It's not like I'm against birds or anything. I've just never been a bird-watcher. That changed this summer when I was searching the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum's website and came across its live osprey nest cam.
There it was: a recently hatched chick, all cuteness and mischievousness, keeping mom and dad on their toes. I instantly became osprey-obsessed.
It was bad. I hadn't been this hooked since I discovered a puppy cam some years back. It became a background tab on my computer where I could check in during the day.
Hearing squawks was my cue to open the tab, because it usually meant my little cutie was awake and surely mom and dad would be bringing it snacks soon. It sometimes meant some perceived threat was nearby such as another bird flying overhead and mom and dad made their presence known. And other times, still no clue why the ruckus.
To justify to my manager why I was glued to a bird cam during work hours, I pitched a story about ospreys and reached out to the experts.
As it turns out, I'm not the only smitten one. The osprey cam, arb.umn.edu/content/osprey-cam, has a growing fan base in the tens of thousands. After all, it's a rare chance to observe a day in the life of the elusive, large raptors known as the fish hawk. And then there's the bonus of watching a rapidly growing chick go from sleepy to sprightly.
"These birds truly are fun to watch," said Eric Crowell, the arboretum's resident osprey expert.
And there's always plenty of drama. From the time the adult ospreys arrived in Minnesota this spring, watching them on a live cam has revealed a tale of joy and heartache, full of twists and turns.
There are popular osprey cams in other places, including in San Francisco and the United Kingdom, but the arb cam follows the ospreys during the warm weather months, after they return from the South to nest in Minnesota.
While the cam has been around for several years, its viewership increased after a high-resolution camera offered better visual and audio quality. Since the beginning of April, when the male and female started feathering their nest, the webcam has drawn over 27,000 page views. That number spiked in May around the time two eggs arrived.
The cam captures only one of three osprey nests on the 1,200-acre arboretum grounds. This one, perched high atop a defunct power pole, is on farmland at the arboretum's Horticultural Research Center in Victoria. The area isn't accessible to the public, which makes it an ideal place for the birds to call home.
"They're wild so they don't really want to be around a lot of activity," Crowell said. "There's farm activity, which is OK, but it's not constant."
The ospreys return each spring like clockwork, Crowell said. The male of a pair goes fishing and brings food back to the nest for the female. Then later in the spring, this year in mid-May, eggs are laid.
But there always are surprises. This year, severe June storms damaged the nest, causing one of the two eggs to roll to the edge and preventing the parents from incubating it.
That hit viewers hard.
Vanessa Greene of Twin Cities Metro Osprey Watch found herself fielding lots of questions on the organization's Facebook page, which is linked to the nest cam.
Some asked why the parents couldn't roll back the egg or if humans should intervene.
Greene, whose organization monitors all 170 known osprey nests in the metro area, said the goal of many bird cams is to show a slice of life and to educate the viewing public. Most cam operators try to not interfere with nature.
"Sometimes we don't like what we see, but this is how we learn about what happens on an osprey nest," she said. "Our human hearts want to fix things, but nature has its own way. "
When the other egg hatched in mid-June, social media was flooded with comments from viewers who posted "Welcome baby" messages.
Growing up fast
Ever since the egg hatched, the live stream is all about the parents looking over and feeding the chick. The family diet consists of 99% fish, supplemented with other reptiles and crustaceans.
"[Starting] when the chicks are 10 days old, they are already mobile and eat 1 to 3 pounds of food per day," Crowell said. "The parents really concentrate on taking food to the little one."
Early on, the mom tore the chick's food into small pieces. Now it is feeding itself. It's also growing so fast that it can be hard to tell the chick from the adults. (If you're just tuning in now, it's the one with the white-tipped feathers.)
The chick recently started exercising its wings, a sign that it will eventually take flight. That's a relief for me, after the chick fell off the nest twice this month and was returned to the nest by a lift. After one fall, it was taken to the Raptor Center for observation.
"In this case, we felt like we could interfere without creating problems," Crowell said.
Soon, we'll see the chick learn to fly.
"They'll do some test flights above the nest. At some time, they'll actually do a test flight out of the nest and come back," Crowell said.
In a few weeks, mom will bid the family adieu and begin her migration south. The father will stay behind to teach the little one how to fish. The two will likely hang around until October before migrating south.
The juvenile will then be on his or her own and will spend its first year in the South. By the second year, it will migrate back north to start its own family.
It's likely that one or both of its parents will return to the nest at the arboretum next spring.
"Our nest has seen the same father for several years," Crowell said. "He has a band that we can read." The females aren't banded, so it's difficult to tell if the mother is the same.
I'm looking forward to watching the chick gain its independence. And I can't wait for it to start all over again next spring. My only concern? I'll have to come up with another story to pitch.