Even the grumpiest, most curmudgeonly of Islanders has to admit that seeing Bald Eagles soar over LBI’s beaches is wicked cool and worthy of a huge smile. C’mon. Admit it. Catching one of these massive monsters perched in the dune or diving into the sea is awe inspiring, and the perfect antidote to a world where just about everything seems to be going to hell in a beach bag. The return of our mightiest species like Bald Eagles and Humpback Whales to LBI is something we can count as evidence that some things in the world are actually getting better, not worse. Seeing one is an instant and clear reminder of the Island’s greatest attribute of all; that it is a wild, natural wonder full of awesome.
It is only inevitable that Bald Eagles should join us and start using LBI as habitat for their adventures. In 2014 New Jersey had an astounding 200 nesting pairs of Bald Eagles in the State; a fact that becomes more incredible when you remember that back in the 1970s we were down to just a sad, little, single pair and imminent extinction was seen by many a sure thing.
But the epic comeback of the Bald Eagle in New Jersey is no accident, no freak natural occurrence, nor is it simply a lucky break. It was 100% intentional, and purely the result of the vision and hard, dirty work of a small band of good people who recognized, way back when, that we, in our haste to love the beach, were loving it to death. The legendary Pete McLain whose long list of accomplishments include saving Barnegat Bay, Osprey, Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcon, and Eel Grass from total annihilation, was known for encouraging the folks who joined his life’s mission to save Barnegat Bay from becoming a desolate, toxic wasteland with these fine words: “Just keep doing your good work, and no one will notice.”
It has been almost 40 years of hard work, and the results are now soaring above us and perching in our dunes. Now that we can actually see the results, it’s time to call out someone who has been quietly running around New Jersey since the long-ago-times when we had just a single pair of sickly and seemingly-doomed Bald Eagles left. That person is none other than the State of New Jersey’s legendary Zoologist, Kathy Clark.
At the memorial service for the legendary Pete Mclain this summer, I overheard several folks mention that Kathy was “always Pete’s favorite.” Kathy began her her epic journey and illustrious career as a young, wide eyed minion in Pete’s relentless drive to save the Bay. “I’m so glad we did not have cell phones in those days”, Kathy recalls. “Pete would never have let us sleep.” Today she is still with New Jersey Nongame Endangered Species Program, a program that was started by Pete all those years ago. We know her here on the Readings by her street name, “The Great Mother of All Cool Things You Can’t Shoot With A Gun In New Jersey.” Whatever you call her, she is a legend, a hero, and an inspiration to young, would-be coastal stewards everywhere. She is truly embodies and carries on Pete Mclain’s no-nonsense, risk taking, do-what-has-to-be-done spirit. And it is no wonder she was Pete’s favorite: she is smart, funny, uncommonly sensible, and incredibly free thinking.
I count as blessing every chance I get to interact with Kathy. I first learned of her when discussing the idea of putting colorful, easy-to-ready secondary bands on LBI’s local Osprey with Ben Wurst of the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ. “It’s a great idea,” said Ben. “But I’ll have to ask my boss Kathy. She works for the State.” I immediately assumed the idea was dead right there. As a garden-variety paranoid and freedom-loving Beach Bum, I instantly imagined endless red tape and bureaucratic nonsense from a “State Sponsored Environmental Person.” But Kathy surprised me. She made a quick acknowledgement that Osprey were doing well and that resources were best spent on some currently more threatened species, but if we were willing to pay for it, she was game. A few days later the bands were ordered and the rest is history.
That single interaction changed my perception forever of who these “environmental” people were and what they were really doing. As I got to know Kathy a little thanks to her patient answering of my inane emails, all the stereotypes of land-grabbing, fun-killing, freedom-crushing, government-sponsored environmental loonies that the media and the old-timers love to feed us, evaporated. What I saw in reality was someone who loved the coast as much as anyone you could ever meet, who clearly recognized that its natural splendor was the heart of its true value, and was willing to work silently, tirelessly, and thanklessly behind the scenes to keep it healthy for the rest of us to enjoy. Sure there was a need for regulation, for protection, for beach closures, and what-not, but only to the extent that human’s ability to show collective personal responsibility was not working. Other than that, she was game. “My first job was at Higbee Beach in Cape May. Nudists, crazies, Beach Buggies, and endangered species …. I’ve seen it all. As long as we can share the beach, wildlife included, it’s good.”
The highlight of last Summer Season was certainly my “Breakfast With The Boss”. You see, it turns out Kathy is a bit of a photographer and also has a secret love for the itty-bitty Least Tern… a favorite food source of Kathy’s bird-mangling Peregrine Falcons. We met one dawn under her false impression that I knew some secrets for getting some good shots of the shore’s most adorable, and itty bitty, little treasures. But it was just a ruse, propagated by me to trick Kathy into meeting face-to-face. Hours passed in an instant as she patiently answered my thousands of inane questions, while I tried to keep her away from the nasty little Common Tern. Since I could not offer much photographic advice, I took it as my duty to keep her protected from the annoyingly aggressive little Common Tern that had pooped a direct hit to my face just a few nights previous. “Stay over here Kathy. Those Common Terns are nasty.”
At some point I had the chance to ask our heroine the most direct question I could muster: “Kathy, if you could tell people just one thing about wildlife New Jersey, what would your message be?”
No hesitation. “Balance. I think we all benefit when we stop thinking of our wildlife and our natural habitats as zoos and parks. We’re best off when it is an integrated part of our lives.“
Now there is something to chew on. In our own little corner of New Jersey, when you look around LBI, you can kind of see what she is talking about. The entire Island is practically paved over for human convenience & entertainment, with the exception of the two tiny “ghettoes” on the far ends of the Island, Holgate & Barnegat Light, where we’ve squeezed and shunned all of our wild treasures. That might be a little unbalanced. While we certainly can’t undo the human development of the Island, we can continue to make the Island a cooler place by recognizing the imbalance and going out of our way to support both Barnegat Light & Holgate as best we can. Each year this becomes even more important as our endangered species make their comebacks and need the precious bit of actual beach habitat we have left to survive and to thrive.
The Eagles are moving in. The Peregrine are moving in. These are great things. These are huge, hard-won victories. This is something to celebrate. And this is the perfect time to say “Thank You” to Kathy Clark.
Kathy certainly did not do this on her own. In fact, Kathy has long been an advocate of getting as much wildlife management as possible out of the Government’s business into the hands of non-profit groups and regular citizens like us. The Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, the non-profit arm of the NJ State programs, has taken over much of the management of our endangered species which is another great thing, and another reason to celebrate. The actual animals we are seeing were probably directly cared for and nurtured by a small band of heroes at the CWFNJ.
As my “Breakfast With The Boss” came to an end, and Kathy and I said our goodbyes and walked off to our cars, she turned back and said one more thing to me:
“Oh yeah, one more thing…. you know… those ‘nasty’ Common Terns are suffering the same loss of habitat in the state as all the other birds you love. It’s something to think about.”
You got me Kathy. You’re right. Thanks, Boss.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Whether you read that whole thing, or just looked at the pretty pictures and skipped to the bottom know this: You can thank Kathy Clark for the Bald Eagles on LBI. As such, this post deserves a gratuitous number of 5 start ratings, and an excessive number of comments saying “Thanks Kathy!”
And nothing would make Kathy happier than for you to support the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ so they can continue to fill our state, and our Island, with treasures.