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The Armed Essential Birdwatcher

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The most unusual essential job during the coronavirus pandemic might be in Butte, Mont., at a former open-pit copper mine turned toxic lake. Nora Saks of Montana Public Radio has this profile of the bird protection specialist who's been showing up for work just about every day.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

NORA SAKS, BYLINE: Each spring, the skies over the Rocky Mountains in southwest Montana teem with birds headed north. And most days, Mark Mariano is on duty before sunrise at the bird shack, a 10-by-8 foot structure...

MARK MARIANO: ...Perched up on the high wall of an abandoned copper mine which has filled with water.

SAKS: The Berkeley Pit is a toxic lake more than a mile square. The acidic water is chock full of heavy metals. Birds that land on it can die. So Mariano's job is to quickly haze any off. These days, he enters headquarters with a camo buff covering his face and Clorox wipes on each hand.

MARIANO: Which is funny because when it's really cold, they freeze to the door.

SAKS: Then he religiously cleans the shack and the arsenal of shared bird-hazing gadgets, including a sporting rifle.

MARIANO: You know, you haven't really lived until you disinfected an AR first thing in the morning that's used to scare birds off a giant toxic lake.

SAKS: Once all the tools are sanitized, he gets down to birding, using a scope to track a bunch of ducks paddling across the pit's vast, white-capped and teal surface.

MARIANO: We're going to shoot at a group of shovelers - 11 northern shovelers and two American wigeon.

SAKS: That's because the giant, green laser beam he tried wasn't enough to spook them.

MARIANO: Yep - ready.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

MARIANO: One shot - that was about 10 feet in front of them. And every single one is up.

SAKS: Mariano says, overall, he loves his work and feels safe doing it. Flying solo in the bird shack, the closest person he can see is on the opposite side of the gaping open-pit mine.

MARIANO: It's been nice because I know a lot of essential workers are still pretty exposed. And, I mean, I'm essentially out here in this big void.

SAKS: And even in the middle of this global pandemic, Mark Mariano has discovered some reasons to keep looking up. Fewer planes in the sky and boats on the water mean the world is quiet.

MARIANO: It's been some really awesome birding.

SAKS: He says if you can safely venture outside to a body of water, you should do it now. Chances are you'll see and hear species of migrating birds you never could before.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

SAKS: For NPR News, I'm Nora Saks in Butte, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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