Monday, June 01, 2015

Saving the Starlets of Osprey Cam: The Call of the Osprey by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent

On top of the tall metal pole at the edge of a health center parking lot is the remnants of an osprey nest and an extension on one side that holds a video camera. Three men shiver as they reactivate the camera in anticipation of the April arrival of Iris and Stanley, a pair of ospreys that nested there the previous season.

At least they hope Iris and Stanley will show up, since they proved to be outstanding parents. Stanley and Iris had attracted many fans around the world with their webcam, and people were eagerly awaiting the stories that would come with the new breeding season.

But there is more at stake here than the media careers of Stanley, Iris, and their hoped-for chicks. Since the banning of the insecticide DDT in the early days of the environmental movement, the public has rejoiced as one by one America's once iconic big birds, the bald eagle, the brown pelican, and the osprey have been removed from the endangered list and returned to safe population levels. Like Iris and Stanley, many nesting couples have become media darlings and millions of viewers enjoyed checking in daily as they watched their offspring hatch and mature and eventually fly away to begin their own lives.

But with that one chemical removed from the environment, others have been discovered, many the results of mining and drilling many decades ago, whose tailings came to rest in soil and streams, often windblown far from their sources. Arsenic, copper, lead, and mercury are elements--which means they do not decay in the environment, and scientists have learned that these make their way up the food chain, accumulating in animals like ospreys (and humans) at the top of the chain and producing potentially deadly biological damage.

Enter Iris and Stanley nesting atop their pole in Montana. Not only does the webcam offer 24/7 observation of nesting behavior impossible to obtain in the wild, but those starlet chicks make it possible for the biologists to take blood samples and determine the levels of these hazardous metal in their bodies, and ominously, in the bodies of people who also eat fish from local rivers.

Ascending the poles and safely taking samples from the chicks (while their parents are away) is a bit dramatic, but as is often the case with science, the real drama takes place in more mundane settings-- in the labs and in the reports of biologists who chart the levels of these elements and the scientists who are charged with finding methods to reduce these hazards hidden in the environment.

With a body no heavier than a good-sized chicken, in the wild the osprey's six-foot wingspan makes it an astonishing sight as it soars and dives underwater to capture a fish. Notable nature author Dorothy Hinshaw Patent's forthcoming Call of the Osprey (Scientists in the Field Series) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) offers fascinating facts about this raptor which is often overshadowed by its eagle cousins. Webcam stills and Keith Ellenbogen's excellent color photographs are essential in exciting interest in this amazing but little-known bird. I was an adult before it was again possible to see a bald eagle and an osprey on the wing in our skies, thanks to the scientists of a half-century ago, and Patent's book invites young readers to join in making the sight of our other great birds--sandhill and whooping cranes, brown pelicans, great blue herons, and California condors--something for succeeding generations of North Americans to enjoy as their birthright.

As in all of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's celebrated Scientists in the Field series, there are sidebars and insets which illuminate and extend the text and an appendix which offers a list of organizations and bird webcam sites so that young readers can join in the fun of birdwatching on their own screens, a selective bibliography of books for students and adults, a glossary, and detailed index. Author Patent adds a poignant afterword in which she reports coal soot from China coating her car's windshield in Oceanside, California. She says, "We cannot escape the truth--everything on earth is connected to everything else. Our careless actions can come back to haunt us in ways we cannot foresee. ... Mercury in the coal mined in America and burned in Asia continues to spread around the world on the ocean winds. Mercury is an element, and elements are forever."

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