Monday, April 19, 2010

Webcams Provide a Window on Bird Nests

In the last few years, more and more refuges have set up webcams so that birdwatchers can monitor daily nesting activities online. Most of the webcams are placed over established raptor nests, but there are some for other types of birds as well. (For a full listing, go to Little Birdie Home and scroll about half way down the page.) I just read an article about the Bald Eagle webcam operated by the Hancock Wildlife Foundation and what makes it so appealing. Their webcam has been accessed by people in 43 countries and maintains a steady viewership.
Hancock thinks the eagle cams reach an audience jaded by the highly produced footage typical of nature programming. "We always know it's canned and edited," he says. The nest footage, transmitted 24/7 from a grainy webcam being blown about in the wind is the antithesis of Discovery Channel fodder. "It's the real wildlife," he says.

"It may be that the bloody animal will sleep for four hours," Hancock says. Those moments of sheer boredom add to the connection the viewers have with the birds. Like human life, it's rarely glamourous. Most of the time, it's just sitting on a couple of eggs. But Hancock says he's learned more from watching the nest cams than he did over 40 years standing on the ground looking up at nests.


Brian Starzomski, a community ecologist at the University of Victoria, admits he's no expert on wildlife voyeurism, but he can't see any harm in the nest cams. "It's certainly nice when people are engaged with nature," he says.

He points out that viewing wildlife on computers opens doors for people who couldn't, or wouldn't, otherwise access a nest site. Having millions of viewers online also means less traffic into sensitive areas and disruption of the nesting birds.
Parts of this article are weirdly written, as if the reporter felt there was something wrong with wildlife webcams or was trying to apologize for it. However, I think it captures why people watch. Webcams provide an intimate view of nesting activities that would be difficult to replicate, even with hours spent in the field near a nest site. Much of the footage is rather mundane, with just a parent sitting on eggs or the nestlings waiting patiently for their parents to return from hunting. But then there are also bursts of activity when the male and female switch incubation duties or one of the parents returns with food.

The image at the top of the post comes from the Bald Eagle webcam at Blackwater NWR in Maryland. It shows the mother eagle with both chicks in view at the same time. The Friends of Blackwater have been running live webcams on an Osprey and a Bald Eagle nest there for several years and have an excellent blog on the eagle nest and YouTube channel.