It’s just 6 weeks old, but the osprey chick in a much-viewed nest at the mouth of the Hellgate Canyon has unusually deep roots here.
The bird is named L’el’e, according to a Facebook announcement last week by osprey expert Erick Greene of the University of Montana after he got the go-ahead from the family of the late Louis Adams.
It’s too soon to know for sure if L’el’e is a he or she, though Greene leans heavily toward the latter for reasons to be discussed later.
The original L’el’e, which sounds something like “let-let” without the t’s, was a favorite aunt of Adams, an eloquent Salish teacher and elder.
Adams made a deep impression in 2014 when he spoke at the groundbreaking of UM’s nearby Missoula College.
He gave a traditional blessing to the school site and to the osprey nest. Adams noted that his grandmother was born during the bitterroot harvest season just across the river, where the old people used to camp and where young people now play football in UM’s Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Two springs later, Iris the osprey’s longtime partner, Stanley, didn’t return to the Hellgate nest. He was suspected to have died over the winter.
Adams passed away unexpectedly at 82 on April 25, 2016. One day later, a young male osprey showed up at the nest to take Stanley’s place.
“Iris accepted him immediately, and we were honored that the Adams family let us name this new male Louis in memory of Louis Adams,” said Greene, who heads the Montana Osprey Project that streams the likes and lives of Iris, Louis and now L’el’e through cyberspace via webcam.
Greene calls Iris “a grand old dame in the osprey world.” She’s at least 20 years old and began nesting on a power pole just down the river when she reached breeding age, which Greene said for an osprey is typically at age 3, 4 or 5.
The platform the nest now occupies between parking lots of Missoula College and Riverside Health Care Center was built 11 years ago. The webcam was added in 2010 and began attracting online viewers from around the world.
Greene said in her time Iris has probably fledged 30 to 40 chicks.
“She’s an amazing osprey. Worth her weight in gold,” he said.
But the pair struggled in the first two breeding seasons after Louis took over.
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In 2016 the eggs were infertile. Last year they hatched but one infant osprey crawled out from under Iris and died of hypothermia. The others slowly starved to death as an inexperienced Louis tried to provide fish from the high, muddy Clark Fork and nearby streams.
Ma and Pa Osprey faced similar river conditions this year during the critical post-hatch days of early June. L’el’e hatched June 4. Siblings followed on June 5 and 8, but neither made it.
“I’m actually relieved,” said Greene. “There wasn’t enough food to raise three chicks. One is a good number given the conditions."
The high water has eased and Louis is getting the hang of hunting.
"He brought in eight fish a couple of days ago. The chick’s in a food coma half the time," Greene said. "This will be a real special occasion. I mean it's the first chick that Iris and Louis as a pair have been able to get."
There are always dangers ahead, perhaps the biggest from nest-raiding bald eagles. Like other female osprey along the Clark Fork, Iris has been observed helping Louis with the fishing during the lean times.
That doesn’t mean she’s neglecting her duties. Greene said on hot days Iris can be seen drooping her wings over her child, forming a “mombrella” that moves like a sundial to keep L’el’e shaded.
“She’ll fly off and scoot along the surface of the river, dragging her body through the water to get her breast feathers soaking wet. Then she turns herself into a swamp cooler. She comes back to the nest and shakes water all over her baby and herself,” said Greene.
On one recent fishing expedition, Iris was back to the nest within a minute, fish in talons.
Once the chick got big enough, Greene approached the Adams family about a name. Two of Louis Adams’ children, Myrna Dumontier and Arleen Adams, spoke last September on the importance of education and the environment at the dedication of Missoula College.
They and other family members suggested L’el’e, and L’el’e it will be.
Female osprey are a third larger than their male counterparts, and in Greene’s words, L’el’e “is growing like a porker.”
Brown speckles are beginning to appear on the chick’s neck. Green said a female osprey will have a “spotted necklace,” whereas “males like Louis will have a pure white breast.
"I’m kind of thinking it’s 90 percent (certainty) that she’s female.”