By MADDY VITALE
Just weeks ago, Ocean City’s Boardwalk and beach at times had the appearance of the Hitchcock movie, “The Birds,” with seagulls making a home atop eateries and umbrellas awaiting an opportune time to snatch food from unsuspecting visitors and residents.
Not anymore, thanks to a group of raptors brought in by East Coast Falcons as part of Mayor Jay Gillian’s plan to get rid of the pesky gulls. The raptors chase the gulls away by scaring, not killing, them.
On Sunday afternoon, Boardwalk strollers and beachgoers seemed to be the only ones flocking to the boards and the sands.
And to the delight of many of the tourists and residents, they could eat whatever treats they wanted without fear of the swooping gulls.
Terry Silber, of Philadelphia, her son, Freddy Silber, and his fiancé, Blair Rogers, sat on a bench and enjoyed eating pizza without being harassed by the gulls.
“I think it is wonderful,” Terry Silber said. “It is unbelievable. It is definitely working.”
“It’s great we can enjoy pizza without the birds trying to take it away,” her son added.
Others had the same sentiment as they munched on French fries, ice cream and candy.
“The last time I was here it was a nightmare,” said Kevin Gibson, of Hillsborough, N.J., who is vacationing with family in Ocean City for the week.
He sat on a bench and nibbled on a heaping portion of French fries.
“I am having no problems eating my fries now,” Gibson said with a laugh. “There aren’t even barely any seagulls around.”
Joe Colon, of South Philadelphia, ducked under an awning of a pizzeria to enjoy a slice.
But he wasn’t hiding his food from seagulls. He wanted to get out of the sun for a bit before he headed back to the beach to be with his family members, whom he said, were eating with no problems, minus the seagulls.
The Colons come to Ocean City nearly every weekend in the summer, he said.
Sunday was a lot different than earlier this summer, he noted.
“There’s only a few seagulls. You expect some. The last time we were here there were a lot,” Colon said.
Whether it was a restaurant, beach umbrella, or picnic-style lunch on the beach, it seemed seagulls weren’t around.
Some vacationers wondered if the gulls decided to get out of town.
Janice Campbell, of Medford Lakes, and her family were well aware of the falcon program in Ocean City.
She owns a vacation home in Ocean City and the family visits the resort often throughout the summer.
“It is absolutely working,” Campbell said as she ate her salad on the beach. “My kids said at night there are no seagulls. That would be cool to see. We just saw kids with containers of food opened on their towels and there were no seagulls around.”
Just a couple days before, on Friday, people on the Boardwalk saw the raptor program in action with a takeoff.
P.J. Simonis, a falconer with East Coast Falcons, walked one of the “watch birds” down the Boardwalk. “OC,” a recently trained Harris hawk, was sent out to patrol the skies.
Crowds watched in amazement. One woman asked how the hawk comes back to Simonis.
“The birds trust us because we give them reason to,” Simonis said. “It is all about trust.”
The raptors patrol Ocean City’s skies each day from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. The falcons and hawks work the day shift, while an owl takes over at night.
The raptors are sent out to the “hot spot” areas of the Boardwalk where there are eateries.
When it is time for the birds to return from their “shift,” the falconers use a whistle. They can watch the bird’s changing location on a GPS tracker.
The gull abatement program is said to be the first of its kind for a town at the Jersey Shore.
East Coast Falcons is being paid $2,100 per day under a contract that is expected to run through Labor Day, the traditional end of the bustling summer tourism season.
At a recent City Council meeting, City Business Administrator George Savastano said, “As of today, reports about the effectiveness of the program are encouraging.”
The program is expected to return next summer if it proves successful this year. East Coast Falcons will be paid a total of $65,100 for its services this summer through Labor Day.
Janice Campbell said it might not be necessary.
“It is really kind of crazy,” she said of the program’s effectiveness. “We’ll see what happens next year. Hopefully the seagulls will have gotten the signal and they will go somewhere else next year.”