Two bald eagles recently hatched out of their shells and into the hearts of millions of people who watched their arrival in real time via the Internet, thanks to a pair of high-definition cameras installed near their nest at Washington's National Arboretum.
The heartwarming images provide a rare (and addictive!) glimpse into a wild place most people would never normally see.
The remote-controlled cameras had been set up in a tulip poplar tree at the arboretum, where the adults had nested before.
Arboretum director Richard Olsen worked with the American Eagle Foundation and other groups to bring the live webcam images of America’s national bird to millions of viewers around the world.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for the National Arboretum, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and our partners," Olsen said, "because here we are in an urban area and we can actually have an eagle nest that is accessible. So we've been able, through our partners, get electricity to the site, get the cameras in the trees, get the Internet to the site.”
The bald eagle, a powerful bird of prey, is federally protected and is featured on U.S. currency and in the presidential seal. So to be able to witness a pair of lifelong mates make a nest, have offspring and care for them in a natural setting such as the arboretum is a rare treat, Olsen said.
The cameras serve a dual purpose he said. They help biologists learn more about eagle behavior and educate the public.
“So this has been a wonderful opportunity here in the city to engage with schools and kids and homes and citizens around the country and around the world with watching this incredible act of nature," he said.
But the eaglets are not the only webcam celebrities in town.
Giant Panda Cam
At the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, millions of visitors come to see the giant pandas, and millions more watch them through the online Giant Panda Cam.
Erika Bauer, a biologist at the zoo who also trains the panda cam volunteers, said the zoo set up the panda cam for research, but it became a tool for daily management of the animals and a way for panda fans to watch their beloved bears wherever they want.
"They get to see the pandas on a daily basis if they want to, without even needing to come to D.C., so it's a good way for everybody throughout the world to get to know our pandas as individuals,” she said.
There are 38 cameras in and around the animals' enclosures that capture the movements of the four resident pandas.
Last year, millions of panda fans were able to watch their beloved Mei Xiang give birth.
“The wonderful thing about the panda birth is that we shared in the same moments that the public who were viewing on the webcam shared," Bauer said. "So we streamed everything live, and the folks that were devoted and on the Web, millions of people, got to see that.”
So many people, in fact, that they actually crashed the system a few times, she pointed out with a laugh. "There were so many people interested!"
While webcams can serve many purposes, including the monitoring of traffic or weather, it's images from the natural world that seem to be the most captivating.
There are ways to watch almost every kind of animals online. Explore.org is a philanthropic media organization that hosts more than 100 webcams around the world.
Its Africa Cam offers viewers an opportunity to watch, from the safety of their homes, a hippo family bathing at a watering hole in Kenya, or relax with a time-lapse view of a setting sun.
Whether educational or inspirational, webcams can open a window into places we might never go ourselves, while offering rare opportunities to better understand and appreciate the beauty of the world around us.