The thunderstorm that rolled through Missoula on June 12 put internet users across the globe on edge. Two of the city's biggest online stars—a mated pair of osprey named Iris and Louis—were caring for Iris's first brood since 2014. Over the prior week, thousands of people had watched the baby birds hatch, a biological drama broadcast live in high definition via the Hellgate Canyon Nest Cam. Faithful followers knew the perils of a storm. In 2015, a late-May hailstorm smashed Iris' three speckled brown eggs just before they could hatch.
So as the thunderstorm approached, one of the operators of the @HellgateOsprey Twitter account asked followers to send "pure thoughts." That person then offered a word of caution: "Know your limits on what you are able to watch."
Every day brings new drama on the nest cam, and seven years of broadcasting has attracted an international following of animal lovers who hang on each twist of fate.
The video feed, attached to an osprey nesting platform adjacent to the new Missoula College building, is overseen primarily by University of Montana ecologist Erick Greene as the public education component of a larger osprey research project. It's become one of the most popular bird cameras in the world, Greene says, with views from more than 200 countries. More than 13,000 people follow the Facebook page where he posts regular updates.
"There's a lot of people who are spending a lot of their lives watching this camera," he says.
Greene works with a network of remote volunteers to operate the camera and social media feeds 24 hours a day (the early-morning shift is claimed by a man in England). Other viewers, he says, have taken vacations to Missoula after becoming engrossed in Iris's life.
Greene understands the passion. He's been studying ospreys for more than 30 years and says the nest cam has given him a more intimate connection with the animals than anything else in his research. One challenge, Greene says, is to translate viewers' sentimental attachment to specific animals into a more nuanced understanding of the broader ecological forces, including climate change and mining pollution, that affect them.
Another challenge is to help viewers process tragedy. "Since it's on a screen, it's easy to get lulled into thinking this is a feel-good Disney movie," Greene says.
The first of the four chicks to hatch this month died after inexplicably wandering out from under Iris in the middle of the night (osprey chicks can't regulate their body temperature, making them vulnerable to hypothermia). And dangers lie ahead for the three that remain. Runoff from recent storms will make fishing difficult for Louis. Baby birds that grow hungry can become aggressive, triggering a pecking behavior known as siblicide.
Greene is already thinking about what to tell Facebook followers in case siblicide occurs in the difficult weeks ahead.
"That can be really upsetting and hard to watch," he says. "It's hard for me to watch."