NC State class field trip leads to nature reality show

January 27, 2012
By Bill Krueger
NC State Professor Ted Simons

NC State Professor Ted Simons

What’s become nature’s ultimate reality show — a live broadcast of nesting bald eagles — to fans around the world all started when NC State ornithologist Ted Simons took his ZOO 501 students on a field trip to Jordan Lake.

Watching an active nest, the students were surprised that bald eagles were nesting so close to Raleigh. “As we were walking back, we started talking about it, and realized most people would be surprised,” says Simons, a professor of  biology. He remembers thinking: “Maybe we should put a camera on that nest.”

Today the website — www.basic.ncsu.edu/eaglecam — has hundreds of followers every day, with more than 160,000 live views since it went online in December. The site is getting hits from around the world, and although there are other “eagle cams” around the country, the two eggs in Lake Jordan’s nest were the first to hatch. That has made celebrities out of the Jordan Lake eagle family.

A view from the eaglecam

A view from the eagle cam

Online eagle fans delight in watching the parents bring fresh fish to their nest to feed the two eaglets. The eaglets looked like tiny gray puffballs when they  hatched but now, at two weeks old, they are developing stubby wings.

Sometimes the eagle dad rearranges the nest with new branches, only  to have his mate come and move the sticks around. When one eaglet gets more than his fair share of food, one of the parents walks around the nest to feed the other one, gently offering bits of fish with a giant curved beak. (Warning: Watching the eagles can be addictive. A few of us here at the Alumni Association have become fans, with one staff member dubbing the group “Wingdings.”)

The project started two years ago. Simons worked with NC State computer science students on the technical part. Brent Lineberger ’96  ’01 mr, who owns a tree service in Raleigh, helped hoist the equipment some 80 feet up into a loblolly pine when the nest was dormant. Since the same pair (eagles mate for life) had been using the nest for several years, Simons could be fairly sure they would return.

The view from below the nest

The view from below the nest

One of the biggest challenges was the remote location. The camera runs on solar and battery power, and the team found a private landowner on the other side of the lake who agreed to let his shed be used to house an antenna and an internet connection. “It was total seat of the pants,” says Simons. “All volunteer. We didn’t have any funding.”

The first year was successful, with two eaglets hatching and eventually fledging in the spring. This year looks to be a repeat of that success.

“We have a tremendous following on Facebook,” Simons says. Next year he’s hoping to push the technology and work toward a clearer screen image. But the real goal is to illustrate and help the public feel a personal connection to one of the country’s great conservation success stories.

Bald eagles were threatened with extinction in the 1960s because of pesticides that ended up in their food supply. After pesticide regulations were changed, the birds began to make a comeback. Today, there are some 75 to 80 nesting pairs in North Carolina, Simons says, many of them along the coast. “This is a very powerful way to help people make a connection with wildlife,” he says.

After more than a decade teaching ornithology, Simons said he is still captivated by the eagles. “They still make my hair stand up,” he says. “They are such spectacular birds.”

— Sylvia Adock ’81

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