By: Bryan Watts
It is impossible to think about osprey in the upper Chesapeake Bay, particularly around the area of the Choptank River and Eastern Bay, without also thinking about Jan Reese. Jan’s work with osprey on the waters around Tilghman Island was important to our understanding of the population in the upper Bay but the work transcended the Bay and informed a community of osprey scientists around the world during the critical height of the DDT era. Although I had read Jan’s journal articles years ago, we had never had the opportunity to meet. On a late November day, Barbara Slatcher and I drove up to Tilghman to meet up with Jan.
Tilghman Island has a long history of European settlement dating back to 1656. Originally named Great Choptank Island and Fosters Island (for its first owner) and Ward’s Island, the name was changed to Tilghman in the mid 1700s when it was purchased by the family that would own it for more than 100 years. In the early years after settlement, the island was farmed producing grains, vegetables, cattle, pigs and timber. In the mid-1800s, the island changed dramatically as the family began to sell off lots to oystermen wanting to live closer to oyster grounds. In short order the island became a center for commerce focused on seafood. During its heyday, the Tilghman Packing Company employed 700 workers and shipped seafood around the country and beyond. As the seafood industry waned and the great fleet of skipjacks and bugeyes drifted away, the island would change again and become a residential community and destination for tourists wanting to experience times past. But the same characteristics that made the island ideal for watermen (an island with a long shoreline and shallow water) made it ideal for the study of osprey.
We met in the front room of a house situated near Knapps Narrows that at the time housed a nonprofit environmental group. When I asked Jan if he was raised on Tilghman he said, “I was born in that room right there and lived in this house for 46 years… so I am home.” His family owned quite a bit of property around the narrows, selling off much of it in the early 1960s, but this property had remained in the family until only a couple of years before. It was here in this place that he would begin his osprey monitoring project in the spring of 1960.
When I asked Jan how a boy surrounded by watermen developed such a keen interest in birds, a familiar story emerged. “I had a teacher in the 7th grade who was a bird watcher and who started a nature club. He would take us on trips to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and other places during the weekends. I guess it all started from there.” After Chan Robbins started the national banding program “Operation Recovery,” the group ran a banding station on Blackwalnut Point at the southern tip of the island. Like many points surrounded by water along the coast, Blackwalnut is a trap for south bound migrants in the fall. Jan said, “From July right on through the winter solstice it is a constantly changing community and gives an indication of what is in the area. It is not just birds but also migrating insects and bats. I have visited the point every Sunday for more than 50 years.”
In the mid-1960s a chance event would bring Jan’s work to prominence and draw him deeper into the world of science. He received word that the director of Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, MD, Dr. Eugene Dustman, wanted to meet about his osprey work. PWRC was expanding rapidly in response to DDT and the global decline of bird populations. The group would have many breakthroughs that definitively linked food, DDT, eggshell thickness, reproductive suppression and population declines. The director was interested in long-term monitoring data with raptors and had heard of Jan’s work. PWRC supported Jan’s work by loaning equipment and involving him in ongoing efforts to understand the role of DDT in wild populations. It was a heady, exciting time with many scientists working together to solve problems. The stakes were high.
Jan spoke of his association with PWRC scientists with great appreciation. Many of them, including Chan Robbins, Vernon Stotts, Brooke Meanley, Stan Wiemeyer, Woody Martin and Fran Ehler, took him under their wing and were so inviting. He provided the group with osprey eggs and monitoring data and visited PWRC often to work directly with people on a wide range of questions. “It was fantastic,” Jan would say. Over the next decade, Jan published a series of papers on osprey that addressed recovery from contaminants but also filled in several holes in our basic understanding of the species. His documentation of trends and demography were compared to populations elsewhere in the world.
Here what Jan had to say about working with PWRC biologists:
Through our conversation and previous correspondence it has always been clear that Jan has that insatiable thirst for knowledge that marks a lifelong scientist, always in search of what makes species tick and trying to understand how they fit into the grander whole. Through a long life of observation, Jan has published papers on a long string of species. Among others these include a series on the invasive population of mute swans in the Bay, the barn owl, waterfowl migration, pelagic species in the Bay, fish crows, cedar waxwings, chimney swifts, great blue herons and red-winged blackbirds. His energetic engagement with the questions and advancement of research insures that there is no lack of topics to pursue. We never know where the sparks that we create land. His 7th grade teacher could never anticipated the fire he was igniting in Jan and what that fire would produce.