Here’s another one of those times when I wish I could turn the clock back 40 years or so and get a second chance to make sense of what’s happening around me, and possibly figure out a way to take advantage of it.
The moment was sometime in the 1970s. I was visiting my father’s cousin, president of a relatively small electronics company that sold set-top boxes for tops of television sets. Boxes on the drawing boards could enable the televisions to show all 13 VHF channels, the motley group of UHF channels, plus a whole bunch of other channels that might somehow be available through this new cable television industry.
The only problem was that most people couldn’t envision how anyone would produce enough content to justify the expense of developing such a box. But my relative was optimistic. As I recall him telling me, he had recently traveled with some other businessmen to a small town in some rural area to see personally a strange phenomenon.
In this small town a tiny television station, starved for content to fill its broadcast time, had installed a camera above a jukebox in a local cafe. As patrons walked up and stuck their nickels or dimes in the slot, the camera overhead unblinkingly recorded the action and then watched the needle as the record went round and round. The music came back along with the video. Incredibly, or so it seemed at the time, people watched and listened. It might just have been the beginning of MTV, or it was a field test that helped convince the cable television industry that a channel like MTV could actually make it in 1970s America.
That was sometime in the foggy 1970s corner of my memory. Today, in the crystal clear here and now, I am sitting at my screen watching the action a few feet below a fixed camera. The camera is located in a tree on the 1,000-acre property of the Duke Farms environmental center a few miles up the road on Route 206.
The action below this unblinking camera takes place in a sycamore tree about 70 feet above the ground, in a mass of sticks and leaves and corn stalks about six feet across and weighing close to 300 pounds. It’s an eagles’ nest, and I am part of a small group of devoted followers of the Duke Farm eagles.
I joined the viewing audience last week, after U.S. 1 had printed an article on a couple who watch an eagles nest (in person, not via television) in Hamilton Township. A reader had posted a comment suggesting that people should also check out the eagle cam at Duke Farms (www.dukefarms.org). I tuned in Thursday, March 26.
Here’s a plot line of what’s taken place to date, in case you want to join the viewing audience (which so far has included as many as 1,100 simultaneous connections, recording more than 9.8 million views):
The production began with a partnership between the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey and Duke Farms, once the expansive private playground of one of the world’s richest women and now an environmental resource center. In 2008 the center installed a webcam on a tree adjacent to a bald eagle nest. Lesson plans were created to facilitate educational opportunities for students from near and far.
This season’s story began in February, when the female eagle laid two eggs. Since incubation takes about five weeks, I tune in at one of the first climactic moments — the hatching of the eggs.
Until then, though, there are some undramatic but nonetheless mesmerizing moments. Mama eagle (or sometimes papa eagle, since they alternate) sits quietly in the nest, seemingly two or three feet away from the camera. Once in a while she rocks back forth, snuggling deeper into the nest. This can go on seemingly for hours. But not forever. At some point the parent decides it is time to turn the eggs. The big eagle arises and begins pawing the eggs beneath. Then the parent settles back down, rocks back and forth, and hunkers in again.
The turning of the eggs is about as visually exciting as the changing of a record was to the people tuned in to the jukebox back in the 1970s.
The show gets more exciting the next morning. I notice a blemish on the side of the egg. Here 21st-century technology comes into play. The camera is an analog PTZ closed-circuit camera, running over a coaxial power system with “beefy lightning protection.” The PTZ stands for “pan, tilt, zoom” and at this point the camera zooms in on the egg. That blemish is considered a “pip” — the spot where the chick will make its entrance.
Later that day I leave to run an errand. When I return the parent is still hunkered down in the nest. But when she stands up to rearrange things underneath there is only one egg to roll. Beside it an active and hungry, fluffy white eaglet looks up with a very open mouth. Over the weekend the pattern continues. The camera zooms out to reveal a wider view of the nest, now littered with half-eaten fish.
On Monday the second egg begins to crack. Once again I miss the actual hatching, but I come back to the screen soon enough to see the younger chick waddling around in the nest with half the eggshell stuck to its butt. Soon the egg shell vanishes and the chicks begin to grow. By Tuesday the older one peeks out from under the parent while being snuggled in the nest.
There’s lots to look forward to in coming episodes of this wildlife reality show. In five to six weeks, when the eaglets are strong enough but not yet able to fly, a biologist from the state Endangered and Nongame Species Program will climb up to the nest, scare away the adults, and bring the eaglets back to earth where they will be weighed, have blood drawn, and be banded. The biologist, Mick Valent, is known as “the state climber.”
As dramatic as that event will be, another imminent transition might drive ratings even higher. At some point 10 to 12 weeks from now the eaglets will turn into fledglings, and fly from the nest. It will be spectacular, I am sure.
Meanwhile I check in with Nora Wagner, who majored in environmental policy at Rutgers, and about 10 years ago joined the staff at Duke Farms, where she is now director of strategic planning and programs. Wagner sees even more potential in the eagle cam. Currently, for example, the video feed is accompanied by a stream of online comments, most of it in the gee whiz, aren’t they cute vein. An informed participant could add some meaningful commentary.
In addition, the current video feed is interrupted with 60-second commercials. You can skip the ads by paying the video company, UStream, $3.99 a month. Duke Farms would like to lose the ads.
As endearing as the Duke Farm eagles are, I am not tempted spend $3.99 a month on them. And you can find hundreds of wildlife videos on YouTube — wildlife fights, wildlife chasing humans, wildlife sex, of course. But there is something soothing about the eagle cam. You are there with the creatures with no expectation that they are about to put on a show.
I wonder: What if all the web cams from eagles’ nests, lions’ lairs, beavers’ lodges, and other exotic locations were linked together at a specific site? What if the viewer could watch multiple screens simultaneously, focus in on one when the action got more intense, and have access to expert commentators to explain details and answer questions? With an around-the-world watch you could imagine there might never be a dull moment: Nest building season in the northern hemisphere could be hatching time in the southern.
Could the single webcam be the beginning of WTV — Wildlife Television? If I could turn the clock back 40 years or so I would give it a try.