As I began to stray away from the waiting tree in search of more sounds of nature emerging from the other Explore.org nest cams, I spent some time listening at the Sauces Bald Eagles Cam on Santa Cruz Island, California provided in partnership with Channel Islands National Park (CINP), and the West End Bald Eagle Cam on Catalina Island, California provided in partnership with the Institute for Wildlife Studies (IWS)in Arcata, California. The parents in the Sauces nest are raising three eaglets, and the West End parents are raising a single eaglet – which all hatched within a week of each other in the middle of March. The West End nest provides some amazing views of the the island and ocean, and the struggle for pecking order between the three at Sauces has been interesting to watch because of the sneaky moves the youngest would have to make to get its share. Although all has been going well at those nests, they can be a little difficult to listen into at times because of the Santa Ana winds and the Pacific Ocean breezes that thunder through the microphone and the increasing demands of the eaglets.
So I started to listen into the Decorah Eagles Cam in Decorah, Iowa provided in partnership with The Raptor Resource Project (RRP) in Decorah, where the sounds of nature were usually a little less intense. Although it is a much more urban setting than the previous three cameras to which I have listened (the nest also overlooks an intersection, walking and bike paths, and other obvious clues of civilization), the migratory flyway near the Mississippi River produces rhythms of nature that seem to blend well with the human interruptions in their beneficial location. The nest is strategically placed overlooking the spring-fed Trout Creek and the Decorah Trout Hatchery, where the eagles find easy fishing in the hatchery’s retention pond. The location boasts three cameras, two at the nest and one overlooking the retention pond. Plus, this nest has quite the history. Mom and Dad Decorah – as they are affectionately known – have successfully fledged 28 eaglets from this area since 2008 – and Dad Decorah had been using this nest are since at least 2002. This was Dad Decorah’s fourth nest during his time in this area – two of the previous three had been destroyed by storms while the other was abandoned. Researchers from the RRP built a “starter nest” in the current nest location in hopes of encouraging Mom and Dad Decorah to take it over and build upon it after their previous nest had been destroyed in a storm in 2015. Judging by the up to 4000+ viewers looking into the nest at any given time, this has been one of Explore’s most popular cameras, if not the most popular one, during my short time listening to the sounds of nature on Explore’s cams. In addition there were three new reasons for viewers to tune in: three newly hatched eaglets beginning to emerge more and more each day; eaglets 29, 30, and 31.
What I hadn’t bargained for was the high drama that was about to ensue. A spring snowstorm deposited several inches of wet snow on the area on April 18th. While Mom and Dad Decorah worked together to keep the eaglets warm and fed, the female at the Decorah North Nest – another Explore cam provided in partnership with the RRP – struggled to just keep her head above the snow while she incubated two eggs that were her second clutch within weeks of her first clutch failing. However, the difficult reality of nature was only just beginning. Sometime late on the evening of April 18th, Dad Decorah left the nest presumably to roost near the nest where he could protect his family from threats of intruders – such as other birds of prey including other bald eagles. He has not been seen since.
While the Decorah Eagles camera community began to fear the worst, the RRP started searching. The longer he was gone the greater the speculation came – in all scenarios, and the crowd of viewers has grown steadily as well with everyone wondering what happened to Dad. Speculation that included everything from heart attack (because Dad was no spring chicken) to kidnapping by humans, including everything in between: frostbite, sickness or injury, car collision, electrocution by power line, shot by humans. But what seemed like the two most likely scenarios were that Dad had ventured off somewhere to hunt for food for his family after the late snow (after all he had pulled the same disappearing act last year for two days), or he had been run off or killed by a competitor bald eagle in a territorial dispute. Then, there has been the speculation of whether Mom will be able to provide for three voracious eaglets, and be able to protect the nest from intruders and defend from other predators. She has seemed apprehensive to leave the nest. She has been calling what seems like constantly, presumably calling for Dad. But then Mom did something that astonished her biggest believers as well as her harshest doubters: on Monday afternoon she landed swiftly back in the nest after a short fishing excursion with a two fish delivery – one in each of her talons, both still alive and flopping! The Decorah Eagles camera community exploded with excitement and relief.
As of this post, this is day six Dad Decorah has been gone, and to make matters even more complicated an unidentified male eagle (UME) has entered the drama. The UME’s presence has fed the speculation like winds feed a wildfire. Was he somehow involved in Dad’s disappearance? Was this a younger, stronger male who coveted this prime nesting area? After all, so far he has posed little threat to Mom other than invading the nest tree – which he is doing with greater frequency and she has been apprehensively allowing him to inch closer – but nowhere near the nest yet. In the days since his disappearance, the RRP has conducted extensive searches with volunteers from the community – including drones and the local fire department, and they have reached out to the surrounding communities as well as raptor rehabilitation centers, veterinarians, and wildlife officials to be on the lookout for Dad. What they know is that Dad showed no signs of sickness or injury when he was last seen, and they have found no evidence to suggest he has met his demise other than he is gone. They have found no evidence of human interference, and they have repeatedly reminded those concerned for the health of the eaglets in the camera’s community that they will not interfere with the eaglets and let nature take its course saying, “we all have the opportunity to witness nature unscripted and unedited.”
What the RRP has continued to stress is that this is nature at its purest, and we are only here to watch and learn despite some viewers concerns for the “safety” of the eaglets. What’s strange is in this day and age of technology we have opened a window where wilderness and the secrets it holds can be viewed from anywhere at any time. The RRP has had to remind the community several times to be kind to each other because emotions are running high in the days since Dad disappeared. Speculation, questions, and emotions have been running rampant at times, especially when an incident occurs off screen – beyond the window. Even in this location where there are three cameras, the argument from the viewers perspective visually remains in the two-dimensional tunnel view of the camera that is in operation at that particular moment. The sounds of nature seep in from beyond the border of the screen, but off no explanation and very little evidence for interpretation. Yet, the audience members continue to speculate trying to create their own version of what has happened and what is happening. Human emotions have been projected onto nature, and the audience is reminded again and again that the eagles know. Moderators have looked for support from the researchers to reassure the audience, and have also turned to the more experienced and rational set of viewers to aid with “self-moderation” in the influx of concern for Decorah’s Eagles. Researchers in response have asked the audience that they remain respectful of everyone during this stressful time of emotion, and only post positive thoughts about “their” eagles. And when the drama takes another turn, the researchers, moderators, and self-moderators continue to remind everyone to “Trust the Eagles!”