More than 20 metres up an ironbark tree in Sydney’s Olympic Park, more than 70,000 people from around the world have been cheering on two tiny, restless and feathery fluff balls in the shape of eagle chicks.
Pulling up the live EagleCAM from their phones and computer screens, thousands have been watching the comings and goings of a pair of white-bellied sea eagles turning up with morsels of fish to feed their newly hatched and very fluffy young.
“There are some people watching obsessively – it’s a bit like their version of Days of Our Lives,” says Judy Harrington, the founder of the EagleCAM project.
Since the cameras went up in 2009, people from 195 different countries have viewed the live feed that has been accessed 5 million times.
And, in recent weeks, the drama has been intense.
Just over a week ago, the first signs of life were spotted in one of the eggs and – a day and a night later – a chick had fought its way out. Two days later, the second chick had also wrenched itself from the shell.
“The first one always has a bit of an advantage and it’s bigger and stronger and it can outcompete the weedy one, but that’s natural behaviour in raptors,” says Harrington, a retired ranger in the park and a volunteer for BirdLife Southern NSW.
“But at the moment, the small one seems to be holding its own.”
At peak viewing, more than 15,000 people are logged in to the live 24-hour EagleCAM feed. The male and female are regularly out hunting for fish in the nearby Parramatta River and returning to the two hungry young.
Some years there have been no hatched eggs, other years there have been two. If all goes well, this breed of 2020 will take their first flight some time in November.
“Once the cute babies are on the nest people are watching avidly,” Harrington says. “It’s a real thrill when they fly.”
There are three cameras that are used to watch over the young, that can be zoomed and tilted remotely.
Sea eagles breed for life but three years ago the resident female disappeared. The resident male, who has been at the same site for about a decade, has been with his new mate for the past three years.
The white-bellied sea eagle is Australia’s second-largest raptor. The wingspan of the female, which is larger, is about two metres.
Kerry Darcovich, senior manager of environment and ecology at Sydney Olympic Park Authority, says: “These birds are so prone to human disturbance that we do not allow anyone into the area during breeding season otherwise we would significantly reduce the success of breeding.
“EagleCAM provides an opportunity to connect with nature without causing disruption. People become aware of these magnificent birds and gain an appreciation of what they are sharing their parks and neighbourhoods with.”
‘A bit of therapy’
Right now, with the the world grappling to contain a pandemic, tuning in to live nature webcams can give people’s mental health a small lift, says Simon Branigan, who manages the oceans program for the Nature Conservancy in Australia.
The charity helps maintain two livestream cameras in a marine park at Port Phillip Bay, south of Melbourne, together with Deakin University.
One camera above the water scans a population of Australian gannets, while an underwater camera catches the comings and goings on the rocky reef – with the occasional seal, dolphin and many fish species shooting by.
“It’s important that we showcase these amazing marine environment of southern Australia,” Branigan says. He says viewing the underwater camera can be a little hit and miss, but the best times tend to be on a slack tide on a sunny quiet day.
Branigan says: “I think it helps people connect with nature and it has a bit of a calming effect. This time of a pandemic is really challenging for people’s mental health so for people to be able to check out beautiful Port Phillip from their lounge room I think is really beneficial.”
James Cook University, at Townsville in Queensland, also maintains a live underwater camera at Orpheus Island, paid for with the help of a grant from the Queensland Government.
Prof Andrew Krockenberger, the university’s dean of research, says the camera – together with others above the water – are used as part of a program to engage school children in classrooms.
“But there’s definitely a bit of therapy there,” he says. Several university staff have been grabbing loops from the live feed and using it as their background in Zoom meetings.
The camera is situated in Pioneer Bay on the sheltered side of the island looking at a coral bommie and, during the day, is often teeming with reef fish.
The university’s Classroom on the Reef program also provide students with data from monitoring stations, but it’s the live cameras that Krockenberger says gives teachers a chance to hook the children in.
Nature up close
As lounge and classroom-based nature lovers are glued to reefs and sea eagles, web traffic is also starting to build at FalconCam – a project that has two cameras inside the eyrie of peregrine falcons on the Orange campus of Charles Sturt University in New South Wales.
The eyrie – or nest – is built into the side of a 50-metre high water tower and has been taking video since 2007. The current occupants – female Diamond and male Xavier – have been together since about 2015.
Next month, watchers will hope to see Diamond lay as many as three eggs, with chicks usually emerging in October.
Even though there’s going to be activity very soon, the project’s technical manager, Scott Banks, says international traffic tends to lift at around Christmas when northern hemisphere web fans turn their attention south.
Part of the appeal of peregrine falcons is their speed – they are the animal kingdom’s fastest species, regularly clocking 300 km/h (186 mph) as they dive for prey.
Banks, whose day job is a website developer, says for many years one of FalconCAM’s most regular visitors was a children’s day care centre in the Canadian city of Winnipeg that would turn on the feed every morning for the children to watch.
“We’ve got a remarkable diversity of viewers – some people live for this sort of thing. It’s like reality TV. It’s nature at its closest.
“I think people like the idea of seeing what has been a rare species breeding and interacting and seeing their lifecycle from an egg to a fledgling going out the window. We can get up close without interfering.”