The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, or in this case, a flap of wings.
A Missoula-born osprey has become a celebrity among birdwatchers on the Gulf Coast of Texas.
The bird, named Emmett, was born in a nest at the stadium of the Missoula Osprey Pioneer League baseball team.
As a chick, it was tagged with a blue leg band bearing the designation “M8” by University of Montana wildlife biology professor Erick Greene and his team of researchers.
Greene runs the Montana Osprey Project in collaboration with Rob Domenech from the Raptor View Research Institute, one of the leading experts in raptor migration.
“We band lots and lots of osprey chicks as part of our research project. Usually they disappear off into the ether,” Greene said.
Instead, he received a call in September from a birdwatcher named Sally Mitchell who lives in Rockport, Texas, near Corpus Christi. Mitchell had been an avid watcher of the Montana Osprey Project’s two live webcams set up at osprey nests in Hellgate Canyon and Lolo.
She knew that all of their birds had blue bands on them, and told Greene she had seen and photographed “M8” near her home.
“I told her you found him, you have the naming rights,” he said. “She chose Emmett as a play on words of his designation.”
Sightings of a banded osprey are somewhat rare, Greene said, both because about half of all osprey chicks die shortly after leaving the nest, and because many migrate and winter in more remote areas where they are not likely to be seen.
The Montana Osprey Project has been banding and tracking the birds as part of a study on ecotoxicology of river system environments since 2006. The study is part of the response to the removal of Milltown Dam and its reservior during a federal Superfund cleanup.
“If there is a toxin, it gets contaminated all the way up the food system. When osprey eat big fish, they can get pretty substantial doses,” Greene said.
Small blood and feather samples from the osprey are tested for toxins. In particular, Greene and his team are looking for toxicity from five different heavy metals – arsenic, cadmium, zinc, lead and copper – although they also discovered that mercury is a concern.
In all, the project has banded more than 200 osprey chicks. When it began, Greene said there was a lot they didn’t know about osprey, particularly their migration habits and how far they go to spend the winter.
The Gulf Coast of Texas has been a popular wintering spot for Montana osprey, but Greene said they have also been seen on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Mexico, as well as in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
“We’re interested in seeing where they go, breed, and how long they live. It’s also very important to understand where they spend at least half their lives,” he said.