What looked to be a banner year for Missoula’s Hellgate Canyon osprey pair ended bitterly over the weekend.
The final three chicks of an original hatch of four born in early June died of starvation, even as the adult male, nicknamed Louis, fended off attacks of a male intruder.
“The ultimate cause has been the difficult fishing conditions, with extremely high and muddy waters,” University of Montana wildlife biology professor Erick Greene wrote Sunday morning at 9:51 a.m. on the Montana Osprey Cams’ Facebook page. “Just as the rivers were starting to clear a bit, the strong rains of the last few days brought a lot more mud and silt into the rivers.”
The news brought a flurry of condolences from around the world for Louis and his mate Iris, and thanks to Greene and those who have helped follow the saga of the pair closely. The nest on a pole in the parking lot of the Riverside Health Care Center has built a loyal following since a camera was installed in 2010.
Iris and Louis “seemed so in sync” after arriving perhaps a little more than 24 hours apart, said Amanda C Muise-Clair of Nova Scotia in a post.
“This is such a sad outcome for the osprey world and all of us watching,” Muise-Clair said. “It is also a reminder of how hard it can be to be an osprey. Thank you for the educational insight, the reality checks and the pep talks. They are all very much appreciated.”
Suzanne Vertosick of Pittsburgh noted the three young robins she found dead on her sidewalk this spring, attacked by something just as they were ready to fledge.
“The drama of life unfolds all around us, and I'm grateful for the chances I've had to observe,” she said. “As harsh as this can be, it deepens appreciation for the wonder of all life.”
At Dunrovin Ranch in Lolo, another highly visible osprey pair nicknamed Hal and Harriet, themselves focus of a captive international audience, have a healthy nest of three chicks born in the first four days of June.
The osprey at the Missoula Osprey baseball stadium aren’t the center of webcam attention. But they appear to have a healthy nest of chicks. On Monday evening one of the adults munched on a large fish draped over the branch of a riverside tree nearby.
The birds will have centerfield seats at Ogren-Allegiance Field for the Paul Simon concert Wednesday evening and the Osprey baseball home opener on Friday.
Greene sent an update of the Hellgate nest at midmorning Monday.
“Those of us who work so hard behind the scenes to bring you the Hellgate nest camera are still in shock,” he said. “Even though we know that reproduction is tricky for many species of wildlife, we were hopeful that this year would be a success for Iris and Louis.”
The dead chicks remain in the nest, and the camera stays trained on the nest.
“We are interested to see what happens to them,” Greene said. “Will ravens come in and take them? Will they be left in place? Will Iris or Louis eventually drop them out of the nest? Or will they become part of the nest ecosystem?
Greene and many of the osprey followers kept watch on the nest, remarking when views of an osprey perched in a nearby tree or at UM’s Washington-Grizzly Stadium downriver.
“Would it be at all helpful,” suggested Niney Moon of New York, “to retrieve one of the littles and do a post mortem to check for metal levels?”
Greene wondered how long Iris and Louis will stay around.
The first nestling of their 2017 brood was lost on June 6. The oldest of two chicks, it crawled out from under Iris in the night for unknown reasons and died of hypothermia.
It’s the third consecutive year Iris will fly south leaving an empty nest behind. In 2015 she and her second mate, Stanley, lost three unhatched eggs to a violent hailstorm on the last day of May.
Last year Stanley failed to return in the spring and Louis, a younger male, arrived to take over duties. None of several eggs Iris laid produced a chick. Iris stayed on the last egg, nicknamed Dudley, throughout the summer.
“The lesson that I take away from this nest camera is an appreciation of the many challenges that wild animals must deal with in order to survive and successfully reproduce,” wrote Greene after breaking the bad news Sunday. “Iris had spoiled us for so many years by being such a successful osprey mother, and we had perhaps taken success for granted. RIP little chicks, Erick Greene.”