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Web cameras share view of life in the bird nest

By Patty Ryan

Robin Bergsma, 53, learned to love birds in the Tampa Bay area, where she frequented the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary.

Now she lives in Michigan. And she doesn't even need to look outside to see birds. She waits in vigil over their egg-filled nests, brought to her computer through live streaming video.

Web cameras have found a higher calling.

Eighty feet above a Cornell University athletic field in New York, a red-tailed hawk and her mate take turns sitting on their eggs, unperturbed by the nearby optics.

A hummingbird mother-to-be named Phoebe in Irvine, Calif., mesmerizes the world from atop a red rose bush, her nest barely bigger than a golf ball.

Should Bergsma feel nostalgic for Florida feathers, a camera is also trained on an osprey platform towering over the Pinellas Trail. The eggs are due to hatch any moment, live via

"It amazes me how these birds are so alert and attentive to the sounds around them," Bergsma said. "Their sole purpose is to protect those eggs."

• • •

The science is predictable yet exquisite. Winter's end. Longer days. Bird hormones. Singing. Twigs and goo. Midair leg grabbing. Spiraling together in flight. Hanky-panky. An egg's descent. The wait. Days, weeks, even a month before an embryo finds a specialized temporary tooth made to bore a pip hole. Crack. Over hours, the shell falls away.

All that, with humans now in the delivery room.

By Monday, more than 3.5 million viewers had peeked in on a Decorah, Iowa, eagles nest, hoping to spot a pipping so imminent that the site was capturing audiences in Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. At 2 p.m., it was sighted, a tiny porthole between two worlds.

Muriel Moore of Newmarket, N.H., monitors three bird nest webcams at once. The anticipation, she said, "is similar to being in the waiting room while a friend is giving birth."

Some call it an addiction. Moore just knows that her housecleaning priorities have changed.

"I clean before the pip and will again after the fledge, when the young fly off into their new world. Meals are light and quick. Like a mother with a newborn, I'll become sleep-deprived."

• • •

The pastime of nest-watching is made possible by increasingly affordable and sophisticated webcams, better broadband access and the rise of live hosting sites such as Ustream.

"This year, the technology has caught up to the point where you can serve out a high-quality image to the world," said Charles Eldermire, 36, BirdCams project leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Cornell's bubble-style security camera went up in February, after the hawks showed interest in a platform on a light pole. As the nest took shape by day, humans worked overnight in brutal cold to avoid detection.

The camera, which produces high-definition images clear enough to show fluttering wisps of down amid the twigs, cost about $3,000.

The Dunedin Osprey Cam project, founded in 2008 by retired biology teacher Sparky Jones, obtained a $1,300 Axis security camera this year with a grant from Progress Energy.

It's fancy enough that users at home can seize control of the zoom, pan and tilt functions, catching glimpses of joggers below. (Fine-tuning may be ahead. "It's like everybody has the steering wheel and they're jerking it all over," Jones said.)

The server accommodates just 20 viewers at once, but with automatic logoff after two minutes so that others can join in.

California hummingbird voyeur Joseph Dellwo, whose rose bush is sheltered by an eave, uses a Logitech C910 webcam that sells for less than $90. His site has drawn millions of views.

Dellwo, 48, became a birdwatcher after he noticed a tiny nest outside his Irvine home. He tried peeking from stools. Five years ago, he set up a webcam.

When his own server got overwhelmed, he turned to Ustream, which sells commercials but delivers an unlimited audience.

His mama hummingbirds come and go, but he calls them all Phoebe. "It keeps down the confusion," he said.

His website is Visitors learn that the subspecies is Allen's hummingbird.

That's part of the educational component of webcams, which rally support for conservation.

"You've got to care about the individual to save a whole species," said Barbara Walker, an Audubon Society volunteer in the Tampa Bay area.

• • •

Like nannycams and baby monitors, the cameras also add security to the nests, deputizing parents in cyberspace.

On Sunday, Jones was a little concerned about her Dunedin nest. The first egg was spotted Feb. 17. Incubation takes 32 to 45 days. Monday brought no news.

"What if they're infertile?" she wonders. "This is reality."

Last summer in Norfolk, Va., an eagle was killed by an airplane. People watching a Norfolk Botanical Garden Eagle Cam noticed that the mother hadn't returned to feed chicks. They sent help.

Security is important when you're Phoebe the hummingbird, with eggs the size of Tic Tacs. She can't always watch them.

Luckily, Dellwo, who fixes machines that implant ions at a semiconductor company, appreciates the vulnerability of tiny things. He keeps the video up at work, just in case.

"I've had to rush home," he said. "We had lizards climbing into the nest."

Patty Ryan can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or [email protected]