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How to birdwatch from thousands of kilometres away

Iris nesting in Missoula, Mont.

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.

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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."

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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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Last year when Iris returned, there was no sign of Stanley. They migrate separately. While waiting for Stan, Iris took up with Midas. Midas had lost his mate when they nested on a power line (she was electrocuted). So Midas hooked up with Iris, who laid three eggs. Then, in swooped Stanley. He dispatched Midas. He destroyed the eggs. They started over, quickly laying two eggs. I was hooked the moment those reptilian, grey blobs broke out of their shells.

"These cams are reality shows at their best," says Janice Maxwell, who watches from Vancouver.

Dee Williams of St. Louis, another Iris and Stanley devotee, was so moved by the birds last year that she wrote a book about them. She also created her own osprey fan page, even though she knew almost nothing about social media. "Watching the ospreys is very special to all of us diehards," she says. "We live and die with them during their breeding season.

"Are we crazy?" she adds. "Probably…"

Webcam viewers aren't just fans; they also inform the science. On the osprey project Facebook page, viewers keep tabs on every fish Stanley brings to the nest, giving Prof. Greene and his team a perfect record of what species the birds are catching.

At Cornell's Lab of Ornithology, Prof. Eldermire runs seven cameras that have recorded more than 20 terabytes of high-resolution video. They've captured behaviours that had never been seen – by the public or by scientists.

Prof. Eldermire tells me about the female heron who was attacked one night in her nest at Sapsucker Woods, the 93-hectare sanctuary where the Lab of Ornithology is based. The sound of her screaming woke up a viewer who had fallen asleep with the audio on. It was 3 a.m. He e-mailed Prof. Eldermire, who went through the video the next morning. A great horned owl had swooped in and tried to carry off the heron.

"We saw the entire response to that," Prof. Eldermire says. "A vocalization that had never been recorded before, a posture we had never seen before." The female was fine, but lost the beautiful nuptial plumes off her head.

Prof. Greene admits he was "dragged kicking and screaming" into social media. Until, one Sunday afternoon a couple of years ago, he got sudden, urgent e-mails from New Jersey, Wales, even Estonia. Stanley had brought a fish to the nest still attached to a hook and monofilament line. One of the chicks appeared to be wrapped in the line. Prof. Greene scrambled to locate someone with a bucket truck. He found Bob, a local arborist, who took him up to the nest. The hook was in the chick's leg, and the line was around its neck. The chick survived (and was named Captain Hook). Prof. Greene posted pictures of Bob on Facebook. "The world went nuts. …We had people offering to have Bob's babies, telling him there's a special place in heaven for him."

Prof. Greene says viewers' emotional attachment to one osprey family is an invaluable tool in his efforts to study the birds. And it makes paying attention to them near-addictive. I care more about catching birds in the moment – now I spend a lot of summer weekends down on Toronto's Leslie Spit, and I keep my binoculars by the door in case I hear something unusual in the trees.

But it's hard not to anthropomorphize animals, which has real drawbacks and makes scientists like Prof. Greene uncomfortable. Last summer, as the heat topped 38 C, I watched both Iris and Harriet, an osprey monitored by a second webcam at Dunrovin Ranch in Lolo, Mont., shading their chicks, wings spread like an umbrella – for hours. Life as a bird is tough.

And then there was the time, a few years back, when Montana's Clark Fork River flooded. Prof. Greene says the river was muddy, making it impossible for the osprey to fish. Iris had three chicks then (this was before Stanley). And they were starving.

Prof. Greene put up warnings about siblicide. He knew what was about to happen – and that it was about to happen on camera.

"If there's not enough food to go around, the biggest chick will kill all the other chicks in the nest. And the parents will stand by and do nothing. It's very, very hard to watch. But it's a part of nature. We decided we wouldn't interfere with it."

He was not prepared for the online onslaught. "There were a lot of people who were furious at us," he says. People called him and his team cold-hearted, cruel scientists. One person offered to buy all the fish the birds needed if they would just go get the chicks and raise them by hand. That, Prof. Greene says, was missing the point. It's nature. It's adaptive. It's difficult. That year one healthy chick fledged.

Yet for all the heartaches, there are thrills to watching nature do her thing. Miles, Iris's youngest chick, was the first to leave the nest last year. He spread his wings, hopped around. Then he flapped and started getting air, so high he disappeared for a second, then floated back down. The next morning at dawn, I watched as he widened his wings to the wind and flew off to the north.

I sat on the edge of my seat, yelling at the camera.

A RANDOM LIST OF BIRDCAMS

Montana Osprey Project

cas.umt.edu/geosciences/osprey/nestCams

Peregrine falcons, Toronto

www.peregrine-foundation.ca/webcams.html

The Dyfi Osprey Project, Wales

dyfiospreyproject.com/stream

Bald eagles of Hornby Island, B.C.

www.hornbyeagles.com/HEGPSchat.htm

Hancock Wildlife Foundation, bald eagles, various cameras, British Columbia

www.hancockwildlife.org

Decorah bald eagles, Decorah, Ia.

www.ustream.tv/decoraheagles

Great blue herons of Sapsucker Woods, Ithaca, N.Y.

cams.allaboutbirds.org/channel/8/Great_Blue_Herons

Red-tailed hawks, Ithaca, New York

cams.allaboutbirds.org/channel/16/Red-tailed_Hawks

Storks in Poland

bociany-online.pl

National Audubon Society Puffin Burrow, Seal Island, Me.

explore.org/live-cams/player/puffin-burrow-cam

Channel Island Allen Hummingbird, Orange County, Ca.

www.ustream.tv/hummingbirdnestcam

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