Watch the birdie: why birdcams are the new box sets

Watch the birdie: why birdcams are the new box sets

On the webcam it is clear that Telyn is back. Sleek, powerful and yellow-eyed, the osprey has successfully raised a dynasty high above the wind-buffeted grass near the west Wales coast. Last year came Berthyn, Peris and Hesgyn – they sound like Game of Thrones characters. The watchers are waiting for Telyn’s mate, local hero Monty. A magnificent fisherman, heroic provider and model father, he’s been a fixture at the Dyfi Osprey Project since 2008. But where is he?

“Is Monty back?” says every third post on the webcam’s chatboard. He isn’t – instead, there’s a new pretender on the nest, upstart Idris. He’s doing everything right, ingratiating himself with Telyn, bringing offerings of sea trout and twigs, chasing off intruders and yes, mating. Is this the end for the Burton and Taylor of ospreys? Unswayed by Idris’s can-do attitude and beady-eyed charm, Team Monty is inconsolable. “Still waiting for Monty… His usual slot is mid-afternoon,” says one hopeful post. “Hope Monty is home tomorrow, he is all I have known since 2011, love you, amber eyes,” says another. Still they wait.

Sex and violence, birth, death and bitter rivalry: welcome to nest-flix. More and more of us are becoming bird voyeurs, tuning into nestcams in the hope of getting a peep at the precarious miracle of new life.

At a time when the world is frightening and our outlook on it has become simultaneously restricted and vertiginously wide, wildlife cams are enjoying unprecedented popularity. They offer connection and continuity – the transporting sensation of watching a creature indifferent to human endeavour going about its life. Edinburgh Zoo has seen a surge of viewers watching its penguins, pandas and koalas, from an average of around 100,000 plays per month to more than 5m in March this year. One small Hampshire zoo has seen traffic increase by 27,000%.

A call-out online reveals people watching the mesmerising Monterey Bay Aquarium jellyfish, colourful Panamanian bird feeders and Californian penguins. One respondent describes how she and her friends have “developed a deep group attachment” to a hummingbird nestcam. “There’s something very sledgehammer symbolic about it: let us affectionately watch the persistence of tiny, brightly coloured life together.”

'Sleek, powerful and yellow-eyed': an osprey has an irresistible screen presence.

Birds may not seem the most exciting of all the wildlife cams at our disposal, but what they offer is the perfect arc, from egg-laying to hatching to fledgling. It makes them a peculiarly gripping watch: viewing figures for the Cornell Lab Bird Cams in the US, broadcasting from as far as New Zealand and Panama, are up 15% on last year.

Author Lissa Evans knows something about story- telling. She’s an avid watcher of the unfolding drama at Dyfi. “Every year that I’ve been watching there is a marvellous narrative,” she says. “The mating, the egg laying, the hatching, the odd drama of ‘strange’ adults turning up at the nest, and then, best of all – the fledging. The adolescents flap their wings and teeter on the edge and nudge each other and lose their nerve and then suddenly one of them goes for it, and they’re off. It’s wonderful and moving.”

Stories, of course, have heroes and villains – Monty v Idris. Marie Thomas of Salisbury Cathedral, where a pair of peregrines has nested since 2015, describes the dramas that play out there as “like watching Trollope”, though it sounds more Lars von Trier. The set dressing only reinforces that impression – peregrine nests are bleakly exposed boxes of gravel strewn with dismembered pigeon parts. A friend who watched one pair dourly raise four gawky chicks on bloody morsels of birds, nicknamed them “Ted and Sylvia”.

Tricia Glass is one of the cathedral volunteers for whom the peregrine webcam is a connection to a place they cherish and are currently excluded from. I can hear her excitement as she tells me how Sally, the resident female, found herself without a mate in 2018, then failed to defend her nest against an incoming pair in 2019, returning in the middle of the night (“17 May, that’s how much I watch them”) to attempt a coup. “There were some fairly spectacular fights on the tower, absolutely bloodthirsty.” She’s far from alone: Salisbury’s webcam drew 6,008 page views in March 2019; this year it was more than 55,000 so far.

But Monty and Sally may not return; not all stories have happy endings. “It’s not Disney” is a phrase you hear frequently in nestcam circles. Some species lay more eggs than they can successfully raise; fledgling tragedies are commonplace. Famously, in 2014, the Woods Hole osprey cam in the US created online horror when the female began attacking and starving her chicks. Evans recalls watching a clutch of water rail chicks (“little black fluffy balls of loveliness”) on the BBC’s Springwatch as “a snake eased its way into the nest and ate two live on camera, while the other chicks ran away screaming. I have never seen anything more astonishing and horrific.” Meanwhile, on Norwich Cathedral’s webcam, peregrine watchers were devastated in 2017 when an inexperienced mother accidentally hurled one of her chicks off the nest.

Of course we’re horrified when awful things happen: it’s only human. “When you’re watching something starve to death or be picked apart by a predator, it’s an emotionally powerful situation,” says Charles Eldermire, who manages the Cornell Lab cams. “Even for us – I’m a scientist with decades of work in the field – it’s not easy to watch something dying.”

Flyinbg over the spire: one of the peregrines that has made itself at home in Salisbury Cathedral.

Perhaps we shouldn’t anthropomorphise animal behaviour, but, inevitably, we do. A big part of the communication strategy at Cornell is explaining that (with the exception of some critically endangered species) non-intervention when things go “wrong” is usually the ethical approach, however difficult to watch. It’s also about explaining that upsetting behaviours can be normal and natural.

“There are species for whom living on that edge of failing is part of their history,” Eldermire explains. Cornell’s philosophy is that individual upset can be usefully reframed and refocused on species-level concern and conservation. “If you feel like these individuals are important and you’re bummed about that cat eating them, we need to think about our own choices and our own governments.”

For others, it’s less a thirst for drama that drives our viewing than a craving for a natural world we can’t currently experience in person. “Now, more than ever, plenty of people don’t have access to nature,” says Eldermire. The popularity of nestcams “underscores the power that experiencing nature has, even if it’s just through a screen. That we can transmit a slice of it and still have an effect is marvellous, but it’s also something to marvel at.”

For Eldermire part of the appeal is the sense you are experiencing nature firsthand. “You don’t control the binoculars, but there’s a true validity to the experience. You’re not selecting the playlist in Spotify for ‘calm work mode’.”

“Real” birdwatchers might disagree. Richard Smyth is the author of An Indifference of Birds, which explores how the lives of humans and birds intersect (or don’t). He partly agrees with Eldermire. “The birds don’t know they’re supposed to be performing and there’s no director bellowing, ‘Be magnificent!'” Despite that, the experience of watching through webcams seems to him a partly artificial one. “There’s a school of thought where it’s not an authentic experience if you haven’t taken three days to walk across the Trossachs to find it; that it’s a mediated modern experience that is not truly authentic.”

Smyth does see the value of filmed footage. “Anyone being sniffy is missing this really obvious point: you’re just not going to see that kind of behaviour, that kind of detail in any other way. What other chance have you got to see eggs in a nest, eggs hatching?”

New arrival: adults stand arund a new chick as seen on the Royal Albatross Cam.

He will happily watch a peregrine cam. The falcon’s resurgence as an urban bird, nesting on church spires and tower blocks after decades of critical endangerment, is an extraordinary success story that features in his book. “You have to stop and think: ‘Hang on, 30 or 40 years ago this would have seemed absolutely mad.’ Webcams are helping us get in touch with that.”

A webcam can’t compare with the solitary thrill of seeing a flash of osprey in the wild, though, as he did as a “bird mad” 11-year-old. “Some people enjoy communal experiences and some don’t. It’s nice to know people are sharing in nature, but I don’t get a lot out of that.”

Others do – nestcams such as the Cornell ones are, above all, communities where watchers swap observations. “It’s like the guys hanging around the cooler talking about the sports game,” says Eldermire. “One of the reasons these communities form is that they allow people to share what it’s like to be doing this. These cameras are one of the few things left, beside sport, where they happen live.”

Dyfi too is a collective experience. I spend a few days on the osprey chat and quickly get hooked. There’s not much happening – lots of shots of windswept nests and Telyn moodily dismembering the occasional fish – but the collective wait for Monty creates its own drama. It’s a sweetly supportive place, too, where minute observations of twig placement as the osprey nest takes shape alternate with swapped bread recipes and reminiscences from previous years. I’m tickled when someone mentions an osprey bringing its mate a Battenberg cake. Another makes me laugh by saying: “Here we are, 493 people staring at an empty nest.”

Nestcam communities needn’t be national or international. The technology is simple and affordable; backyard cams are increasingly common. Catherine and her partner installed a webcam after a pair of barn owls adopted the nest box in her home in the Cairngorms. She now shares footage on a private Facebook group of 140 who post comments, pictures and jokes about “claw sanitiser”. She and the other watchers are especially looking forward to the chicks this year. The owls are “a salutary and cheering reminder to us all that there are so many creatures on the earth to whom we’re neither here nor there.”

'Now is the moment to get hooked, as the eggs start to hatch': a female white-tailed tropicbird sits with her young chick.

That’s why I love nestcams, too. Our predicaments, however all-consuming, seem irrelevant to creatures preoccupied with the yearly drama of reproduction and survival. Ten years ago, recently separated and sharing custody of my children, my life felt sad, strange and empty. I sat in my grotty kitchen scanning the internet for distraction until an acquaintance sent me a link to a Dutch webcam of an eagle owl incubating two eggs on a rocky outcrop.

Eagle owls are vast, orange-eyed beauties with murderous talons. There was a strange, stolen intimacy to watching something I should, in normal circumstances, never be able to see. The female occasionally moved, or ate the prey her mate brought her, but mainly she sat, stoic and unmoving. It should have been boring, but it wasn’t. I didn’t see the eggs hatch, but I remember waking to see two bedraggled clumps of wet feather, moving jerkily. I spent hours staring at the terrifyingly fragile babies, wobbly heads too big for their bodies, watching as they ate, grew and lost their fluff. They started practising heart-stopping hops and flaps. Eventually, wonderfully, they fledged. I was bereft – and hooked. Even now, when I’m anxious, I think back to those magical evenings watching owl babies learn to fly on a strange rock in another country.

For anyone with anxiety and an appetite for a good story (all of us, surely), now is the perfect moment to get hooked, as eggs start to hatch. For first-time watchers, Eldermire recommends picking a cam with a high success rate: the Cornell barred owl clutch is on the verge of hatching as I write and, Eldermire assures me, “every year they are successful”. This morning there was great excitement in Dyfi: Telyn has laid her first egg (Idris is the father: he celebrated with a gift of fish). Peregrine eggs across the UK are hatching now, too: pick a cam on a local landmark for an additional thrill.

“I’m starting to get very excited,” says Tricia Glass, as the Salisbury interlopers incubate four eggs on screen in front of her (the last egg was laid at the end of March, so there should be chicks soon if all goes well). “I’ve been feeling quite flat the last couple of weeks, but just talking about it reminds me of last year and how wonderful and exciting it was.”

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