash continues to harm the environment months or even years after being discarded. One side of the nest has a deflated Mylar balloon dangling from it. A crushed Coors Light can is also part of it. "People know that Mylar balloons are bad for the environment, but when they see it like this in the nest, it's really right there in their faces," Auciello said.
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