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Mom was really not happy.

Mom, in this case, was a female osprey who flew around a gaggle of scientists and children south of Warm Springs Ponds. They were holding Mom’s osprey chicks captive.

But it was temporary and for a worthy cause.

Erick Greene, University of Montana-Missoula health science professor, and some additional scientists along with a group of fourth- through sixth-graders from the Butte YMCA summer camp huddled around three osprey chicks Thursday morning to band the birds and check to see if the state’s Superfund cleanup and restoration is still working along the Clark Fork River.

Greene has been sampling blood from osprey chicks along the Clark Fork River for 12 years. The osprey return to the same nesting area every year, and they eat only fish, so they have been the canary in the coal mine, so to speak, when it comes to understanding how the restoration work is affecting the local ecology.

The ospreys' levels of metals contamination has been decreasing over the last 12 years, Greene said.

However, Greene said he still sees high levels of mercury in the osprey.

“Mercury is through the roof around Drummond below where Flint Creek comes in,” Greene said Thursday morning.

Fred Burr Creek drains into Flint Creek. Fred Burr Creek has high levels of methyl mercury due to an old silver stamp mill that existed about 6 miles east of Philipsburg around the beginning of the 20th century. A group called the Granite Headwaters is testing Fred Burr Creek this summer and hopes to clean it up in the future.

Greene operates the osprey web cam at the University of Montana-Missoula campus. Anyone anywhere in the world can tune in and check out what Iris, a 20-year-old osprey, is up to while she’s nesting. Iris has gained an international following.

Chris Boyle, from Clark Fork Watershed Education Program, said the program is “so visual and powerful” for the young students.

“They can learn about birds and research,” he said.

NorthWestern Energy provided the bucket to lift Greene up to the nest to extract the osprey chicks. There were three.

Dalit Guscio, a University of Montana-Missoula biologist, said the osprey nest — just east of Interstate 90 at the south fishing access site on Warm Springs Ponds — is the healthiest osprey nest they’ve seen this year.

The high waters, due to significant rain this year, are hard on osprey because it makes fishing tough on the birds.

“This could be what the future looks like with climate change,” said Guscio.

There has been “massive” starvation of osprey chicks near Missoula because the birds can't get enough fish, Guscio said.

The program costs around $10,000 a year. The money comes from a grant from the Natural Resource Damage Council.

The three osprey chicks weighed between 1,380 grams and 990 grams. This is the first year the researchers have seen chicks too small to band.

While the students watched, the researchers banded the birds and drew blood. A male osprey, the papa, showed up with a fish in his claws. He joined the female osprey, who had a twig in her claws. Together they swooped overhead, and the female cried repeatedly against a brilliant blue sky.

At least 30 percent of the nests have at least one bird tied up in twine, said Sam Milodragovich, biologist for NorthWestern Energy.

“Even one thread in the twine can be deadly,” said Guscio.

After Warm Springs Ponds, the researchers and children headed to a nest outside of Galen. That nest contained an osprey who had been banded as a chick five years ago.

This is the first time the researchers have been able to band chicks born of a banded mother bird.

After Galen, the researchers banded chicks at four additional osprey nests south of Deer Lodge along the Clark Fork River.

Amelia Hill, 11, thought that watching the bird banding and blood sampling was “awesome.”

The Margaret Leary Elementary School student said she will be looking at the osprey nest south of Warm Springs Ponds the next time she travels Interstate 90.

“The birds really mean a lot to the whole world,” she said.

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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