Into the Wild: Webcams connect viewers to an unedited version of the natural world
by Fran Silverman
One of my favorite ways to start a Sunday is watching the end of “CBS Sunday Mornings” because each week it gives viewers a glimpse of wildlife in their environs. For just about a minute, viewers are treated to images of everything from soaring condors to desert big horned sheep to wild mustangs in the Pine Nut Mountains of Nevada—all without the distraction of any human noise. It’s the most popular segment of the show, but CBS videographers noted in a news report on the segment that it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to capture these moments of wild zen. Humans, with all their noises from cars and planes to leaf blowers and drones, are encroaching on these peaceful moments of nature that the show has been presenting since it debuted in 1979.
This exact issue may be why wildlife webcams have become so popular. The cameras offer viewers the chance to watch nature up close and personal, without the chatter of talking pundits or the noise of human life. You also get more than a minute of peace. Indeed, you can binge watch them for hours, from your computer (at home or work— hey, everyone needs a moment of wildlife watching to help them be more productive at their jobs whether they work at Friends of Animals or an accounting firm).
Webcams have become so popular you can now choose from a variety of viewing options spanning the globe and species, from kelp to elephants to osprey. In fact, in 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center requested a review by the United States Geological Survey of best practices for the use of wildlife webcams and an analysis of their advantages in promoting wildlife appreciation. The report gave hands-on tips of the best camera equipment and installation instructions. Surprisingly though, the review found that there weren’t many scientific journal articles exploring whether webcams are helping wildlife by giving the human viewers a better appreciation of the animals and their inherent worth as a species and the challenges they face, or are turning watchers into chair potatoes who maybe should be going outside more often to see wildlife in their own regions. Either way, there’s definitely proof that viewers become attached to the animals on their screens.
Thousands of bird enthusiasts were riveted by “The Throuple” of the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge in Illinois—a bald eagle saga reported by Smithsonian Magazine that involved two males, Valor I and Valor II, who overcame the grief of losing their object of affection, the female bald eagle named Hope, who disappeared, and apparently died. The two buddies found love again with Star, another female bald eagle.
There was rivalry, there was death and then there was peace as Valor I and Valor II each mated with Star and then helped tend to three hatchlings born in April in some kind of wildlife takeoff of “Three’s Company.” Then there is the very famous D.C. couple, Mr. President and The First Lady—two eagles who have soared to popularity via the National Arboretum’s webcam (formerly known as the #DC Cam). The mated pair nests high up in a Tulip Poplar tree in the Azalea Collection at the Arboretum. The couple returned to the nest in October 2018 and garnered more than 13.5 million views that year.
The livestream is financed by The American Eagle Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as Friends of the National Arboretum. New York University posted a webcam outside the university president’s 12th floor office overlooking Washington Square Park after a pair of red-tailed hawks began nesting on the ledge there in 2011 and kept returning each year to lay eggs and raise their red-tail eyasses.
The livestream feed has received more than 793,000 views so far and viewers may also participate in a live chat but unlike the Arboretum, NYU did not give the hawks names. “The University is pleased to be able to give folks the chance to share in the hawks’ daily lives, and those of their offspring, thanks to the happy accident of where they chose to build their nest,’’ it said on its webcam site.
“Given the birds’ beauty and the opportunity accorded by the Hawk Cam to observe them intimately as they raise their young, there may be a tendency to project human traits on these raptors, including given them names. NYU does not officially endorse anthropomorphizing the adult hawks or their eyasses and will not seek to name them.”
The University also cautions viewers that the hawks are birds of prey protected from intervention by state and federal laws and that the raw footage may stream upsetting events in the nest.
“However close you may come to feel to these raptors, it is important to remember that they are wild birds of prey. Red-tailed hawks have evolved over millions of years to cope with all manner of variables in the raising of their young. Nevertheless, should the adult hawk or eyasses encounter a natural problem in the nest, NYU’s position is to let nature take its course, without any intervening human intervention.”
NYU is not alone in having to explain why remaining neutral is important for webcam operators. A New York Post story noted that livestream webcam operators are often pressed to take action to help the animals who are starring in their feeds. Viewers of baby eaglets, for example, pressured wildlife officials in Minnesota to help one of the eaglets who had a broken wing. The Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine took criticism from cam watchers who wanted officials to step in to help a pair of abandoned eaglets in Hancock County. But intervening is not what these cameras are about, and viewers must remember that livestreams are not scripted reality television shows.
It’s the wild, after all and that means there isn’t always a happy ending. So, prepare yourself before becoming glued to a livestream of a baby condor, polar bear or some sea kelp. When you go into the wild, anything can happen.
Our Faves in Livestream Binging
The good news is that there are a lot of livestreams available for viewing wildlife. The bad news is that there are a lot of livestreams available, and not all are great or helpful to animals. You’ll want to steer clear of the ones streaming zoo animals (sorry Smithsonian National Zoo Giant Panda Cam) as they are definitely not offering viewers a glimpse of wildlife flourishing in their own way. There’s also dog and cat rescues or supposed rescues. And then there are the ones of people’s pets (how did they sneak into the stream?) Many homeowners are also capturing video of wildlife in their own backyards, placing webcams on their property and then reviewing the footage to see the wildlife activity happening right outside their doors at night. But I digress. To help get you started, here’s a few of our favorite livestreams (the brown bear one hypnotized me. I’m addicted.)
PUFFIN CAM Hosted by explore.org, this cam focuses on a puffin burrow on Seal Island, 21 miles off the coast of Maine. Established in 2013, the stream captures the community of puffins who nest and breed there during the spring and summer months. explore.org/livecams/puffins/puffin-burrow-cam
NATIONAL ARBORETUM EAGLE CAM Get a glimpse of Mr. President and The First Lady when they return to nest at the U.S. National Arboretum. The mated pair nests high up in a Tulip Poplar tree in the Azalea Collection at the Arboretum. The First Lady usually lays eggs in February or March. You can also join a live Q&A while viewing. naeaglecam.org/
BROOKS FALLS BROWN BEARS KATMAI NATIONAL PARK, ALASKA Watching the brown bears in the falls of the Brooks River as they catch sockeye salmon jumping out of the water is mesmerizing. About 2,200 bears live in Katmai Park and the Brooks River bears are most active July-October. explore.org/livecams/brown-bears/brown-bearsalmon-cam-brooks-falls
NYU RED-TAILED HAWK CAM These love birds come back each year to nest on a ledge outside the New York University’s President’s Bobst Library office. Cameras have been placed in areas that won’t disturb the hawks. The continuous stream is also accompanied by a live chat. ustream.tv/channel/e3uYJSDgmbz
POLAR BEAR CAM Watch as the polar bears of Manitoba Canada get through their days on this webcam streamed by explore.org. Bear cubs are born in November. When the cubs are strong enough, the bears head for the sea ice, which is disappearing because of climate change, making the footage even more important. explore.org/livecams/polar-bears-international/ polar-bear-tundra-buggy-lodge-south
WALRUS CAM Take a look at walruses along Main Beach, a long, concave beach extending from the northern tip of Alaska’s Round Island. The greatest number of Pacific walruses (as many as 15,000!) can be seen at this popular “haulout” location. explore.org/livecams/oceans/walrus-cam-roundisland
Fran Silverman is Friends of Animals’ communications director. Whether it’s human or non- human animals, she believes in being a voice for the voiceless and respectfully sharing the world with all its species.