By MADDY VITALE, OCNJDaily
Looking over the Ocean City Boardwalk – one thing was perfectly clear – there were still plenty of visitors Sunday taking in the last bit of Columbus Day weekend.
But the unwanted kind was nowhere in sight.
Seagulls that swooped down early in the summer to snatch pizza, fries and ice cream cones — and startled, annoyed and even injured some shore guests in the process — have reverted back to doing what they should do. Hunt for their own food.
That is all thanks to the city government for having the foresight to do something unconventional for a shore town – hiring falconers to fly birds of prey from hawks, falcons and even an owl named Ozzy – to scare away the gulls.
On Sunday afternoon, falconer P.J. Simonis, of East Coast Falcons, sent a female falcon named Blackberry up to circle the Boardwalk to ward off the gulls.
The few gulls that were still in the area took off. Some called out as if a warning sign for other gulls to leave because of imminent danger.
And like much of the latter half of the summer season into the shoulder season, instead of witnessing swarms of perched gulls awaiting their next free meal, gull-free rooftops on the Boardwalk stores have become the norm.
“I think it has worked excellently,” Ocean City Business Administrator George Savastano said Sunday afternoon. “It was an effective program to get rid of the pesky seagulls and a popular program with residents and visitors, both educational and entertaining.”
Savastano said the program was such a success the city is in negotiations with East Coast Falcons to return in 2020. This time they will begin in May and continue through Columbus Day weekend. Final details still need to be worked out so there isn’t an exact cost figure yet.
The city paid East Coast Falcons $2,100 per day to have the raptors fly over the entire island, particularly the tourist-friendly beaches and Boardwalk. The program began in August. Sunday was the last day for the raptors for 2019.
Erik Swanson, owner of East Coast Falcons, said the job went well. He spoke as crowds of curious spectators watched, snapped pictures with their cellphones and videoed Blackberry in action Sunday.
“I am really impressed by the mayor and George (Savastano). They put in a lot of work. With luck, George found us. We came down and they liked the idea. The seagulls were a big problem here. Now, they can brag they have a shore town that is almost gull-free.”
Swanson said the goal was always to scare the gulls and not to kill them. As of Sunday, the last day of the flights for the season, not one gull was killed, he noted.
The novel idea of using the birds in a beach community not only worked, but Ocean City became the first East Coast shore town to use the falconers.
Earlier in the summer, before the raptors arrived, the city and Mayor Jay Gillian heard complaints that children were being injured by gulls. The gulls were becoming increasingly more food aggressive.
“The mayor basically gave a directive to staff and me to do something as soon as possible,” Savastano explained.
After some research, Savastano discovered East Coast Falcons.
Initially, Savastano admitted he wasn’t so sure. “I hoped it would work. It looked like a logical thing to do, but you never know until you do something,” he recalled.
On the first day the birds were used in early August, Tilda, a falcon, was brought up to the Boardwalk by handler P.J. Simonis.
All Tilda had to do was flap her wings and gulls began to leave the area, Savastano said.
No one knew how long the seagulls would stay away.
Simonis worked 13-hour days flying some of the eight birds of prey at different intervals.
When nightfall came, so did Ozzy, an owl. He patrolled the skies up and down the length of the Boardwalk to scare away the gulls.
“Even the gulls that were biting people would only come in to steal a piece of garbage reluctantly. They didn’t bother the people,” Swanson recalled.
But the most important change was with the gulls’ hunting habits.
“I have had two or three 20- to 30-year residents saying this is the first time they are seeing gulls fishing and clamming in years. They are seeing the gulls drop clams in parking lots to open them up and fishing in the ocean,” Swanson said.
He continued, “That is what they are supposed to do. It is really cool because they are still here, but they are reverting back to their natural behavior and hunting and eating food that is healthy for them and much better than fries.”