This was supposed to be a story about eagles. We were going to cover the installation of a camera above an eagle’s nest at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Cambridge, one that would follow the progress of an eagle couple returning to their nest.
Well, this story is now about owls. Maybe.
Back in 2004, the Friends of Blackwater (Friends), a nonprofit citizens support group founded in 1987, began broadcasting still images from a bald eagle nest at Blackwater. The nest had seen 25 eagle eggs hatch, but after a couple of failed nesting seasons, it appeared to have been abandoned. About a year ago, a search was conducted, a new nest was identified, and a decision made to install a streaming cam, similar to the osprey and waterfowl cams being used at the refuge.
Both the waterfowl and this new cam are the creation of Harry Heckathorn, VP of the Board of Directors for Friends. He designed, built the infrastructure, and coordinated all the participants (electric company, construction assistance, Refuge staff assistance, etc.) that were involved in the project. Another board member, Bob Quinn, stepped into the role of IT support.
Quinn, who had retired as the IT Infrastructure Manager for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, manages the IT equipment both at the Blackwater Visitor Center, as well as in the field. Lisa Mayo, also a board member with Friends, is the webmaster who ensures that the stream is seen at the Visitor Center, on the Friends of Blackwater website, and their Facebook page. The actual installation (as seen in the photos) was done by Craig Koppie, a biologist from the US Fish and Wildlife Service who clearly is not afraid of heights.
“The camera above the nest is a ‘PTZ’ (pan, tilt, zoom) cameras that I can move around depending on the circumstances,” says Quinn. “If we are lucky enough to get chicks, we will be able to zoom in close to get a good look or zoom back out to see the parents nesting or feeding them. As they get older, we’ll be able to view them growing, stretching their wings, branching, and eventually fledging. The second camera is not PTZ; it is what is known as a “bullet” camera. It can zoom in and out but cannot pan or tilt.” This camera was installed in a nearby tree pointed at the nest.
Motion detection was also set up on the PTZ camera, allowing Quinn to be alerted whenever there was activity in the nest. What he was seeing, though, was only one eagle making irregular visits to the nest. “We expected to see both eagles and some bonding behavior,” says Quinn. Bonding includes bringing in new nesting material and rearranging sticks, beak rubbing, and the male bringing food to the nest for the female as a way to display his skills as a provider.
Instead, Quinn started to notice frequent visits by another raptor, a couple of Great Horned Owls (GHOs)! GHOs, who don’t build their own, will use another bird’s nest, a crevice in a tree, or other natural cavities. “We’ve seen some of the same behavior with the owls that you see with eagles, such as beak rubbing and food delivery,” says Quinn. “We’ve been seeing 2-3 visits per day, although yesterday I think I counted four, and they seem to be getting longer. So, signs are positive that we may have a nesting pair of GHOs.”
It’s not that there are not enough eagles at Blackwater NWR. During the annual Mid-winter Eagle Survey last week, a total of 176 eagles were counted at 14 survey points on and around the refuge. So, what happened to the eagles that should be occupying this nest? Quinn speculates that something happened to the male. “Another possibility is they chose to build a different nest because of the human activity around the net (us), although this is less likely since we saw eagle visits after we completed our work, and we finished before nesting season.”
Whatever the reason, the GHOs don’t appear to care and seem to be considering moving into their new rental. Since the refuge has a no-intervention policy, if the eagles don’t defend the nest, the owls may use it for their nesting season in January/February.
And if the owls decide to extend their lease? Would another eagle’s nest be located and equipped with a camera? Quinn says he’s not sure, but any decision wouldn’t be made until after the nesting season. Meanwhile, we can all take part in the guessing game and observe first-hand what will happen with this nest. Live cams can be found on the Friend’s website, Facebook page, Instagram, or the TV monitors in the Blackwater Visitor Center. (Talbot Spy will update this story in the future.)
Be advised that the live feeds do come with a warning:
Our two cameras display live views from a wild bald eagle nest at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland. The cams will display raw, unfiltered nature that might include wildlife interactions and weather calamities that we cannot control. We have a no-intervention policy, as we are just observers.
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post. Photos courtesy of Bob Quinn Photography.
Don’t miss the latest! You can subscribe to The Talbot Spy‘s free Daily Intelligence Report here