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Incubation Period Brings Excitement And Challenges For Hellgate Ospreys

Excitement is brewing in Hellgate Canyon as Iris and her new mate (named “Finnegan” by a community vote) approach the end of the incubation period in Missoula, Montana. This season marks Iris’s first breeding attempt in six years with full-time investment by a mate, and it could be the first time the nest welcomes a hatchling since 2018. The Ospreys have been incubating two eggs (laid on May 5 and 12) this season, and we should know within the next 48 hours if the egg laid on May 5 will result in a successful hatch! Watch live.

Owl Encounter: The incubation period hasn’t come without its challenges in 2024. Viewers were shocked to see a Great Horned Owl attack Iris on the night of May 21 as she was was deep asleep on her eggs. Iris was knocked to the ground, but she was able to recover quickly, and after making several swoops towards the intruder, she flew in fast and hit the owl hard.  This convinced the owl to move along. The eggs seemingly remained undamaged by the event, and Iris resumed normal incubation after the owl left the area.

Watch a Great Horned Owl attack Iris on the nest.

Great Horned Owls aren’t usually a threat to adult Ospreys, but they are known to prey on chicks. Time will tell if the owl will return or if Iris’s stalwart defense of the nest site and formidable size were enough to prevent an encore. These encounters provide a sobering reminder of the challenges that wild birds face over the breeding season.

Our partners at the Montana Osprey Project take a hands-off approach to intervening with any natural occurrences (such as an owl attack) at the nest site. Dr. Erick Greene, a member of the the Montana Osprey Project, shares that, “If it’s nature we let it be; if there are people problems (such as a chick tangled in fishing line) then we can try to intervene.” View the Montana Osprey Project’s intervention policy for more details, and answers to some frequently asked questions.

Looking Ahead: It’s already been an interesting season at the Hellgate Osprey nest, and many questions remain as we look toward the nesting period. Will both eggs hatch after being laid a full week apart (Osprey typically lay one egg every 2–3 days until their clutch is complete)? If both eggs hatch, how will the timing of hatch affect the youngest chick’s ability to thrive? Will Finnegan continue to prove that he’s an adept angler and provide enough fish to support the nestlings? All these questions will be answered live on the Hellgate Osprey Cam in the coming weeks. Continue to watch and learn with us, and follow daily updates on Twitter/X at @HellgateOsprey.

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Pileated Woodpecker by Lin McGrew / Macaulay Library