Monday, April 25, 2016

Life After Downton Abbey

Something very sad happened to me recently. The great horned owl family that I have been watching obsessively since February on the Savannah Owls bird cam have now left the nest. First I watched the parents settle into the nest. Then I watched the mother sit patiently on her two eggs for endless days, as the wind and snow blew on her, and I watched the father bring in food or sit on the eggs so the mother could have a break. The eggs hatched, and I got to watch two of the most ugly-cute baby birds on earth grow up, with their ghostly white feathers and their even spookier wide, staring eyes. I shuddered as the dead animals piled up in the nest - mice, rats, squirrels, egrets, and other unidentified birds - and the babies slowly learned to pull chunks of dead flesh off the bone and feed themselves. I watched with dread as the parents spent less and less time on the nest and the owlets began to climb the branches of the tree around the nest, flexing and flapping their developing wings. And then, suddenly, the sad days came, as each of the owlets disappeared from sight. For a couple of days, the mother would come back to the nest with food, and sometimes be able to call the owlets back, but for the last two days there has been nothing.

I know they’re out there in the world together, and that the parents will continue to guide and protect the owlets for months until they can hunt successfully on their own and stake out their own territories. But I won’t see all of that happen from here on out, and it feels like the same kind of loss I experienced when six seasons of Downton Abbey came to an end and I no longer had those “friends” in my life.

Bird cams are a revolutionary technology growing in popularity. They bring us into the most intimate sphere of the bird world. We admire the birds for their hard work, tenacity, and long hours of caring for offspring. We see how helpless the babies are and how quickly they develop. We even give them names. The eagle family featured on the Washington, D.C., eagle cam are “Mr. President” and “The First Lady”. (Next year will they be the Clintons? The Trumps? The Cruzes? The Sanderses? Only time will tell!)

Bird cams also make us face the horrible realities of nature: that somebody has to die in order for somebody else to live, or that sometimes somebody dies for no good reason at all. Whole families and offices full of people cheered as the bald eaglets hatched in Hanover, Pennsylvania, and then expressed horror as one died in the nest, for no clear reason. The Washington, D.C., eagle cam website even posts the following warning:

“This is a wild eagle nest and anything can happen. While we hope that these two healthy juvenile eagles will end up fledging from the nest this summer, things like sibling rivalry, predators, and natural disaster can affect this eagle family and may be difficult to watch.”

Like reality television, the bird cam industry is expanding. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology alone hosts 15 cameras on a variety of species, from hummingbirds in West Texas to an albatross nest in Hawaii. Daily moments on the cams are tweeted, shared on Facebook, and captured in videos for Youtube. As with all other internet and social media phenomena, they are changing us and our experiences of life. For example, the intimacy of the camera now makes the nests in my yard seem a little dull. I can’t stand next to the Leyland cypress and peer into the chipping sparrow nest several hours a day without running the poor, scared little things off and without developing leg cramps from standing on a ladder. A couple of weeks ago I was at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, WV, looking through binoculars at a bald eagle nest that I watch online here, and it was a real letdown to see it in person, from far away, with an obstructed view because of the tree branches. Sitting in my office, staring at my computer suddenly seemed the more “real” way to interact with nature. Funny, huh? The internet as the best and most real way to celebrate nature.

Today I went to the Savannah Owls cam website, desperately hoping that maybe the camera would catch one of the owlets back in the nest for a daytime sleep and I could smile at how much he has grown in the last couple of days. To my surprise, there was a pair of ospreys on the nest instead. I am watching them now as they check out the nest and call to each other. Will they nest there? Will they successfully raise a family? Will the owls return? Will the owls kill and eat the osprey chicks after I have fallen in love with them? As with any soap opera cliffhanger, I will definitely have to tune in tomorrow and find out more.

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