There was a time when the only good bird for science was a dead bird. Then came camera traps.

“If you put a band on an eagle, you might as well kiss it goodbye,” said Rob Domenech of Raptor View Research Institute, a Missoula-based organization probing the secrets of eagles, osprey and other birds of prey. “You might be lucky if it ever turns up again, and if it does, it’s almost always a mortality – about 85 percent of the time.”

Domenech’s crew has pioneered the technique of putting numbered tags on eagles’ wings, which are much easier to spot and report. The addition of remote, automated cameras revolutionized the process.

"A lot of landowners are putting camera traps on their property, just to see what’s out there,” Domenech said. “What that means is we stand a better chance of encounters. A large portion of our reported encounters over the last five years is from camera traps.”

Raptor View crews have to physically capture the birds to attach wing tags. The process typically only works once – raptors that have been netted quickly become trap-shy and wise to the researchers’ wiles. But the highly visible blue tags with letter-number codes make it easy for anyone to identify a bird in the study and add to its file of data.

“It’s a great opportunity for citizen-science participation,” Domenech said. “We wouldn’t get the number of wing-tag encounters we get if it was 20 years ago. We live in the age of information sharing, where if someone sees a wing-tag eagle, they Google it up, we come up and they give us a call.”

Fellow bird scientist Denver Holt of the Owl Research Institute in Charlo recently teamed with Explore.org to post his remote owl nest cameras on the multimedia organization’s website. Explore aggregates hundreds of remote cameras trained on wildlife habitat that can be viewed in real time.

Holt currently has cameras trained on a long-eared owl nest with six eggs due to hatch in the next two weeks, and a great horned owl that hatched two owlets last week.

Likewise, remote cameras keep up with several local osprey families. Some of the best-known include the Hellgate Canyon nest of osprey nicknamed Stanley and Iris, and the recently updated avian soap opera involving Harriet (who lost her Ozzie last year) and new suitors at the Dunrovin Ranch near Lolo.

While watching wildlife cameras might seem like a mindless pastime, Domenech said it contributes essential knowledge to understanding bird life. Recorded encounters with wing-tagged eagles help researchers understand how long a bird might live, where it migrates between winter and summer seasons, its general health, how fast or slow it travels, and the kinds of habitats it likes.

“The MPG Ranch by Florence has a network of cameras, and they really have a finger on the pulse with what’s going on with wildlife,” Domenech said. “We have number of our wing-tagged eagles turn up on their camera network. They’re located in a perfect spot for the Bitterroot Valley migration corridor. And it’s producing a huge amount of data.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.