Beauty, death and drama: Live bird cams are nature’s soap opera

Date:

On May 21, viewers witnessed a horrifying event in central Iowa: A nest with three eaglets blew out of a tree during a storm. Less than an hour later, a pair of adult bald eagles landed on the empty perch, carrying fish for their young. The concerned parents looked all around for their missing home and chicks.

The spectators were powerless to help. They were watching the tragedy unfold on computer screens far away from the ill-fated aerie. The distance didn’t lessen their urge to assist.

“I reached out to catch the fall, to be honest,” a Michigan birdwatcher wrote on a live chat on the Denton Homes eagle webcam. “I watched in horror, dismay and dread.”

Webcams have been delivering uncensored wildlife and unscripted dramas to nature lovers for more than a decade. The live streams of mammals, birds and marine life became a proxy for travel during the height of the pandemic, when nature was safest viewed through windows and online portals. The free entertainment is still going strong, in part because of the surprise plot twists.

“Some cameras can get millions of collective views. Many people are returning to the cameras daily, and sometimes multiple times a day,” said Mike Fitz, a naturalist with Explore.org., the live nature cam network that made Fat Bear Week an internet sensation. “When you fall in love with these animals, then you are engaged in their stories.”

Thomas Fenn, a lawyer in Lexington, Mass., spends about two hours a day viewing bird cams, including one set up in his backyard. He watches birds at every opportunity, while at work or stuck in traffic.

“These sites put you in places that maybe you can’t travel to,” Fenn said, “and they’re a great diversion from having to draft a document or put away files.”

Streaming stars with beaks and feathers

The internet is chock full of animal webcams, with birds appearing in dozens of cameras run by private companies, nature organizations, academic institutions and government agencies. The feathered cast members star in about a third of the 190 or so webcams run by Explore.org. After the bears in Alaska’s Katmai National Park, the Decorah North (Iowa) eagle cam draws the highest number of viewers. On Memorial Day, about 570 people watched a fledgling butcher a squirrel for dinner.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has used cameras for science since the late ’90s. In 2012, the lab debuted cameras that offered casual observers a look at a red-tailed hawk nest on campus and a great blue heron nest on nearby Sapsucker Woods Pond. The university in Ithaca, N.Y., has expanded to more than a dozen live streams in North America, Panama, Bermuda and New Zealand. The National Audubon Society and its partners run several webcams, including one installed in an Atlantic puffin burrow on an island in Maine and another focused on the million sandhill cranes that layover in Nebraska’s Platte River Valley between winter and spring.

A recent addition to the field is a camera trained on peregrine falcons on Alcatraz Island off the San Francisco coast. Since debuting on May 2, the live stream, a collaboration between the National Park Service and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, has attracted more than 130,000 users, according to the conservancy. Depending on the minute, viewers might see falcon mom Lawrencium “Larry” gazing out to sea from their cliffside habitat, the two kids tussling over a carcass or chick fluff fluttering in the wind.

“Since we’ve just started the Alcatraz live camera, we don’t really have a soap opera history of tragedy and broken marriages and whatever else might happen over time,” said Allen Fish, director of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory. “But the job of these live-stream cameras is to offer a window to people who want to have a deeper understanding of the falcons.”

The next few weeks will be peak viewing for species with incubating or hatched youngsters, such as puffins, kestrel, osprey, bald eagles and peregrine falcons. Like a doting parent, the cameras capture all of the baby birds’ milestones and share them with the world.

‘Raw, unfiltered nature’

In the field, birdwatchers often rely on binoculars. Most amateurs don’t have the time or patience to sit and wait for a bump in action. Webcams, however, provide a keyhole to the domestic affairs of birds.

“Folks can see some species fairly easily, depending on where they live, but never that intimately,” said Wayne Klockner, executive director of the American Birding Association. “The cameras trained on nesting birds, when the eggs hatch and the young are getting fed, growing bigger and beginning to test their wings, [are] in real time. This adds an extra dose of compelling nature.”

Many webcam aficionados say they keep the cameras on in the background like Muzak or NPR. When they hear a symphony of birdsong or a heavy-metal screech, they will turn their attention to the screen. But viewer beware: Nature is neither tame nor sanitized.

Klockner recalled a relaxing evening he and his wife spent watching an Allen’s hummingbird in California. The jewel-colored bird was in its wee nest when an uninvited guest swooped in.

We witnessed in real time a red-shouldered hawk grab the hummingbird,” said Klockner, who lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “And that was the end of that webcam.”

Sharon Stiteler, a Minnesota-based birder and writer who goes by Birdchick, watches several webcams based on the season. She streams a tropical bird feeder at Canopy Tower in Panama, a mental escape during the harsh winters. She catches the spring migration of the sandhill cranes at Rowe Sanctuary in Kearney, Neb. She also follows a bald eagle camera run by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which had to console heartbroken viewers after a heavy snowfall snapped the branch holding a 2,000-pound nest. The sole chick did not survive the crash. More than a year after the incident, the camera is still rolling.

“We are in the process of setting up a new EagleCam and have left the old EagleCam in its original spot, showing viewers the old nest location and occasionally shots of the eagle pair as they visit their old territory,” said Elizabeth Nault-Maurer, communication specialist with the Minnesota agency’s Nongame Wildlife Program.

A number of webcams alert viewers to the possibility of disturbing scenes.

The Friends of Blackwater National Refuge in Maryland warns that its two bald eagle nest cameras will show “raw, unfiltered nature” that could include wildlife interactions and weather disasters. Case in point: On April 3, the video captured a great horned owlet gulping down a whole mouse. The Montana Osprey Project, which is affiliated with the University of Montana and Cornell Lab, warns: “Ospreys are wild birds — they are not pets, and this is not a Disney movie.”

If a bird is in peril, wildlife agencies favor a noninterventionist approach, a position they occasionally have to defend to their impassioned audience. When a bald eaglet at Decorah swallowed a piece of fishing line, Fitz said the staff explained its laissez-faire position to the public. The chick successfully expelled the foreign object.

An eagle chick in Minnesota did not fare as well. Stiteler said the bird became entwined in nesting material. Webcam devotees implored the DNR to help and grew enraged when the agency did not intercede, even though the nest was not under its purview. Stiteler said some of the viewers even contacted the governor. The agency finally stepped in, but it was too late.

“Anything that gets people engaged with birds or gets them to notice birds is a good thing because that leads to conservation,” Stiteler said. “But sometimes I enjoy the drama that people generate over it more than the drama in the nest.”

Bird cameras are often placed in remote or clandestine locations so visitors won’t disturb the wildlife or the filming gear. The Alcatraz equipment is located in a rocky cranny far from the ferry landing and decommissioned prison building. Denton Homes, the construction company that runs an eagle camera in Iowa, asks the public to respect the privacy of the Majestics, the eagle family that resides on its private property. (After the nest fell last week, Saving Our Avian Resources brought the Denton Three to its rehab facility.)

However, a few destinations showcased on webcams welcome travelers. Taiaroa Head Nature Reserve, home of the Royal cams’ northern royal albatross, offers tours of its seabird colony on New Zealand’s South Island. The Canopy Lodge in Panama, which hosts Cornell’s camera, offers a variety of accommodations and birdwatching tours.

“It’s an eco-tourism destination,” said Ben Walters, communications specialist for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “so you can go visit the lodge and watch the feeder camera in person while you’re eating breakfast.”

Share post:

Popular

More like this
Related