Eagle Cam Behind the Scenes
Providing the live eagle nest camera video online is an expensive and technically challenging endeavor. Viewers who have been watching for the past few seasons know that the video goes down due to technical difficulties from time to time. Eagles also change nest locations sometimes, as they did for the 2010 nesting season. This means that all of our remote power and equipment infrastructure needs to be moved or duplicated for use at the new location, all without disturbing the eagles. We thought it might be interesting for camera fans to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of some of the challenges involved in bringing you these videos.
Bald Eagles have used this artificial nest pole constructed by OG&E (in consultation with Sutton and USFWS) for the last several years following the collapse of their initial dead nest tree in Sooner Lake. In late 2009 and in anticipation of the 2010 nesting season, we replaced last year's cameras on this structure with new ones since the effects of UV light during the preceding year on plastic camera housings tend to loosen seals. Once nesting begins, and even immediately before, we absolutely avoid going to the actual nest for equipment repairs since this is a likely time for desertion if the birds become upset. To gain access to the nest, first we shoot an arrow connected to monofilament line over the nest before using the line to pull up a rope. Here a Sutton climber is using jumars to ascend the rope in order to check on equipment and nest. It was only much later that the eagles chose an alternate nest to use, rendering all of this hard work on our part useless.
It is not uncommon for Bald Eagles to repair, build, or re-build several nests during the early nesting season, before they choose which one will be used that year. The original pole nest (shown in the first photo at the top) was still being used this year by the eagles as a place to dine and to loaf, but they did little construction on it. This tree nest was being investigated by the eagles early in the season.
Often eagles will switch the nest they use from one season to the next to allow the elements to clean out waste and prey remains from a formerly used nest, and then they might move back to the deserted nest in subsequent years. Here Sutton biologists are checking (buteo hawk) nests at which the eagles had been seen by volunteer observers. One of them had been lined with grasses by the eagles, but it was still too small for eagle use. This pair of eagles was seen exploring or building onto four nests this season.
Unfortunately for us, the eagles chose to nest this year in a dead cottonwood tree. Cottonwoods are dangerous to climb since they tend to be brittle even if alive, but this one was dead and hollow with the bark sloughing off. This was a challenging situation. Our climber weighed only 125 lbs and was able to place individual sections of a prefabricated deer stand ladder, one by one, the fifty feet to the nest after strapping them to the dead trunk with nylon webbing. Once to the nest, he was able to fix two outdoor cameras (one as a spare) to the trunk of the tree about 6 ft above the nest. Here, in what we think was an old Red-tailed Hawk nest, the eagles placed a lining of grass after remodeling and expanding the nest structure.
Cables were run down the trunk and secured so that they would not whip in the wind and generate metal fatigue in the wires. A transmitter was attached to the ladder toward the top, and pointed toward the twin smokestacks at the OG&E Sooner Lake power plant. The signal was shot from the nest to the stacks of the power plant where it is picked up and sent through OG&E's internet connection. From there it goes to a server in Oklahoma City that was built by Atlas Computers of Owasso. The server is housed by OneNet, Oklahoma's educational and government information network, for distribution of the video to classrooms and viewers around the world. From the landowners to the technical teams, this is truly a cooperative effort with many essential partners.
Before leaving the site, Atlas Computers’ technical experts check the signal to insure both cameras are working by viewing their images on a laptop.
Unlike some field cameras that can be connected to AC current with an extension cord, this eagle nest is located in remote countryside where no electricity is available. Atlas Computers constructed a power generator station on a small, 10ft trailer that could be hauled into the field near the nest. It contains solar panels and a small wind generator to keep the batteries charged. We have learned from past experience that solar panels alone are not enough if there are consecutive days of cloudy weather. A wide angle camera to show a broader view of the nest tree is also mounted on a pole.
Because rabbits and other wildlife chew the bottoms of trees in the area, we ran all cables through metal conduit to protect them from destruction. In a past season, when we ran cable from the nest pole through water hose (as a protector) and down through the water, we were disappointed to discover, right at hatching time, that the hose and cable had been chewed in two by beavers or muskrats.
To avoid rutting out the land on which the nest is located, we haul our tools and equipment back and forth using a garden wagon. Of course, we did have to drive our truck to pull in the solar power trailer, but we are trying to minimize our impact on the landowner's property.
While placing cameras on an eagle nest might seem rather simple and straightforward, it really is quite complicated. We have made over a dozen trips to the nest in the first few months of 2010 just to prepare equipment on site and to make adjustments so that a solid signal could be picked up and transmitted. Of course, there is a lot of planning and coordinating (with the nesting cycle of the eagles) that goes on back at headquarters first. Part of that planning is in coordination with the wishes of the landowner, as well as all of the details concerning each partner in the project. In about 3 ½ months in 2009, the Sutton Bald Eagle NestCam received over 4 million hits from 62 countries, including daily check-ins by our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are many things that can and do go wrong when bringing this viewing experience to you, but we will do our best to keep the signal coming. We ask for your patience if the signal should be down temporarily, but rest assured that we will soon know if problems develop on our site. Thank you for joining other viewers from around the world to share in our natural heritage!