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Montana Osprey Viewed Around the World

Viewers around the world are watching an osprey pair raise their young on the banks of the Clark Fork River, thanks to a partnership between The University of Montana and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 

When the Cornell Lab, a Cornell University-affiliated world leader in the study and conservation of birds, expressed interest in partnering with UM on this webcam project, Professor Erick Greene and researcher Heiko Langner were thrilled.

“These cameras are a way to engage the public and to have the entire world view the ospreys we are researching,” Greene said. “It is an incredible opportunity for the world to gain an intimate perspective of an iconic Montana bird.”

In fact, the pair nesting above Riverside Health Center along the Clark Fork River, have been “reality TV stars” for just about a year. UM’s Department of Geosciences hosts the cameras to help researchers study the way mercury moves through the food chain in the Clark Fork River basin.

It was the quality of the images from the two high-resolution cameras that initially grabbed the interest of the Cornell Lab. Charles Eldermire, BirdCams project leader at the lab, is charged with finding sites all over the world to expand the BirdCams project so that anyone can observe avian behavior during breeding season.

“Our bird cams offer an intimate perspective into the everyday lives of birds, providing something at once both ordinary and extraordinary,” Eldermire said.

A 2002 UM alum with a master’s degree in biology, Eldermire studied behavioral ecology of mixed-species flocks of birds with Greene and UM Professor Dick Hutto. Familiar with UM’s Project Osprey research and impressed with the Missoula-area webcam quality, the Montana ospreys were a great fit for his expanding program.

When Cornell picked up UM’s 24/7 video feeds earlier this summer, their highly trafficked site offered the entire world a rare glimpse of the nest’s happenings during this special season.

“We’ve had hundreds of daily viewers—some of them as far away as Australia and Japan,” Greene said. “Even schools are broadcasting the live feed to their entire student body.”

While the world looks on, the UM scientists are learning about the health of local rivers by studying what the ospreys bring back to the nest and feed their chicks.

Because of their top position in the food web, ospreys are useful indicators of local environmental conditions. Young ospreys only eat fish their parents catch within a few miles of the nest, so these young birds reflect the condition of the local fish population, which in turn are indicators of river health.

When the baby birds are about 25 days old, the researchers use a roofing-lift vehicle to ascend to the nest to band the chicks and to collect very small blood and feather samples. The samples will be analyzed for environmental toxins back in Langner’s laboratory. The UM researchers partner in this effort with Rob Domenech, director of Raptor View Research Institute and a local raptor expert, and Dave Taylor, local roofing-business owner and citizen scientist.

So far the UM team is alarmed by what their studies have found. While the world might view the stunning Montana backdrop as pristine, Greene and Langner are discovering otherwise. They have found extremely high levels of mercury, a potent neurotoxin, in the osprey chicks along some parts of the Clark Fork River. Now their focus is to determine the long-term effects of these contaminants on ospreys and the ecosystem in general.

“We hope that these nest cams bring a larger awareness of overall river health to the folks watching,” said Greene. “Once citizens feel a connection to this species, we hope there will be a heightened desire for protecting the resource upon which they depend.”

The Hellgate webcam’s live stream can be viewed at http://www.cas.umt.edu/geosciences//faculty/langner/Osprey/montanaosprey4t/index.html.

For more information about the Cornell Lab or the worldwide BirdCams project, email Eldermire at nestcams@cornell.edu.