Buoyed by Birds: Soaring with Harriet

One is never prepared to see one’s self in this condition. The vision that greeted me in the mirror on my 64th birthday that February morning in 2012 could only be called horrifying. Gaunt, hollowed cheeks. Sunken and lifeless eyes. Parched, creaked lips incapable of smiling.

I had just returned from a weeklong stay in ICU fighting for my life after an eight hour long “dirty surgery” to remove a large tumor that had blocked both my large and small intestines. Doctors sent me home to regain some strength with an open wound so they would reuse it for two more surgeries to complete the “fix.” I should have died. My surgeon repeatedly told me that my active, horseback-riding lifestyle was a key factor to my survival. It had given me the solid core that pulled me through.


The whole ordeal took me out of my barnyard and off the mountain trails, my sources of joy and inspiration, and put me on my back in a reclining chair for months. Sitting upright to read was painful. After overdosing on episodes of “Breaking Bad,” I casually turned for amusement to the web camera that scientists from the University of Montana had installed over an osprey nest on my ranch. Expecting only a momentary diversion, I instead found a whole new world. It was a world that at first defied comprehension, an alternate world that has since become so intertwined with my real world that I have neither the desire nor the ability to untangle them.

The ospreys lifted my spirits and distracted me in ways beyond the abilities of any TV show or video. They piqued my sense of curiosity and wonder. No one was there to narrate or interpret. I was on my own to figure it out and let my interests guide my focus. I felt like a voyeur to an intimate avian melodrama.

I soon noticed individual characteristics and quirky behaviors. With time I discerned their vocal repertoire: “Bring me food” sent the male bird flying to the river in search of a fish;  “Under Attack!” brought the male back to the nest while the chicks flattened themselves, practically disappearing into the bottom of the nest; and shrill cries of “Oh boy, oh boy, here comes dinner” always preceded Dad’s arrival with a fresh big one in his talons.

After overwhelming family and friends with daily reports of nest activities, I sought the company of other viewers. They would understand. Using Twitter for the first time, I fell into the company of other avid watchers from across the world. In no time, the social isolation of my prolonged convalescence vanished. My spirit escaped my broken body. Tweeting with new friends, totally absorbed in the drama at the nest, and forgetting my medical situation for hours at a time, the months passed, and I recovered.

Who knew that webcams coupled with social media could bring people with strange sounding names from faraway places together to form friendships by watching real life in real time? Sharing unscripted and unedited real-life experiences creates the sense of immediacy and togetherness that are the very seeds of friendship. The power of technology to perform such magic intrigued me. Feeling a need to share what I had learned, I wrote a guest article for our local newspaper.

As the ospreys departed on their fall migration and I turned the webcam off for the winter, other viewers would have none of it. They practically begged me to keep the camera live so they could watch my ranch with its horses, donkeys, dogs, wildlife, birds, and scenic sunrises and sunsets. Their emails and tweets expanded my understanding of what was happening. While I may have moved on from my social isolation, others could not for a variety of reasons: age, disabilities, caring for someone else, or adverse social circumstances. And while I saw my ranch as an everyday place for both fun and work, they saw it much like they had seen the ospreys’ nest – as a strange new world with a wellspring of never-ending stories. The community that had grown around my nest webcam had become an important part of their lives and they couldn’t stand to see it end. Thus was born the concept for my cyber front porch, www.DaysAtDunrovin.com (D@D for short!)

What a journey it has been! And at my side the entire time has been the matriarch of the nest, Harriet Osprey. I have repeatedly borrowed her strength.

Harriet the Osprey

This bird shows nothing but total dedication to life with all its challenges. She has sat for hours on her eggs to keep them warm during fierce freezing snowstorms, facing the wind with icicles on her eyes and beak. She has gently torn off little bits of fish to feed her chicks, only to defend them moments later with the ferocity of a tornado. Placing her body between the searing summer sun and her chicks gathered under her wing, she has served as an umbrella to cool their bodies. When her mate was killed by a bald eagle, she did it all alone, pulling fish after fish out of the Bitterroot River to feed her chicks. Returning the next season without a mate, she withstood the fights that erupted among the males seeking her favors. Harriet not only endures whatever is thrown at her, she thrives. She returns again and again to her nest to begin anew regardless of the previous year’s success or lack thereof. She never quits.

In all honesty, were it not for Harriet and her numerous undying fans that have gathered around her with me, I probably would not have overcome all the technical, programmatic and administrative obstacles that were in my path to create this totally unique internet social engagement platform with multiple webcams. My cyber friends have been an integral part of this grand experiment. They have worked collaboratively with me throughout all the numerous technical, website, and interactive programming trials and errors that have been a necessary part of developing this cyber front porch that truly serves as a two-way portal that brings them to us, as well as us to them.

D@D community members now think of Dunrovin Ranch as their second home. We who live and work here are their “boots on the ground.” They now know all the animals, their names, their personalities, and their habits. They counted the minutes between labor contractions when my mare gave birth to a colt. They helped name the colt. They participated with us on every aspect of the colt’s training. They sent us a certificate to plant a tree in the memory of the colt’s grandmother who died during his first year of life. They helped us decided where to plant the tree. It is as much theirs as it is ours. They pass on the stories to newcomers. We share a history because we share a place. We are truly in this together.

This is how I met Susan Jamieson of Red Scarf Equestrian. It is her desire to bring the wonder of horses to all: to those privileged enough to have them physically in their lives, to those who can only dream of the pleasure of being present with one, and to those who have yet to single out horses as a point of interest. She understands that the horse-human bond is unique among human experiences and she wants to share its benefits far and wide. When she got wind of Dunrovin’s internet experiments with connecting people with horses, she sought us out to learn more. Like me, the more she learned about the power of technology to facilitate meaningful relationships among people and with animals, the more she leaned in. Our partnership is grounded in the belief that when technology is the means rather than the end, the internet has the power to enrich the lives of all of us through real life experiences.

Harriet now carries me to Collingwood and beyond to join forces with Susan and others to gather people of good will together in a virtual community based on real-time shared experiences with nature, animals, the arts, and sciences. Our partnership’s success is without doubt. We are, after all, soaring together on the wings of the one who will not quit!  

 Learn more about Red Scarf Equestrian's partnership with DaysAtDunrovin


SuzAnne M. Miller, a native of Butte, Montana, has over 35 years of experience in biometric, biological, social science, and economic research. She has an extensive background in both quantitative and qualitative research methods. Her career focus was integrating socioeconomic information into public policies for natural resource management and development.

SuzAnne’s work and life passions have taken her to the back country and wild lands of some the world’s most beautiful places: Alaska, Canada, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and Europe. But no place captures her heart quite like Montana. Her love of animals – especially horses, dogs and birds – and of her great state prompted her to open Dunrovin Ranch as a full-service guest ranch and equestrian club offering unique back country adventures on smooth-gaited Tennessee Walking Horses. The installation of a web camera at Dunrovin for a joint science project with the University of Montana eventually lead SuzAnne to staking out a special space in cyber space with the world’s first cyber ranch at www.DaysAtDunrovin.com.

Dunrovin Ranch

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