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Web Camera Waits for Eagles to Land in Nest

The device in Maryland's Blackwater national refuge is designed to bring birds' family pictures to the Internet. All that's needed is a mating pair to take up residency.


BLACKWATER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Md. — This 25,000-acre swath of watery swamp and stands of mighty loblolly pines is home to the second-largest population of bald eagles in the contiguous 48 states.

Ninety-nine of the once-endangered birds soar amid the trees and rivers of this Eastern Shore refuge. Only refuges in Florida have more bald eagles.

Soon people worldwide will be able to call up a Web page to watch a pair of eagles nesting here.

It is believed to be one of the first broadcast-quality cameras to track the lives of a pair of mating bald eagles., along with the National Geographic Society and the Friends of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, tied a weatherproof camera to the top of an 85-foot pine.

The camera is aimed at a bald eagle's nest, where it is hoped a young pair of eagles will birth their fledglings.

The nest is about a mile from the visitor center of the refuge, in a stand of trees surrounded on all sides by fields of black mud.

It is far enough into the marsh that Tom Hook, a refuge volunteer, got stuck in his four-wheel-drive truck on the way to the tree.

From the nest, the camera is strapped to a branch about 4 feet away.

A thick blue cable runs down the length of the tree to a plastic box, where a microwave transmitter is ready to beam the streaming images to an Eastern Shore-based Internet provider.

"There's one big piece still up in the air, so to speak," said Ron Tillier, president of the Friends of the Blackwater Refuge, a group of volunteers at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife-operated park.

That big piece is whether mating eagles will use the nest of twisted sticks high up in the branches of the loblolly.

But Tillier said he believes he and the others have picked a nest that will likely be used by a mating pair of eagles.

The nest has been used by mating eagles the last two or three years and was one of about a dozen nests chosen as potential camera sites for their popularity with the eagles in the refuge.

Eagles mate about the middle of February, so there is still time for a pair to make their home there, said the refuge's Maggie Biggs, an outdoor recreation planner with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Last year there were 13 or 14 pairs that hatched dozens of fledglings in the refuge.

Biggs said the Department of the Interior is delighted with the so-called "Eaglecam," partly because it was put together with volunteers and donated goods and because it would increase the public's education about eagles.

"It's going to raise the awareness that there's even a refuge here and that we've got these bald eagles," Biggs said.

The refuge itself was mapped out 98 years ago, from the shores of the Chesapeake Bay to include the juncture of the Blackwater River and the Little Blackwater River.

It is home to the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel, peregrine falcons and bald and golden eagles.

The "Eaglecam" project came together in a matter of weeks last fall.

The National Geographic Society was looking for a place to put a camera on a bald eagle nest, and the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge seemed a good fit.

But time was running out: The camera had to be in place before Dec. 15 so human activity wouldn't keep eagles away. Then called.

The South African company calls itself a "virtual safari" because of remote cameras keeping its Web site fed with images, including those of polar bears. employees showed up in Dorchester County and scouted out the tree.

They bought a child's bow-and-arrow set and fishing line from a sporting goods store, and shot the arrow over a tall branch, fishing line in tow. With the line, they hauled up a rope, which they climbed to secure the camera.

"If you have wireless Internet service, you'll be able to get broadcast quality, real-life images," said Gary Thompson, president of Eastern Shore Net, the company that has donated equipment and know-how to the project.

Tillier, a retired Ford Motor Co. employee who now is president of the Friends of the Refuge, has his fingers crossed, as does Biggs.

If a pair of eagles choose the nest as home for their young, images will be up on the Web sites of National Geographic, and Friends of the Blackwater Refuge within weeks.

Friends of Blackwater Refuge:

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