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Youth learning from the young: Summer campers & the Montana Osprey Project


Montana History Center day camp kids help band Osprey chick

On July 25th the Montana Osprey Project wrapped up its onsite banding research for the year with the help of summer campers from the Montana Natural History Center. The Montana Osprey Project studies the ecology of these birds and whether the birds have been contaminated with heavy metals (from mining) in the upper Clark Fork River and its tributaries.

(Full disclosure: As an amateur birder and spouse of a History Center staffer, I got invited along — what a fun and interesting morning out of the office!)

Why wrap up this research component when it seems that summer in Montana is just hitting its stride?

It takes a bucket truck to reach the nest on top of the telephone pole.
Photo credit: Bart Bauer

Because the osprey chicks are also about to hit their stride. The chicks believe they can fly — but they can’t, quite yet. Around this time of year they are right on the threshold of taking that first leap out of the nest. Because of that, when the researchers move in for the capture the chicks start moving in the opposite direction … so the researchers have to be extra careful the birds don’t fall out of the nest. Also, as the summer goes on capturing these growing creatures becomes more of a challenge because as chicks mature they get a bit feistier — and their beaks and claws are growing along with their personalities.

In addition to the summer campers, we were also joined by bloodsucking mosquitoes en masse, sheep and their herding companion, and — oh yes — Mama Osprey. She was clearly not impressed by our presence. Mama circled overhead the entire time, screeching and carrying a fish in her claws. I’m sure she felt we were up to no good and that only harm would come to her babies.

Project staffer holding large bundle of twine found in nest
Photo credit: Suzanne Elfstrom

As bad luck would have it, harm had come to one of her babies long before we ever arrived. In addition to two healthy chicks, we discovered an unhatched egg and another small hatchling that had not survived. The poor chick died because its right leg was wrapped in twine, essentially tying it to the nest. Finding twine in osprey nests is unfortunately a common occurrence. The twine is soft and therefore provides a nice, comfy nest but obviously can be dangerous. When our host, Erick Green, asked the kids to quantify how much twine had been discovered in the nest, they shouted out “a ton!” You can see for yourselves.

What information does the Montana Osprey Project collect?

So, getting back to the project at hand — each chick goes through a series of quick steps in order to gather enough information to determine the overall health of the bird and track metal toxins in the river.

staffer holding Osprey chick showing leg bands
Photo credit: Bart Bauer

Band — There are two bands placed on the bird’s leg. One is a bright blue plastic band with a combination of one number and one letter. This leg band lets observers like myself identify the bird and share that information with the project regarding the bird’s activities. The other band is metal and has a longer shelf life. This second band is identified within the project’s records and associated with the bird’s overall statistics.

Feather — After the bird is banded, data collection begins. The first step: a feather is plucked from the bird and placed in an envelope marked with the silver band number. This is done to get a measure of the heavy metals at the time the feather was grown and it also serves as a backup to the blood sample.

weighing the osprey chick
Photo credit: Bart Bauer

Weight — How do you weigh a bird that won’t stand still? Why, you wrap him or her up in a sleeve of an old sweatshirt of course. While birds don’t normally lie on their backs, this little guy (or gal) behaved like a champ!

Blood sample — The trickiest part of the process is getting the blood sample. The researcher, Dalit Guscio (shown here on the left), requires steady hands and asked for silence among the audience. Birds’ veins are so small there is not a lot of room for error. But the blood that is drawn from the bird will provide researchers a DNA sample and define the sex of the bird; the blood sample will also show if he or she has any heavy metals in its system and identify those metals if present.

Since 2006, more than 300 chicks have been cataloged. And each summer, around 20 nests along the Clark Fork River corridor are monitored. You can check out live nest cams located at Hellgate Canyon and Dunrovin Ranch in Lolo. Housed at the University of Montana, the project is also supported by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

kids in an osprey net
Photo credit: Bart Bauer

The chicks safely returned to their nest and joined by Mama Osprey marked the end of our adventure. Also, Camp Counselor Torrye safely returned the Montana Natural History Center’s “osprey” to their bus. To learn more about Montana Natural History Center’s summer camps, visit its website and/or Facebook.

Special thanks to the Montana Natural History Center and Montana Osprey Project (Erick Green, Rob Domenech, Adam Shreading and Dalit Guscio).

Feature photo at top: By Bart Bauer