Let’s call her Clara. She’s the goose in the osprey nest at the Missoula Osprey’s baseball stadium.
Clara and her mate vigorously defended the nest on its manmade platform beyond the centerfield fence at Ogren-Allegiance Park when the usual summer residents returned several weeks ago.
It’s spring, and things change by the minute. But as of late Thursday afternoon, the goose was still there, hunched in the wind over eggs that are hatching or soon will be, her slender neck and black-and-white head silhouetted against the overcast sky.
The osprey that normally inhabit the nest? They were still upset, not to mention amorous. And homeless.
“They really need a spot,” said Julie Toenyes, a neighbor who has been tracking the drama on twice-daily walks. “I’ve been watching these birds for four years. They’re stressed out right now, squawking and crying almost all day long. They’re frantic.”
The two osprey have begun construction of their fourth nest since abdicating to the goose and her rarely seen mate.
Toenyes said they’ve been blown out of a cottonwood tree and shooed off a bank of lights at nearby McCormick Park. Just last weekend, the birds were evicted from a crane working on the Montana Rail Link overpass at the end of Cregg Lane.
The osprey’s latest attempt at a nest of twigs and string and branches is maybe 500 yards from Clara – but still well within eyesight of her – on a listing NorthWestern Energy power pole along the Milwaukee Trail.
The nest figures to be as short-lived as the previous three. For a bunch of reasons, the power company can’t let birds of prey, or any other kind, nest near its lines.
Crews were out Thursday morning trying to remove the osprey’s early efforts and placing yellow “hoops” on other poles in the area to deter future nesting events, according to NorthWestern Energy spokesman Butch Larcombe.
Canada goose eggs have an incubation period of 24-30 days, depending on which website you consult. So Clara’s are getting close to the end of theirs. Once they’ve all hatched, she’ll urge the tiny fluff balls from the nest.
“They jump,” said Rob Domenech of the Raptor View Research Institute in Missoula.
“They’re lightweight. Their down kind of cushions them from their fall.”
Then they head for the river to do goosy things and try to survive for the rest of the spring and summer.
The burning question: Will they be gone soon enough to do the osprey any good?
Domenech, for one, thinks there’s a good chance. This kind of tension is going on up and down the rivers and streams of western Montana right now.
“We see this annually where the geese set up shop before the osprey come back,” he said. “It’s my thought, and these are observations we’ve made in the past, that just when you think the osprey is going to run out of time, the eggs hatch, the geese bail, and (the osprey) can slide in there and do what they need to do.”
Sam Milodragovich thinks there’s a better than 50 percent chance, depending on when the geese leave. A wildlife biologist for NorthWestern Energy in Butte, Milodragovich has been monitoring osprey nests up and down the Clark Fork River for years.
There was discussion in recent days between NorthWestern Energy, the city of Missoula and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks about erecting an alternative platform for the displaced osprey to build on.
“Right now the decision is to hold off doing that,” Larcombe said. “The plan is to try to buy some time until the geese leave and hope the osprey can go back to their nest.”
Milodragovich is concerned that putting up another platform might attract a second pair of nesting osprey to an area that isn’t a good fit.
As for the baseball Osprey, team vice president Matt Ellis issued a news release Thursday that said, in lighthearted fashion, that a name change to the Missoula Geese “is not in the immediate future.”
“It is hoped that the osprey will return to the nest once the geese leave later this month,” the release added.
Toenyes said she watched throughout the winter as “a huge, and I mean huge” flock of geese made themselves at home in the stadium. Along about February, most of them disappeared, leaving about six pair.
Come early March, Clara and her gander friend commandeered the osprey nest. Toenyes doesn’t recall the exact date, but it wasn’t much later that the two osprey showed up – very early for them to be migrating north. Only in the past week or so have osprey showed up on webcams at the mouth of Hellgate Canyon (livestream.com/hellgateosprey) and at Dunrovin Ranch in Lolo (livestream.com/ospreys).
Osprey don’t start breeding until they’re 3 years old, and these are “probably seasoned veterans in those terms,” Domenech said. “It suggests to me they’re actually experienced and they know to get back to their breeding grounds early. Unfortunately the geese beat them to it.”
Toenyes had a firsthand view of the early confrontations.
“It was right before we had the nice warm weather,” she said. “I could see the osprey flying around and hanging around, and all of a sudden the next morning they were dive bombing that platform that the two geese were sitting on.”
Actually, Toenyes said, it was just the female doing the dive-bombing.
“I don’t know why the male wasn’t helping her chase them out of there,” she said. “They would just put their heads down every time she came down. I could only stay about an hour because I had to get to work, but she kept dive bombing to get them out of there. They wouldn’t budge.”
The nest platform was erected in 2006 in hopes of attracting nesting osprey to Osprey stadium. A pair had just lost its old nest on a power pole at the far end of the adjacent abandoned mill site when the pole was removed.
The osprey did come, and they’ve returned each spring since. Their eggs hatch shortly before the Pioneer League season begins in June, and fans are entertained throughout the summer by the antics and screams of the birds.
The upper-case Osprey believe they’re the only professional sports team with a mascot living in its natural habitat at their stadium. (Fans in Arizona can only be thankful their Diamondbacks, the Osprey’s parent team, don’t have a similar distinction.)
The whole goose-vs.-osprey saga is a lesson in how nature works.
“The only reason we’re talking about it is it happens to be this particular platform,” Domenech said.
It’s also a good lesson in determination, said another neighbor, Rick Anthony, who has spent the week drumming up attention and trying to coordinate communications between the agencies and interested parties to come up with a resolution.
“These birds still want to rock-and-roll despite every single obstacle that is thrown at them,” Anthony said in an email Thursday. “They do not make excuses!!! They don’t give up and lie down on the railroad tracks!!! This is really an inspiring story for … us humans to learn from!”