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History

By Angie Preziotti
Oceana Magazine

13Each year, literally millions of people come to Ocean City to take a break from their everyday lives and live a bit of the wild life here at the shore. But amid the hubbub of the amusement parks, the bustling boardwalk and busy beaches, you can find a different kind of wildlife in the backyard of BJ’s on the Water.

Sitting at a table overlooking a serene, bayside lagoon at 75th Street, BJ’s owner Billy Carder laughs. ”Wouldn’t it be neat,” he muses, “to be a duck for a day?”

His contagious smile lights up when he begins to talk about his nearly-famous ducks and all the other wild creatures that come to roost at BJ’s.

“I love wildlife,” said Carder. “I grew up around it, so I guess it’s just in my blood.”

Carder was raised near Frostburg, Md., where he first fell in love with the great outdoors. Growing up in a rural area, he says, he was always outside playing in the woods or around the rivers. As a young boy Carder liked to fish and hunt and was an active member of his local Boy Scout troop, where he attained the rank of Eagle scout. His family was also always interested in wildlife, so it just seemed natural for him to take a liking to it as well.

Eventually, that liking turned into Ocean City’s very first “all-you-can-eat” buffet… for Carder’s web-footed friends… in the form of the daily duck feeding at BJ’s. (Granted, this particular buffet lacks variety, consisting as it does solely of feed corn, but for some 20 years now, there have been no complaints from the hundreds of ducks and geese who happily dive for the yellow kernels each day at 1 p.m.)

Carder prides himself on never missing a day of duck feeding yet.

“We are open every day but Christmas Eve and Christmas Day,” said Carder. “But those ducks get fed no matter what.” Leanne Matikonis, a bartender at BJ’s, agrees, “Yep, those ducks get fed every day, even in the snow. We even come in on Christmas Day to feed them.”

These daily duck feedings have become part of the allure of BJ’s. Children and adults alike seem to love to watch the action as wave after wave of waterfowl touches down on the quiet waters of the lagoon and form themselves into a flotilla of corn-hungry lunch patrons. “People come from all around to see the duck feedings,” said Carey Johnson, a BJ’s waiter.

Frank Retz, better known as Frank Frank, has been the one in charge of feeding the ducks for the last 18 years. “Everyone calls me Frank Frank,” laughs Retz. “They say that the ducks aren’t saying, ‘Quack, quack’; they’re saying ‘Frank, Frank.’”

1 (1)That could be. When Frank Frank first took over as “chef du cuisine” for the BJ’s ducks, he says he put out about 50 pounds of corn a week. Now it’s up to 70 pounds a day. “The ducks come floating in a little before 1 p.m. every day,” said Retz. “The only days they’re not on time is twice a year when we have the time change. They get confused,” he laughs. Regardless of whether his feathered friends remember to “spring forward” or “fall back” an hour, Carder says he still enjoys the duck feedings as much as ever. “It’s a pleasure just watching them,” smiles Carder. “It’s very relaxing and it puts things in perspective.”

There are mallards, black ducks, mergansers, cormorants, Canada geese and pintails, just to name a few, but Carder seems to be the most taken with the tiniest duck out there: the bufflehead.

“Look, there he goes diving under water,” Carder exclaims, practically jumping out of his seat. “He can stay under there for about 10 seconds. Isn’t that cool?”

Carder’s charm and enthusiasm truly shine through as he talks about this wildlife that he treasures so much. “Ducks can really do it all, can’t they?” says Carder. “They can dive and swim under water, float, walk on land and fly.” It’s a wistful observation and no doubt the basis for his earlier comment about wanting to be a duck for a day, but along with the many different species of ducks, there is plenty of other wildlife that resides in and around the quiet waters behind BJ’s.

From muskrats to turtles and from herons to osprey, the lagoon and the small island it surrounds just outside the restaurant’s huge bayfront windows are an ideal habitat for most species native to the shore. Years ago, when Carder went on vacation one winter, his friend, the late Tommy Hiller, and Frank Frank surprised him by building a platform on which the ospreys could nest. Not long after, the first pair of these great birds of prey took up residency in the newly constructed tower.

14Every year on March 21, the same male and female osprey returned to BJ’s to nest. The pair usually had and raised between one and four chicks before leaving each October. The ospreys developed quite a following among customers and staff alike at this popular mid-town restaurant-turned-wildlife preserve. Carder even set up a telescope and binoculars for patrons so they could check out the progress of the fledgling birds without disturbing them.

“It was really cool because people got to watch the babies develop,” he explained. “They’d come in and ask, ‘Did the eggs hatch yet?’ or ‘Did the babies start to fly yet?’” Last year, however, the familiar pair of raptors did not return to their nest. Carder believes the construction of a large condominium building just north of the BJ’s lagoon may well have made the area seem too unsettled for this dedicated pair of parents, but now that the chaos of that construction is over, he has his fingers crossed that the osprey will return once more. He certainly hopes so. “No where else in town has this unique wildlife,” said Carder. “We have just about every type of wildlife from the Eastern Shore right here, except for deer.” That’s in no small part because under normal circumstances, the wildlife that surrounds BJ’s goes virtually undisturbed throughout the year. Undisturbed, that is, except for the one day each summer when hundreds of people show up for annual BJ’s canoe races. “The ducks just take a day off when we have the canoe races,” jokes Carder.

Keeping the area tranquil for the other 364 days each year, however, is something Carder takes very seriously.

The ever-expanding encroachment of condominiums and townhouses within the city limits has reduced the suitable wildlife habitats on this barrier island. And what construction hasn’t affected, modern play toys have.

The shallow water of the BJ’s lagoon and large parts of the bay beyond is really suited only for the aforementioned canoes and, unfortunately, a far more intrusive kind of watercraft. The jet ski. “If we had them [jet skis] around this area, then the ducks wouldn’t be here,” Carder explained. “We like having the ducks here, and I think they like being here,” he said. Then, in a more somber mood, he goes on to say that he believes it is his job to ensure the safety of the animals and the habitat that make this small corner of Delmarva unique.

“I’m just trying to be responsible for this little area,” Carder explained. “I just want to do my part by protecting what’s here.”

Carder hopes that people will see that there is more to this resort town than just the beaches. That is why he also is active with charities that preserve the wetlands, such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and his personal favorite, Ducks Unlimited. Ducks Unlimited pictures and prints hang from the walls inside the restaurant, contributing to the friendly, relaxed and decidedly environmentally friendly atmosphere that for 26 years has been the trademark of BJ’s.

The same tenacious consistency that Carder has shown in preserving the wildlife around his establishment is put to good work inside the restaurant as well. For instance, the kitchen at BJ’s never closes early. Customers can get anything off the lunch or dinner menu until 1:30 a.m., seven days a week.

“It doesn’t matter how slow we might be, we never close early,” said Carder. “And that is something I really take pride in.”

Many of BJ’s employees and even more of the popular restaurant’s regular customers have been there since the doors first opened in 1979.

Together, they have watched more than just ducks; they have watched each other’s children grow up, go to college and even get married. Some have even followed in their parent’s footsteps and started working at BJ’s themselves.

“It’s funny because there were some people who were coming here in 1979, and now their kids are coming in,” laughs Carder. That kind of longevity requires a team effort, and Carder’s No. 1 teammate has been his wife, Madlyn.

Madlyn, he says proudly, is a major part of the BJ’s operation. She is the hard-working woman behind the scenes who also ran the Carders’ First Street restaurant, BJ’s South. However, this year will be the Carders’ first summer in 18 years without BJ’s South. The property was recently sold, and high-end townhomes are slated to be built there. “So now,” says Carder, “we’re looking forward to having a little more free time.”

Of course, for Carder himself, there’s no better use of “free time” than scanning the view from the BJ’s dining room at 75th Street in search of another bufflehead duck, hidden in a sea of mallards, canvasbacks and mergansers… unless it’s to offer someone else a helping hand. “I used to be the new kid on the block; now I’m the old guy on the block,” laughs Carder. “I remember when I had to ask for advice, and now a lot of these young guys opening bars and restaurants are asking me.”

Since 1979 much about BJ’s has remained the same, from the loyalty of its customers and staff to the clockwork appearance of corn-craving waterfowl every day at 1 p.m. “BJ’s is about making people feel comfortable. It’s about the ducks, it’s about being open year-round, and it’s about the kitchen always staying open,” said Carder. “It’s the fact that we’re still the same, and there is something to be said for that,” he said. “It’s something I’m very proud of.”