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Iris nesting in Missoula, Mont.
Iris nesting in Missoula, Mont.

How to birdwatch from thousands of kilometres away Add to ...

Friday, May 2, was a big day for fans of Iris and Stanley. We found out that they’re going to be parents.

Iris and Stanley are ospreys. They nest in Missoula, Mont., high above a parking lot in Hellgate Canyon.

I nest on my couch in Toronto, straining our Internet pipeline with images and sounds of my beloved ospreys via the webcams of the Montana Osprey Project at the University of Montana.

We upgraded our data plan last summer. We had to. How else was I going to see Iris lay her first egg of the spring and then add two more, including one on Mother’s Day?

I have joined tens of thousands of people around the world who tune in online to follow every development in the lives of Iris and Stanley. Last year, the project’s website got 50 million hits from 200 countries, according to University of Montana biologist Erick Greene. Its Facebook page just broke through the 7,440-likes mark.

It’s not just ospreys: Millions of people worldwide monitor webcams aimed at peregrines in Toronto, bald eagles on Hornby Island, B.C., puffins on Seal Island, Me., and storks in Poland.

And that’s just birds. From live webcams on the International Space Station to streaming from deep-sea explorations to grizzly bear-, meerkat- and tarantula-cams, logging into the natural world has become a mass obsession.

Naysayers jump to deride technology’s intrusion into the natural world as one more step in our species’ estrangement from the planet – last month, Parks Canada was blasted for announcing it plans to put WiFi in our national parks. But using technology to spy on a mother osprey and her hatchlings on your laptop computer can give us an unadulterated view of how wild animals live and die. There is no safari-vested TV host, no manipulated dramas, no zoo management in the way.

“I would make the case that what we’re offering is not a virtual experience.” says biologist Charles Eldermire, who runs seven cameras in the birdcam project at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology.

“It is a real experience. It is no different than looking through a pair of binoculars and seeing that image transformed by the glass right in front of your eye. And for many people, it is changing their relationship to nature because they didn’t know they had a relationship to nature. For some people, this is life-changing.”

Before I discovered the Montana ospreys, I’d hiked in Nepal and scuba-dived in Thailand. But for all those experiences offered, they couldn’t give me was the kind of intimate access to the everyday lives of animals I get from a birdcam.

The ospreys, like many of the species being monitored by webcams, live in precarious balance with humans.

Ospreys have come back from the brink of extinction after DDT was banned in 1972. Now, however, birds of prey are threatened by heavy metals: At the top of the food chain, ospreys eat fish that absorb mercury and other runoff from mining operations. Blood taken from the Montana osprey chicks show mercury levels from 100 to 800 micrograms per litre – the acceptable threshold for humans is 5.8.

Before the Montana Osprey Project – which tracks 200 osprey nests and has banded more than 300 chicks – most people were oblivious to the problem. Now, thousands watch Iris and Stanley come together every spring, rebuild their nests, mate, incubate, hatch and teach their infants how to thrive. And to see how humans affect their lives first-hand.

“We found these cameras are incredibly powerful,” says Prof. Greene, an ex-Montrealer who arrived in Montana 20 years ago after field work in the Arctic and the Galapagos. “Way, way, way more powerful than I would have ever thought at grabbing the public interest. People form these incredibly strong bonds and interest in individual ospreys and then it becomes much easier for them to relate to these larger issues like heavy-metal contamination … and what we’re going to do about it because it’s hurting ospreys like Iris and Stanley.”

Plus it can be quite the soap opera.

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