Monday, July 7, 2014

Natural History Online: Watching Wildlife Cameras

Idaho'sDecorahEaglesAs a lifelong fan of wildlife observation, I’m living the dream thanks to modern technology.  As a young child a half century ago, I would regularly peek in on the nests of robins and other birds to see what was going on. For hours on end, I’d observe the nests of sunfish, bass, and lampreys in the river that flowed along our yard. I’d capture crayfish, plus fingerlings of northern pike, muskie, and other native fish and raise them in an aquarium. The excitement of learning while observing was intoxicating.

In adulthood, I did more of the same, adding photography to the mix—not that the nature photographs were of great quality, but they did capture some interesting moments. Today, all those things from the past have evolved into a spectacular learning tool: online wildlife cams.

Some of the best wildlife cams (live-action feeds) are trained on species common to the Adirondack region like bald eagles and osprey. Be forewarned, however, that wildlife cams are unfiltered – you might not like what you see sometimes, but it’s all part of nature.  It’s great to watch an eagle feed trout to nestlings, but not so great for the trout. Keep in mind that these cams are not “reality” shows where everyone gets a vote (although that did happen recently in Minnesota). These are actual reality.

Today’s opportunities for viewing wildlife are amazing, especially when you find cams that are among the best—which usually means the best-placed. In recent months, we’ve watched hummingbirds and eagles from egg to fledge. We’re currently following a family of ospreys doing the same.

We regularly monitor cams aimed at snowy owls, puffins, beluga whales, and others. They’re all very good viewing opportunities, but much of the time, as everyone discovers, wildlife isn’t all that wild. There’s much down time. Animals do a lot of napping and sitting or standing around.

BrownBearLeapingSalmonAmong the best and most unusual viewing experiences at the moment involve a wide range of animals in Africa, and huge brown bears in Alaska feasting on a great run of salmon. In Africa during the past couple of weeks, we’ve witnessed several deer species with various horns battle each other for supremacy. Elephants have faced off in the same manner, with one male going literally head to head with another, pushing his rival backwards until surrender was evident. The winner then joined the female and mated with her several times. Another remarkable thing to watch is how elephants use their trunks in so many ways—eating, drinking, picking grass, scratching itches, probing mud, and more.

The hottest ticket right now is the salmon run at Katmai National Park in Alaska (there are several cams available there), with peak viewing during the next couple of months. The scenery is stunning, but there’s so much more to observe. You’ll marvel at huge brown bears existing in close proximity to fishermen. And the show at Brooks Falls is amazing, with massive bears catching salmon as they approach and leap the falls. There are sometimes a dozen huge bears on camera. There’s also a pecking order at work among them, becoming evident when a larger bear enters the scene and others quickly scatter.

While watching the interaction is great, my favorite sight among the Katmai bears is a yellow mother and her dark-brown cub. She sometimes swims hundreds of feet offshore, with the little one clinging to her back, enjoying the ride even though the cub can swim just fine. The antics engaged in are sometimes hilarious, like when the cub stands tall and rubs wildly against mom to scratch an itchy back.

OspreyYoungPecking order among animals is sometimes tough to watch. While observing the nests of certain birds, we became all too familiar with the term siblicide. In one nest, a black eagle chick (in Africa) literally pecked his sibling on the head, fiercely, hundreds of times. Since then, only one eaglet has been visible. An online search for more information revealed that among black eagles, siblicide by pecking is the norm.

Despite the frequent battles in nature, there are many warm and funny moments as well. While observing the Decorah eagles (one of the best and most famous cams available), we learned one of the reasons why many bird nests are not filled with poop, even though some are home to two adults and several young. When the urge strikes, they back their butts to the edge of the nest, lean forward, and suddenly launch a projectile spray of poop into the wild blue yonder. Many other bird species do the same.

We watched osprey parents ignore some potentially fatal head-pecking among their young offspring while at the same time delicately feeding them pieces of fish. On warmer days, the adults place themselves between the chicks and the sun, gradually moving to maintain shade for the youngsters. And during tropical storm Arthur, an adult osprey shielded three fairly large chicks all night long from the wind-driven rain.

Nest building and maintenance, preening among birds and many animals (especially monkeys and baboons), and the playful actions of young deer, bears, hippos, and monkeys are interesting and educational, but again a warning is wise: despite lots of down time when nothing much is happening, watching can become addictive. If you’ve got lots of work to do, self-discipline is necessary.

It’s also nice that many cams offer a “snapshot” option, allowing you to capture special moments. (Savvy computer users might have other ways of collecting cam photos.)

PuffinWithHatchlingAs the world of wildlife cams develops, the possibilities will expand. Issues will surely arise, but it’s important to look past the voyeur aspect and realize what a great teaching tool they can be. While cams trained on animals in cages and zoos reveal what certain species look like, those trained on wildlife can provide a real look into nature, including many critters that are native to the Adirondacks. Hopefully some top-quality regional cams will one day be available. Imagine a fisher or porcupine cam!

If you enjoy wildlife but haven’t explored the world of online wildlife cams, check out what you’re missing.

Screengrabs: Eagle nest at Decorah, Iowa, shortly before fledging; Brown Bear with leaping salmon in Alaska; young osprey; puffin with hatchling.


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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

2 Responses

  1. Myles says:

    Sounds awesome..Links please??

    • Larry says:

      There are 5 links included in the piece, but it looks like they don’t stand out well from the regular text. Take a closer look and you’ll see them.
      A good place to start is, which has many of the best cams, including the Katmai bears.

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