2010-04-22 / News

Many have a bird-brained addiction to Internet webcams

Flotsam and Jetsam
By Donna Drago

Soap operas are addictive. So are reality TV shows. Each allows us a way to peer into the lives of people whose worlds are more dramatic than our own. I’d be the first to admit that my life is mostly dull. I have great days, exciting days sometimes, but when you average it all out, I would rate rather ordinary and certainly not worthy of my own reality show. So I watch reality TV, but with a twist.

I am addicted to webcams that are focused on bird nests. This may sound like watching paint dry – and sometimes it is – but more often, the cameras broadcast scenes that are very dramatic.

This week, for example, Molly the barn owl was missing from her San Marcos, Calif. nest box for the better part of 16 hours.

This was huge news!

The four owlets – Max, Pattison, Austin and Wesley – were standing up like meerkats, all facing the same direction and looking extremely lost. Every few seconds, one would yawn – as they often do – but mostly, they were standing, wobbling and looking into the direction that their momma usually comes from. She wasn’t there. It was heartbreaking.

To the right of the video feed, a Greek chorus of people – other birdcam enthusiasts like me – wrote in comments that appear near the live streaming video of Molly’s nestlings. For anyone who has not watched in a while, someone is always ready to fill them in with up-to-the-minute reports.

“Where’s Molly!?”

Everyone was very concerned except one guy, who said she’s just testing our patience and another woman who quipped that she is off for a “spa day.” One woman guessed that Molly only travels at night, so she wouldn’t be back until dusk. I didn’t buy it. I thought something bad had happened.

Monday night, the owner of the cam called a Molly Watch vigil. More than 5,000 people signed up to watch for the arrival of the missing owl mom. I watched for a while, but had to go to bed eventually.

Everyone was riveted to the screen because every hour that these chicks went unfed brought the delicate creatures closer to certain doom.

The owlets, which were hatched over the course of a week, are now about three weeks old. They have very distinctive faces, but bodies that look like a quivering pile of white meringue.

Occasionally, I flip between birdcams. The owlets were just standing around so I left them to see what was going on with Phoebe.

Phoebe the hummingbird occasionally sits atop her nest of two white eggs the size of jellybeans. According to the homeowners, Phoebe has been a reality TV star since 2007 and typically lays between four and five clutches of eggs per year. The nest is in a rose bush. Hummingbirds have attention deficit issues anyway and it becomes even more obvious when they are supposed to be sitting patiently on a nest. Phoebe comes in and sits for a minute, then quickly zips out of the frame. She does this many times an hour. Nothing much was going on with Phoebe and her eggs, so I switched back to the owlets.

They decided to take a nap. It’s pretty funny that they all have what seems like a common brain – when one does something, they all do it. Sleeping, they are a single pile that looks like a misshapen coconut cake. They even breathe together.

I introduced my husband to birdcams last year, and he followed the progress of a nest of ospreys living in South Carolina, from shortly after the chicks hatched til they learned to fly and left the nest some months later. He took it very badly when one of the three fledglings died. This year, he is regularly reporting on a nest of bald eagles broadcasting from a treetop in New Jersey.

On Monday, he sent me a cryptic email: “Windy in New Jersey – tree is shaking.”

It took me a moment to figure out what he was talking about, and then: “Oh yeah, the eagles.” Later came: “Fish in nest, babies don’t know what to do.”

He can’t watch the owlcam. “It’s too sad,” he said about the motherless nestlings.

Ustream.tv is similar to You- Tube, but only broadcasts live video. The addresses to watch Molly and Phoebe are www.ustream.tv/ channel/hummingbird-nest-cam and www.ustream.tv/theowlbox.

I am not the only person spending ridiculous amounts of time worrying about birds on the web. When Molly finally returned to the nest Tuesday morning, more than 6,400 people were watching over the lonely owlets. Since its debut in February, the site has garnered more than 8.3 million hits.

Clearly, I am not the only one with a bad case of bird brain.

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