The traditional harbingers of spring include robins, tulips and buttercups. But for some in Montana’s riverside communities, ospreys are increasingly the primary symbols of April joy.
Last week, social media followers in Missoula and around the world were thrilled by the news that “Iris is back.” Iris, the female osprey that has long nested along the Clark Fork River in Missoula’s Hellgate Canyon, returned to her nest platform for her 15th year on Thursday afternoon.
University of Montana ecology professor Erick Greene posted on Facebook and Twitter that Iris touched down at a little after 4 p.m.
“It was a long trip. Rest well, our Queen!” Greene tweeted.
Iris has become a bit of a local hero over the past decade after the Montana Osprey Project installed a webcam to monitor Iris’ nest. The ability to watch her daily life has garnered a social media following of almost 22,000 people – dubbed CHOWs or Crazy Hellgate Osprey Watchers – many of whom responded to Greene’s announcement with happiness and relief.
This time of year is the beginning of osprey’s long migration from their equatorial wintering grounds to nesting sites in Montana. A few other notable ospreys have already returned over the past few weeks, including Starr, who nests near the Ogren Park baseball stadium and is often the first to return, and Harriett, who nests above Dunroven Ranch.
“Ospreys are trickling in steadily now. The next couple weeks, we’re going to see ospreys showing up on nests. But the old established ones are showing up now,” said Rob Domenech, Montana Osprey Project founder.
For the past week, Greene has been priming the CHOWs for Iris’ return with his “Iris Watch” posts showing webcam shots of a still-empty nest. Kate Davis and NorthWestern Energy built Iris’ nest platform in 2007 to encourage Iris to move away from some power poles she’d been using for 10 years.
During her 14 years on the platform, she returned once on April 4, twice on April 5 and twice on April 6. But April 7 holds the record with four returns, and now Greene can add a fifth to the tally.
Since Iris is at least 24 years old, some were worried that she might not return. But it’s clear she’s doing just fine, even after flying thousands of miles.
“She looks great – a whole new set of feathers she grew over the winter, and lots of energy,” Greene wrote.
Domenech said mature ospreys are notable for their predictability in spite of all the dangers they face during their long migration.
“Consistency is something we’ve observed with breeding osprey. We saw this with our telemetry work,” Domenech said. “We would have the adults arrive almost to the day every year, and often the male and the female would arrive, if not on the same day, within a day or two. It’s cool to see these veterans pulling it off annually against all odds.”
The odds are many.
Most of the risks are due to human activities. Ospreys can be electrocuted landing on power lines or killed by running into power and telephone lines. They can be struck by automobiles and airplanes or be attacked by other predators. They can starve if they can’t locate fish. But a growing problem is when ospreys become entangled in leftover strands of bailing twine and die a slow death.
Most ospreys won’t make it past their first year. Research suggests ospreys suffer nearly 70% mortality during the first year with most dying during their first solo migration down to the Gulf of Mexico.
Those that survive spend two years down south before making their first return trip north. Domenech has telemetry transmitters on three birds who should be making their first journey north this year. The transmitter signals show they’ve not left their wintering grounds yet, but Domenech said that’s not a surprise.
“They’re just coming up for a pilot season. They’ll check in where they were born, maybe recalibrate their (internal) GPS and then they’ll be off and running,” Domenech said.
Only about 50 years ago, ospreys almost went extinct due to the damaging effects of the pesticide DDT. Few if any ospreys nested along Montana’s lakes and rivers in the years before the 1972 DDT ban.
Since then, they’ve made a remarkable comeback in spite of the risks they still face. So when experienced birds like Iris and Harriett return to the Five Valleys to rear another season of chicks, it’s definitely a reason to celebrate.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.