In late summer 2015, retired Grand Lake businessman Kent Roorda decided to build an osprey nest. He’d noticed that the U.S. Forest Service and the local electric company were discouraging mating pairs from nesting atop power poles by erecting tall platforms as alternative spots for the returning raptors to safely hatch and fledge their chicks. The talented craftsman snagged a set of nest-building plans from the Forest Service, thought he could do better, and got to work.
He cut a round, four-foot-wide plywood platform and coated it with tough epoxy to better endure Grand Lake’s punishing weather. He installed 20 short upright PVC posts around the perimeter of the platform, weaved willow branches through those posts to anchor the nest, and stitched the whole thing together with tough aluminum wire. He spent $500 to rent a lift so he could reach the top of a 60-foot lodgepole pine at the corner of his house and hauled the colossus into the sky to await the birds’ return from their winter home along the Gulf Coast.
Roorda, the former owner of a Denver-based alarm company, also installed a computer-controlled and weatherproof high-definition camera on a metal-pipe arm several feet above the nest and ran an Ethernet cable through that pipe to the camera. “I wanted it to be ready for them when they came back in spring 2016,” says Roorda, who’s 68 and lives with his two dogs. “A biologist told me it might take two or three years for a pair to nest there. But I got a pair that year.”
The male arrived first. He had a solid white chest and a peace-sign-shaped feather pattern on the back of his head, distinctive as a fingerprint. The bird set up a sort of Hef-style bachelor aerie designed to attract overflying females.
“He worked really hard to spruce it up,” Roorda says. “When the right girl shows up and likes the nest, the mating starts immediately and continues for almost a week.”
He knows this, of course, because he watched it all from his eye in the sky—that 1080p infrared camera. It was weirdly intimate, like being in the nest with the birds. He had no idea then that three years later, his nest and those two ospreys would be front-page news.
Humans have spent thousands of years domesticating dogs, cats, and birds even as wild animals practically disappeared from our daily lives. But seeing wildlife in its natural habitat remains an extraordinary privilege. The chance to watch elk, moose, deer, and other megafauna helped bring 4.6 million visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park in 2019. Zoos spend millions to replicate natural environments for visitors. We thrill to nature films that put us alongside lazing lions and feeding sharks, even if what we see occasionally makes us uncomfortable witnesses to nature’s harsh realities.
As the distance between our worlds has grown wider, technology has enabled us to maintain our infatuation with wildlife. Look over your fellow commuter’s shoulder, and you just might see him streaming BBC’s Planet Earth or scrolling National Geographic’s Instagram feed.
Roorda understood that impulse to connect with the wild when he installed what’s become known as the Grand Lake osprey cam. Eager to share the experience, he contracted with a server company in the Czech Republic, which, for $40 a year, makes the camera feed available to internet users at osprey-camera.click2stream.com.
That first mating season, in 2016, Roorda and a few friends from around the world watched his pair hatch a single egg. The female, with her speckled chest feathers and brownish mohawk, dutifully sat atop the egg for the 36- to 42-day gestation period as her equally dutiful mate sustained her with fresh fish he plucked from nearby Shadow Mountain Lake. The male also relieved her of incubation duties when she wanted to get out to stretch her wings.
On July 9 that year, when their chick finally emerged like a bald, prehistoric baby chicken, the adult birds doted like helicopter parents for a couple of months, at which point it was old enough to fly.
The same birds returned the following spring and this time produced three eggs, a more typical number for a bonded pair. Roorda and friends tuned in to see them raise all three chicks, which doubled in size each week until they eventually fledged and flew away. The pair repeated that success in 2018, hatching, raising, and fledging another three chicks.
Over those first three years, the birds added some curiosities to their nest’s decor—a chunk of tire tread, a hair brush, a dog’s leash. Roorda also began to learn the birds’ language. When the female wants food, she emits a distinctive squawk to the male, who usually roosts in a nearby tree. Off he goes to catch her a meal like an expectant dad dispatched to satisfy his pregnant partner’s cravings. When a moose or a neighbor wanders by below, the female sounds a different call, a sort of “Let’s keep an eye on this situation” alert. Even Roorda’s two dogs have learned to recognize that one and often go to the window when they hear it to see what’s passing by. If the female sees crows or raccoons eyeing the nest, she sends an urgent alert that invariably brings surrounding ospreys to help her defend her home and the couple’s eggs.
All the while, the pair’s fan base grew. Just before they returned again in April 2019, Roorda told me about his osprey camera as we worked together on a volunteer project. I joined about 100 dedicated viewers who tuned in as the two birds mated and waited. Encouraged by growing interest and the pair’s past reproductive successes, Roorda then contacted Sky-Hi News in nearby Granby, which suggested its readers tune in. The audience grew as TV news stations and other fans shared the link to the feed. Roorda says the Czech server at one point logged 840 viewers watching his nesting pair from computers with IP addresses in far-flung places such as Italy, Ukraine, Germany, Japan, and China.
We all watched this past spring as the female laid another three eggs and settled in for a real-time, slow-motion drama. The countdown began as she kept their eggs warm, at times letting fresh snow pile up on top of her. It seemed heroic. Thirty-two days later, anticipation peaked. “The female osprey has been sitting on her three eggs now for about a month,” Roorda wrote in an update. “We should start seeing the eggs hatch in the next few days…Stay tuned.”
Days passed. A week. The female remained on the eggs, but no hatchlings appeared. We were still within the 42-day gestation range and took consolation in that. But as the pair continued its vigil, hope faded. Finally, on Day 50, Roorda posted an update: “I am very sad to report that none of the three eggs have hatched…Lately, Mom has been sitting on the eggs faithfully and reliably. But it seems futile at this point.”
What followed was a collective community grief that reminded me of the day in 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded on live TV. Speculation began. Roorda noted that the female had left the eggs unattended for an unusually long time on an unusually cold day. Had she and the male somehow got their signals crossed?
The epitaph came from Sky-Hi News, which shared the outcome in an early July front-page story headlined “Grand Lake osprey eggs featured on webcam fail to hatch.” There’d be no happy ending. The eggs remained intact, three mute stillborns in a sad, 60-foot-high tableau. The adults rolled two of them out of the nest but left one behind. Eventually the female abandoned the nest and headed south. The male stayed around a bit longer, tidying up for the next spring, and then flew off as well. Roorda spent another $500 to rent the lift again and, while inspecting the nest this past fall, removed the remaining egg.
Atop the lodgepole, the empty nest sometimes swayed in the wind and eventually filled with snow. Roorda commanded his computer to aim the camera away from the scene, instead offering his audience some spectacular sunrise and sunset views of the lake. The camera never blinked.
Unpredictability is one of the things that makes nature fascinating, but we have lost our tolerance for its rougher edges. We’re not always prepared for what we crave. Nature is not a Disney movie.
About the time Roorda’s osprey pair returned in spring 2019, my wife and I did a little wildlife experiment of our own. We mounted birdhouses atop fence posts in our backyard and were excited when bluebirds and swallows moved in. We enjoyed morning coffee on the back porch serenaded by the relentless cheeping of hungry chicks and occasionally saw the little ones’ faces peeking out of the holes. We bonded.
Then one morning in mid-July, my wife stepped onto the porch and heard only silence. During the night a weasel or some other predator had climbed each post and reached through the holes to grab every last chick. It left behind a trail of blood and bird parts as it worked its way down the buffet line we’d created. We consoled ourselves with the Disney-sanctioned circle-of-life perspective; at least our local weasel was well fed. But the loss felt like a kick in the gut, and we began researching anti-weasel technology to avoid a similar tragedy this year.
Deep down, we know that’s an illusion. We can’t control the natural world any more than we can control the spiritual one. The bargain we make with nature is fraught. Thrill us, we demand. Show us the wonders of life! But we have to accept that things sometimes don’t work out as we imagined, leavening our high hopes and wonder with grief and shadows and doubt.
And so this month, I anxiously await the return of Kent Roorda’s now-familiar pair. I want them to reclaim their nest and try again. I’ll tune in once more, hoping their chicks will survive. At our house, we’ll modify the fence posts and mount the birdhouses again, eager for a better outcome. But this year, I’ll carry forward the lesson Roorda’s ospreys have taught us: The natural world can be both resilient and unbearably fragile.
Editor’s note: This article appeared in the April issue of 5280, which went to press before COVID-19 became the biggest story in recent memory. As such, some events and dates listed may now be out of date. For more on how 5280 is shifting coverage during this time, read Editorial Director Geoff Van Dyke’s editor’s note.