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Followers of Iris the osprey celebrate her chicks hatching

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This next story takes us to Montana for the story of a world-famous mom, Iris, who is an osprey, a bird known for dramatic, high-speed dives into the water to catch fish, and in this case, known as an Internet star, because a webcam trained on Iris and her nest captivated more than 20,000 followers, some of whom noticed she hadn't hatched any chicks in a while. Austin Amestoy with Montana Public Radio is all over this story.

AUSTIN AMESTOY, BYLINE: It's a cloudless spring morning, and high atop a wooden pole and a huge nest, an osprey calls over and over.

(SOUNDBITE OF OSPREY CHIRPING)

AMESTOY: Ornitologist Erick Greene stands nearby, binoculars in hand. The Clark Fork River rushes a few dozen feet away.

ERICK GREENE: When she calls like that, that call means she usually sees her mate.

AMESTOY: He lifts his binoculars and peers down river.

GREENE: Oh, here he comes. Here he comes. Here he comes. Yep. See him right here?

AMESTOY: Sure enough, a second osprey swoops over to the nest, clutching a small fish. He hands off the catch to his mate, Iris. She starts to chow down. Greene says this is a huge deal. Iris hasn't had a reliable mate for five years, and those five years have been tough.

GREENE: Different males, you know, ups and downs, losing babies, losing eggs.

AMESTOY: Greene is hoping this year is different. Iris is incubating two eggs that could be close to hatching. Sharon Leigh Miles leads a team of volunteers who operate the nest camera.

SHARON LEIGH MILES: When Iris returns, my husband says I'll see you in the fall. Literally every year.

AMESTOY: Miles has witnessed Iris' triumphs and tragedies since 2013. She remembers the last time Iris successfully raised a chick back in 2018 and how close it came to ending very differently. Iris' former mate was having a hard time feeding his young family. Female ospreys typically stay in the nest to protect their hatchlings. Two of their chicks died of malnutrition. And one day, Miles watched Iris leave the nest, and her remaining baby, unguarded.

MILES: And she was gone a long time. And I was petrified.

AMESTOY: Miles knew a raven could come by at any moment and carry the last chick away. Long minutes passed until...

MILES: Iris came back with the biggest fish you have ever seen. She did what she had to do, and that's a great mom.

AMESTOY: In the years since, fans like Miles have tuned in every spring and watched anxiously to see if she'd find a new mate. Each year, no dice. It was starting to look like Iris' years as a mother were behind her. It was a harsh reminder for her online fans that the nest camera wasn't showing a feel-good movie. It was nature, and nature can be unforgiving. Charles Eldermire says that's part of the appeal of a nest camera. It's authenticity. He runs Cornell Lab's bird cam program.

CHARLES ELDERMIRE: It's not a David Attenborough special where we're, like, curating a particular set of scenes with a script to try and get you somewhere. We're literally kind of opening a window.

AMESTOY: This year, Iris watchers caught a glimmer of hope. Iris chose a new mate - a young male fans named Finnegan. He hauled in huge catches day after day and helped Iris incubate their two eggs. And finally, Iris' first chick in five years hatched. Camera operator Sharon Leigh Miles says she's over the moon for Iris and her fans.

MILES: Something popped into my head, and it was the 1980 miracle on ice. And I think this is the miracle in the nest.

AMESTOY: A few days later, egg number two hatched, as well. Both chicks are looking healthy and well fed under the watchful eye of their experienced mom.

(SOUNDBITE OF OSPREY CHIRPING)

AMESTOY: For NPR News, I'm Austin Amestoy in Missoula, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOLY HIVE SONG, "KINGS AND QUEENS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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