Think before releasing balloons: Osprey tangled 35-feet up rescued at Shore

Ben Wurst was at a meeting on Sedge Island, just off Island Beach Park on Barnegat Bay, on Tuesday when a coworker walked in and said a young osprey was ensnared in a ribbon that was attached to a balloon.

Soon, Wurst would find himself 35 feet in the air trying to save the bird.

Wurst, habitat program manager for Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, knew this was not unusual at a time of year when balloons are released for graduations and other outdoor celebrations. The balloons drift over land before eventually popping and landing in the ocean or marshes.

“Sadly, this is definitely something we see every year — an all-too-common occurrence,” Wurst said, echoing many environmental groups and communities fed up with the amount of plastic at the Shore.

Last year, a Mylar balloon from Harriton High School in Lower Merion was found near Sandy Hook, N.J., during a cleanup coordinated by Clean Ocean Action, which counted 373,686 pieces of debris — 85 percent of which was plastic or foam.  Other balloons have been on found on New Jersey beaches from as far as Indiana.

On Tuesday, Wurst took out his cellphone and began looking at the nest through the Pete McClain Osprey Cam at Sedge Island.  The balloon in the osprey’s nest was mostly shredded, but the ribbon was tangled on the three-week-old bird’s legs.

Camera icon Ed Wurst / Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey
A three-week old osprey found caught in a plastic balloon ribbon on Sedge Island, off Island Beach Park, was rescued Tuesday, June 19. Seaside Heights loaned a cherry picker to rescue the bird.

Wurst said New Jersey has about 650 osprey nests.  So he was fortunate he could see this one on video.  Other tangled birds aren’t so lucky.

“I said, ‘Let’s do this.’ ”

Wurst and others called people they thought might help.  Friends of Island Beach State Park eventually reached out from Seaside Heights.  Its public works department sent out a cherry picker and Wurst climbed in.

“Once we got that positioned under the nest, I was able to see inside,” Wurst said. “I used some scissors to cut the ribbon off the leg.  And there was a pretty good amount of trash. The balloon ribbon was all tangled up in the nesting material. There was some rope, a plastic bag, a candy-bar wrapper. I’ve been collecting trash from nests for five years and this one topped the charts.”

Camera icon Ben Wurst / Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey
A three-week-old osprey found caught in a plastic balloon ribbon on Sedge Island, off Island Beach Park. You can see other plastic debris in the nest.

Wurst said that ospreys normally build their nests with sticks, grass, seaweed, and other natural material.  But they also like to decorate the nests and are attracted to brightly colored debris, such as plastic trash that drifts in from the ocean and waterways onto beaches and wetlands.

“We’ve found other birds that get so entangled that they die,” he said. “We’ve found them dead hanging from the nest.”

In this case, the bird was freed.  However, by the next day, viewers of the osprey cam noticed new pieces of a balloon the birds had collected and brought to the nest.

“People think when you release a balloon it just sort of disappears, that it just goes up and away,” Wurst said. “Well that’s not true.”