In what could be irrefutable evidence of Missoula’s tight housing market, a great blue heron is regularly visiting the osprey nest in Hellgate Canyon, even going so far as to rearrange its twigs while the owners are away.
In videos taken Jan. 3 and Jan. 24, the heron acts like he owns the place, tromping through the snow in the nest and grabbing twigs with his long beak. The live videos show trains and vehicular traffic passing behind the nest as the heron’s long feathers flutter in the breeze while it watches the world go by.
In the Jan. 3 video, after standing on one leg with the other tucked tightly into its chest for about 20 minutes, the heron turns its back to the camera and swoops down, taking flight along the Clark Fork River.
“He’s checking out the penthouse suite,” Erick Greene, an osprey expert at the University of Montana, said with a laugh on Monday. “The ospreys are probably in Central America right now on some nice beach where it’s a lot warmer.”
Greene said this is the first time he’s seen a heron in the Hellgate osprey nest, which was built about a dozen years ago between the Missoula College and Riverside Health Care Center parking lots. Typically, herons are more like condominium dwellers, residing in groups of three or four “big stick” nests per tree, with 30 or 40 nests in their rookery.
“If you look across the river from Tower Road and downstream, you can see lots of stick nests,” Greene said. “They nest in colonies, with big stick nests together. They like to be by the river, and around here really go for the big cottonwood groves.”
The heron isn’t the only one swinging by the nest while the osprey are wintering down south. In a Jan. 21 video, a kestrel is perched on the edge of the nest, with feathers flying as he devours another small bird. And on Jan. 4, a northern flicker is seen foraging for yellowjackets, serving as part of the winter cleanup crew.
“We actually have quite a long list of birds that have hopped up on the nest for various reasons,” Greene said. “Flickers and robins and towhees; most are just hanging out, but there’s about 20 species of birds the camera sees at the nest.”
The Hellgate webcam is viewed by millions of people in more than 200 countries, and is part of the Montana Osprey Project. One comment on the osprey’s YouTube video site notes that the nest “gets more air traffic than O’Hare airport.”
The smaller birds swing by because the osprey apparently aren’t good housecleaners. Osprey fish all summer and by fall the nest has plenty of leftover bones and skin in it, accompanied by a lot of insects, including maggots and beetles.
“When the birds come in, it’s like a smorgasbord for them,” Greene said. “They gorge and gobble up all the maggots.”
Greene said the osprey pair — known affectionately as Iris and Louis — probably are vacationing separately thousands of miles to the south.
“They mate for life but take a break from each other, then get back together in the spring,” Greene said.
If the non-migratory heron decided to take up residence in the Hellgate nest, Greene expects it will be no match for the intimidating osprey predators when they return in March.
“I suspect the osprey would come in and drive off the heron, which are more skittish than geese,” Greene said. “It’s like the rock, scissor, paper game, and ospreys beat herons.”