Osprey Webcam: When Bird-Watching Goes Viral

Streaming images from a pair of nests in western Montana have transformed ospreys into worldwide reality stars

  • Doug Stewart
  • PhotoZone
  • May 09, 2013

“INTEREST HAS TAKEN OFF beyond our wildest expectations,” says biologist Erick Greene of the University of Montana in Missoula. With colleague environmental chemist Heiko Langner, Greene set up video cameras in two osprey nests (one, above) as part of a university research effort called Project Osprey. “What’s astounding, judging from our interactions with the people watching, is that 99 percent of them are not scientists or even interested in birds and other wildlife, but then they get hooked.”

The video cameras are, in part, a public-outreach tool of the project, which is gathering data on toxic threats to the birds. Over the years, dangerous heavy metals have leached into local rivers from old mine tailings. The researchers are particularly concerned about mercury that persists in the local environment—a byproduct of mining operations in the community of Butte at the headwaters of the Clark Fork River. In the water, mercury accumulates in fish, then concentrates further in animals that prey on those fish. Half of the osprey eggs laid near stretches of the Clark Fork where mercury levels are highest fail to hatch. The raptors are considered an icon in western Montana, where a minor league baseball team is called the Missoula Osprey.

Ospreys at Home on the Ranch

Sterling Miller, a former NWF senior wildlife biologist based in the Missoula area, lives on a small horse ranch on the Bitterroot River where the birds have nested for decades. In 2010, he and his wife SuzAnne volunteered to make the nest a Project Osprey study site, equipped with a second webcam that streams live images on the Internet.

Osprey Webcam Live Feed:


“We had more than 300,000 unique hits at our webcam site last year,” he says. The Millers heard from viewers as far away as Japan, England and Australia, and they recently upgraded their camera to high-definition video.

“For years, we’ve lived underneath this nest, and for years it has produced chicks,” says SuzAnne Miller, a naturalist and experienced raptor-watcher who worked in Alaska for two decades before moving back to her home turf in Montana. “But it wasn’t until I was able to watch the ospreys’ daily movements and distinguish their individual behaviors that I really became attached to them.”

“The male,” she says, “would land in the nest with a fish, then lift up the female’s wing with his beak to encourage her to get off the eggs. It was very unusual. It was like he was saying, ‘Okay, dear, your turn. Get some fish. I’ll incubate for a while.’”

Last year, the female laid three eggs, but none hatched. Mercury is a possible culprit. “People around the world were caught up in the drama of these birds continuing to incubate their eggs, waiting for them to hatch, long after it was clear the eggs were not viable,” SuzAnne says. The camera, which she can zoom and pan, offered close-up shots of the eggs. Hopeful viewers posted comments, some of them wondering if they could see cracks forming.

Osprey Webcam Viewers to the Rescue

The area’s other live-streamed osprey nest was more successful. The nest overlooks the parking lot of a nursing home in Hellgate Canyon near Missoula (below). All summer, hundreds of thousands of people watched online as three nestlings screamed deliriously at fish deliveries or listened to their parents vent their fury at encroaching bald eagles.

At one point last summer, one of the three chicks became entangled in monofilament line from a fish brought back to the nest. Fishing line can quickly strangle an osprey chick. It was a Sunday, and the researchers had not been online to check the nest.

“We were first alerted to the fishing line by an email from a woman in Estonia,” says Greene. “Then we heard from a woman in Wales.” The researchers also had set up a Facebook page for the ospreys, and in no time it became filled with alerts from concerned visitors. Borrowing a truck equipped with a bucket that can raise up to the level of the nest, the biologists raced to the scene to cut away the line from the chick and removed a fish hook embedded in its wing. The bird survived.

Both video streams are accessible via Facebook by searching for “osprey cams.” They can also be viewed through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website, which streams live video feeds from nests of not only ospreys but also great blue herons, red-tailed hawks and other birds.

When Birds Become Teachers

That osprey videos have gone viral has amazed the Montana scientists. All sorts of unexpected viewers have been drawn to the osprey webcams. Last year, a speech pathologist in Santa Ana, California, notified the Millers that the entire student body of Garfield Elementary School, 700 strong, was at that moment watching the birds in their classrooms. For nearly an hour afterwards, the students posed questions to the Millers via Twitter.

“It was something these kids would typically never be exposed to because this is a poor, inner-city area,” says Charlene Rus, the school’s speech therapist, who introduced the webcam to students. “It has become a valuable tool in my work.”

When school resumed last fall, several students told Rus they had watched the ospreys regularly throughout the summer. “These are kids who see gang violence in the alleys behind their apartments,” Rus says. “So to be able to use a webcam to take them out of that situation is something the kids have really latched onto.”

Encouraging Nature Education

Through its Schoolyard Habitats®, Be Out There® and other education programs, NWF provides parents, teachers and students with a wide range of information and activities that encourage outdoor play and an appreciation for the natural world. 

Massachusetts journalist Doug Stewart wrote about natural resource economics in the February/March issue.

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