Two osprey chicks, panting heavily in the heat, nestled in a cardboard box waiting to contribute to science and the future of their species.
The chicks had just been gently lifted from their nest at the Sundance Lodge east of Laurel.
The birds are among more than 30 young osprey being tested in a study overseen by the Yellowstone River Research Center at Rocky Mountain College.
The study is looking at osprey along the Yellowstone River from Gardiner to Forsyth to see if any have high levels of mercury, which can disrupt reproduction and young birds’ health.
On Tuesday, a bucket truck from NorthWestern Energy lifted Marco Restani up to the stick aerie high on a pole in a field at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management site.
Restani, a professor from St. Cloud State University in Minnesota who lives in Red Lodge during the summer, is working on the study with RMC student Cameron Sapp.
After being lowered to the ground, Restani carried the box of chicks to the tailgate of a pickup truck, where he quickly weighed and measured them.
Restani also attached a numbered band on one leg of each chick so it could be traced.
With Sapp holding the chick’s taloned feet, Restani drew blood from the underside of one wing.
The blood will be analyzed to see if it contains mercury from a diet of local fish the chicks’ parents bring to them to eat.
Mercury can wind up in Yellowstone River fish from coal-fired power plants and sewage systems, said Kayhan Ostovar, an assistant professor of environmental science at Rocky who helped get the YRRC going.
Results from the tests won’t be known until later this year.
Although only 6 weeks old and not yet flying, the young birds each weigh about 3 pounds. That’s nearly the weight of an adult bird, although the chicks don’t have their full adult wing structure.
The chicks got a second ride in the utility truck bucket back to their nest as their mother circled overhead with half a fish in her talons.
The female bird had been feeding the fish to her chicks when the research crew arrived. She flew off with the partially eaten fish and held on to it until the human visitors left.
Sapp checked out 62 nests along the Yellowstone. Chicks from thirteen of those nests were studied.
Participation in a major field study been good experience for Sapp, and it’s been exciting to see the wild birds up close.
“This is huge for me,” Sapp said Tuesday. “It was a thrill for me to actually hold an osprey.”
After graduation in December, Sapp would like to go to graduate school and eventually work as a nongame wildlife biologist.
Sheila Hancock McKay of the Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society also was at Sundance on Tuesday to watch the banding of the osprey. She has been coming to the site once a week this summer to monitor the nest from the ground.
Ostovar hopes to continue the project next summer.
The study is a collaboration of the YRRC with local, state and national Audubon groups.
Funding came from an Audubon-Toyota Together Green grant and RMC.
Utility trucks from Park Electric Cooperative, Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative, Beartooth Electric Cooperative and NorthWestern Energy also participated in the project