Osprey Island - By Thisbe Nissen



“Örn!” cries the Swede; “Águila!” the Spaniard; and the North American or Briton exclaims, “Look, there’s an eagle!” Probably the most misidentified bird in the world, the osprey or “fish hawk,” with white on its head and a wing span of more than five feet, much resembles its regal relative. Even its scientific name, Pandion haliaetus, compounds the confusion, for haliaetus literally means “sea eagle.”

—ROGER TORY PETERSON, “The Endangered Osprey”

DOWN AT BAYSHORE DRUG, postcards of Osprey Island sell five for a dollar from a spindly display rack by the cash register. They’re all island scenes—the beach at Scallopshell Cove, the clapboard shops lining Ferry Street, the cliffs at the end of Sand Beach Road—but those postcard photographers all seem to have a similar soft spot for the osprey itself, that majestic bird from whom the island took its name. A sunset beach shot—beautiful—but if they can frame the photograph around that great raptor perched high in its nest, a silhouette against the sherbet-colored sky, well, it does make for a dramatic scene. Add OSPREY ISLAND in scrawling script across the sand. Those are the postcards that sell. Also popular: cards with photos of the Osprey Island Ferry as it pulls in to dock, heaving its mighty bulk against those sea-worn mooring pylons, half rotted and suitably picturesque. And if there just so happens to be an osprey perched atop a decaying pylon, or on the steeple of the boat’s whistle, or at the crest of the captain’s tower, well, so much the better. Portraits of the Lodge at Osprey Island—an architecturally impressive structure in some, though not all, of its many incarnations—are also standard, and if you wait patiently for your shot you can sometimes catch an osprey as it lights upon a turret or gable. Sunsets, boats, hotels—ubiquitous images of vacation, leisure, the idylls of a certain class. But it’s really the osprey that makes the picture. An osprey you don’t find just anywhere.

There was in fact a time when you couldn’t find an osprey, anywhere. Back in the days of DDT. But before there was DDT, and before there were nesting platforms built onto abandoned telephone poles, and before the creaking ferry docks, before hotels with gaping lawns just begging to be the site of your daughter’s wedding reception—before everything else on this island was the osprey.

It was the osprey’s cry—kyew, kyew, kyew—that heralded the island’s first European settlers ashore. A blustery autumn day in 1655, and their boat ran aground rather unceremoniously on a promontory known forever after as Shipwreck Point. It was a fortuitous shipwreck: the journeying party managed to wash up on precisely the land for which they’d been aiming. The ship bore a British sugar baron, his young bride, and their entourage, all of whom survived the calamitous landing. They’d come for the island’s fabled forests of white oak: the timber of the sugar barrel.

Within twenty years the baron, an enterprising but not particularly foresighted businessman, had chopped down every last white oak on the island and the local economy was forced to shift its focus sensibly, if obviously, to the surrounding bays of calm and eminently fishable waters. Men with nets began to haul up great catches of moss bunker—menhaden—and churning kettleworks sprang up on Osprey’s shores. There, in massive iron drums over great fires, the fish were cooked down for use in oil and fertilizer, a grueling process so rank and foul that had a group of wealthy New York businessmen not come upon Osprey in the late 1860s and hatched an entrepreneurial plan along her shores the island might well have been known not for its endangered birds and its beaches and sunsets and quaint summer resort hotels but for its unrelenting fish stink. Those rich New York developers bought up the moss bunker business, razed the enterprise to the ground, and relocated every last barrel, net, and cauldron a safe distance downwind, to a rocky brown patch of undesirable New Jersey coast, eradicating every shred of evidence that a fish-processing plant had ever stood and smoked on the island shores. When the Lodge at Osprey Island held its grand opening in the summer of 1874, folks said that, honestly, you never would’ve known.

The Lodge at Osprey Island that stands on the site today is not quite so illustrious as the original. There have been fires, hurricanes, wars, a Great Depression, and the resort has been built and rebuilt, knocked down and made over again. The Lodge