By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
There’s Betty, Nola, Susan, Lilly, Clark and Barney.
Like many other out-of-towners, they will be visiting Ocean City this summer during the vacation season.
You’ll see them on the beaches, the Boardwalk and in other areas of town popular with the tourists.
However, these “visitors” won’t be spending a leisurely vacation at the shore. They will be working at their summer jobs – patrolling the skies and chasing away the pesky seagulls that have the nasty habit of swooping down and harassing the human tourists for their food.
Betty, Nola, Susan, Lilly, Clark and Barney are raptors owned by Wildlife Control Specialists, LLC, a Lebanon, N.J., company that has an array of trained falcons, hawks and an owl. The company specializes in keeping annoying birds like seagulls away from people.
Wildlife Control Specialists, which has been awarded a $193,600 contract with Ocean City, brought its birds of prey to the resort town last week and will be chasing – but not harming – the seagulls throughout the summer and early fall. Already, the gulls seem to be steering clear from the beaches and Boardwalk when the raptors are on duty.
“They’re starting to learn the deal. The newbies are finding out fast,” P.J. Simonis, a falconer with Wildlife Control Specialists, said of the gulls fleeing the area.
Last summer, Mayor Jay Gillian and City Council grew tired of brazen gulls snatching pizza, French fries and other goodies right out of the hands of unsuspecting tourists.
The city responded by bringing in another company that uses trained falcons, hawks and an owl to patrol the skies. Harassed by the raptors, the gulls scrambled back to their natural habitat – the ocean – instead of hanging around the Boardwalk while looking to steal a quick meal of human food.
Ocean City was believed to be the only beach community on the East Coast last year to have a gull-abatement program that used raptors.
At times, large sections of the beach and Boardwalk were virtually devoid of gulls. Tourists and residents alike repeatedly expressed their astonishment that the gulls had all but disappeared.
Hailing it as a great success, the city decided to continue the seagull-abatement program for this summer, although Wildlife Control Specialists became the new contractor by submitting the low bid.
The company will fly its raptors on weekends until June 15 and then will switch to a seven-days-a-week schedule through Labor Day. After Labor Day, the raptors will be in town on weekends until mid-October before stopping for the year. They will be on duty from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Simonis said.
On Sunday, Simonis and company owner Joe Kosakowski were on the Boardwalk, showing two of their birds to curious Memorial Day weekend bystanders. The raptors are proving to be a big draw, but the coronavirus pandemic requires company representatives to maintain social distancing of at least six feet while talking to members of the public about the birds.
“We’re trying to be respectful of the regulations by staying six feet apart. It seems to be working very well,” Kosakowski said while wearing a protective face covering.
Kosakowski views his contract with Ocean City as having a twofold purpose: His company will keep the seagulls away from the tourists, but it will also educate the public about the raptors.
“Two out of three people who pass by have a question about our birds,” he said in an interview on the Boardwalk in front of the Music Pier.
Almost on cue, Kosakowski was approached by Debbie Raynock, a visitor from Levittown, Pa, who had a few questions.
“What kind of bird is that?” Raynock asked about the Harris’s hawk perched on Kosakowski’s arm.
“Her name is Nola,” Kosakowski responded while telling Raynock about the feeding habits of Harris’s hawks.
Raynock, who marveled over Nola, said she has never experienced having seagulls trying to snatch her food on the Boardwalk, but is well aware of their sneaky habits.
“If you’re sitting on the Boardwalk and holding a sandwich like this, it’s going to happen,” Raynock said, mimicking the movement of a gull dive-bombing for some food.
In addition to Nola, Kosakowski plans to use an assortment of other raptors in Ocean City over the summer. One of them is Betty, a gyrfalcon, the largest of the falcon species. The imposing gyrfalcon has a striking mixture of white, gray and black feathers, along with some orange plumage on her back.
“This is the biggest falcon you’ll ever see and the prettiest, in my opinion,” Simonis told bystanders while holding Betty.
Betty, though, is more of an enforcer than a supermodel. She will be an intimidating presence in Ocean City this summer – if you happen to be a seagull.