Web cam eagles ready for the spotlight again

For the past three years, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has installed a video camera in an active bald eagle nest to provide a live video stream via the Internet of the adult eagles incubating their eggs and subsequently tending and feeding the eaglets once they hatch. In early 2014, the Pennsylvania Game Commission the Eagle Cam monitored a nest along the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh.

That Eagle Cam proved so popular that the Game Commission set up another live video stream in 2015 to observe a different pair of nesting bald eagles near Codorus State Park in York County. Those eagles also became international video stars, attracting 1.5 million viewers as they laid a pair of eggs in mid-February and raised those two eaglets until they ultimately left the nest in late June.

Last year the Eagle Cam returned to the York County nest, but nature revealed its harsher side to those nesting efforts. Two eggs were laid in mid-February, and one hatched on March 28. That nestling died two days later, and the other egg never hatched. In another setback after the failed nesting attempt, the nest itself partially collapsed. But nature is also tremendously resilient. The eagles rebuilt the nest, and the Eagle Cam was also upgraded with two high-definition cameras at the same site 75 feet above the ground. Eagles have used this nesting site since 2005 and have successfully fledged young eaglets there eight times during that period. Hopefully, 2017 will be another success story. To view the Eagle Cam, go to the Game Commission’s website, www.pgc.pa.gov and click on the eagle cam icon found near the top of the homepage.

This season’s Eagle Cam went online back in late December, but until recently, about all there was to see most of the time was the large cluster of sticks that comprises the nest. On Feb. 10, however, the first egg appeared in the nest.

A second egg was laid on Feb. 13. Both the male and female eagles will take turns sitting on the eggs, so the video stream now almost always displays one of the birds on the nest. I peeked in on the live video feed a few times last week, hoping to get a glimpse of the eggs as the eagles changed places during their incubation duties, but my timing was not in sync with their schedule. If all goes well, the eggs should hatch sometime around March 22 to 25. Then the fun really starts as the adult birds get busy bringing food, mostly fish from nearby Lake Marburg, to the hatchlings. But as we learned last year, there are no guarantees in nature.

An eagle nest, called an “eyrie,” is constructed from large sticks and branches high in a large tree near water. The nest can be five feet or more in diameter and two feet thick. A mating pair of eagles will often return to the same nest year after year, adding a new lining of grass, twigs or other material to prepare for their next brood. Bald eagles do not breed until they are at least four to five years old, about the same time they acquire the characteristic white head and tail of adult birds. A pair of bald eagles generally mates for life, and the adult birds tend to be good parents. The female lays one to three eggs, which hatch in about 35 days.

Once the eaglets hatch, things will be quite busy in the nest for the following three months as both the male and female forage for food to nourish their growing offspring. A gruesome fact of life, however, is a large, healthy eaglet will sometimes kill its smaller, weaker sibling in order to receive all the attention of the adult birds. Eaglets grow most of their feathers by four weeks old and are ready to fly after three months. Young birds finally leave their parents in the fall. Despite having such dutiful parents, only about 50 percent of young eagles survive their first year of life. Human intrusion near a nest site can cause adult birds to abandon eggs or leave hatchlings vulnerable to harsh weather or predators. For that reason, federal law prohibits approaching within 660 feet of an eagle nest site.

The restoration of our bald eagles both here in Pennsylvania and throughout the United States over the past 30 years represents one of the greatest success stories in the history of wildlife conservation.

In 1983, only three pairs of nesting eagles were left in Pennsylvania, all of them in Crawford County. Now, eagle nests or found in nearly every county in the state, making the opportunity to see one of these magnificent birds in the wild a reality for everyone.

The Eagle Cam gives provides wildlife watchers with an intimate look at the dedication bald eagles manifest in raising their young, making the future a bright one for the species here in Pennsylvania.