Could the Internet bring us closer to nature? It sounds counterintuitive, like suggesting plastic fruit might whet our taste for real apples and bananas. Rather than connecting people to nature, the Internet appears to take us in a contrary direction, using electrons and pixels to create a virtual reality that holds us in thrall to our computer screens, while deaf and blind to the natural world on the other side of our walls and windows. Technology’s tendency to isolate us from the natural world is one of the themes of modern literature, one example being Richard Louv’s ”Last Child in the Wilderness,” which describes the “nature deficit disorder” afflicting younger generations weaned on video games and the endless entertainment buffet of cable TV.
As a kid who grew up roaming the woods, I tend to share that concern. But then I started watching Alcoa’s “osprey cam” via the Internet (www.alcoa.com/ospreycam).
Alcoa installed the webcam to provide streaming video of an osprey nest built on a platform atop the Narrows Dam, one of Alcoa Power Generating’s impoundments on the Yadkin River. (Alcoa also has a webcam at a bald eagle nest at its Davenport, Iowa, aluminum plant on the Mississippi River.)
Although osprey are more common along the rivers and marshes of the coastal plain than in the Piedmont, they’ve been nesting on the dam for several years, but this is the first year the parent birds — dubbed Oliveea and Oscar — have had their own reality show. By all accounts, it’s a hit: Since early May, the osprey cam has gotten about 375,000 viewings from 52 countries around the world, Marshall Olson, Alcoa’s environmental and natural resources manager, related in an e-mail.
Over the past few weeks, the camera has provided an intimate view of the household as Oliveea and Oscar raised their three chicks. Weighing only a couple of ounces at birth, the baby osprey grew quickly, dining on fish expertly harvested from the nearby waters, usually fed by Oliveea while Oscar kept watch nearby. By mid-June, the offspring were almost as large as their parents, tottering like gangly adolescents as they moved about the nest of woven sticks.
I’d admired osprey from a distance during visits to the coast, watching them glide above trees and marveling at the intricate workmanship of their big nests. That far perspective had given me an appreciation for their hook-beaked handsomeness and impressive size (a 5-6 wingspan at maturity, second only to the eagle among raptors), as well as their fishing prowess. However, without the webcam I’d never have seen the domestic side of osprey life — the mother diligently stripping away chunks of fish to deposit in eager mouths, the young birds snoozing together in a fluffy pile or beginning to periscope their heads above the nest and take stock of the world beyond. While I’d seen the outline of osprey life, the webcam put me smack in the middle of it.
Judging from the hundreds of comments on the osprey cam website, others were just as captivated by the online connection.
From “Jersey nana”: “Thank you so much for this opportunity. ... Was so happy to see this. I am originally from Maine and have seen osprey many times in flight and nesting from afar ... But this is GREAT. They are beautiful.”
From “Suzanne:” “I can't get over how beautiful the parents’ faces are ... the markings. I’ve always admired osprey but never really seen them up close and personal. Wow wee they are beautiful!”
This past week, the offspring passed a milestone. In a blog accompanying the webcam, Olson made the announcement on Monday: “It is official, one of our chicks fledged!! We knew it was only a matter of time as practice flights across the nest were taking place last week. Over the weekend one chick was brave enough to leave the nest ...”
By midweek, another chick had fledged. An online commenter gave this play-by-play description: “Saw #2 taking short trips from one side of the nest to the other, hopping higher and flapping wings. Finally took off and flew towards the first light on the left, couldn’t nail the landing and slipped off the right side. Turned right and flew down over the water flapping hard. ...”
Even after they’ve started flying, the osprey will still return to the nest for a while as they gradually learn to fend for themselves. Then, sometime in August, they’ll begin migrating south. By late summer, the osprey just now testing their wings will have embarked on a long journey that will take them down the Florida peninsula, across the Caribbean and into South America, the wintering grounds for eastern osprey. Although juvenile birds usually don’t make the return trip north until they’re sexually mature at 2 or 3 years old, Oliveea and Oscar should be back to raise yet another brood.
Osprey cam fans can enjoy the rest of this season and look forward to a sequel next year, according to Olson.
“I’m sure we will continue with the webcam,” he says. “The ospreys want to nest at the dam every year, and we have a great setup for them now. We enjoy watching the birds as much as anyone.”