For decades, Pennsylvania's bald eagles and those around the country had been on the brink of extinction, with pesticides and pollution nearly knocking the population out. But the majestic birds, native to North America, have made a comeback in recent years, even rising to internet stardom.
One needn't look beyond Philadelphia's own city limits to confirm. Nestled in the 1200-acre plot at John Heinz Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum (just a stone's throw away from the home of 'the other' Philadelphia Eagles - Lincoln Financial Stadium), stands a tall tree on an island in a freshwater creek.
About 20 feet from the top, in a fork in the branches, rests a large collection of sticks about eight feet wide and deep. It's the home of a pair of eagles. On any given day, they can be seen swooping down, looking for fish and other meals in the surrounding terrain.
"To me they look like a chinook, that's a helicopter, the way they lift off and just glide around and bring themselves back in so soft and all," says park visitor, Mac Boyd.
"Just absolutely beautiful birds, our national symbol," says wildlife manager Gary Stolz, with his binoculars out, searching for the birds on the creek's edge. "It completely vanished from Philadelphia and was gone for more than 200 years. And now for more than five years, they've been breeding here."
Beyond Tinicum, there are at least 270 nesting pairs in Pennsylvania.
In January, the state game commission changed the birds' status from 'threatened' to 'protected.' Federal rules still prohibit disturbing or harming the birds. Stolz attributes the success to restoration efforts, cleaner rivers and DDT bans.
About 20 minutes pass, as Stolz waits for a possible eagle cameo. Wood ducks and turkey vultures fly overhead. Then out of nowhere, a flash of brown and white zooms close to the creek's surface, whisking away as fast as it came.
"Right there, to the left, bald eagle!" Stolz shouts.
An internet sensation
Stolz and other park goers aren't the only ones captivated by Pennsylvania's eagles.
The state game commission recently allowed PixController, a small Murrysville, Pa. based camera company, to set up a live webcam in a bald eagle's nest near the old Carnegie Steel mill in Pittsburgh. It launched a few months ago and has since gone viral, with over one million unique hits.
"We've reached out from our little local town here in Pittsburgh all the way out to Holland, and we have regular people that log in all over the country, all over the world, every day," says Bill Powers, CEO of PixController.
The camera, which Powers can zoom in and out remotely, uses a mix of batteries and solar panels for energy. It connects to the web through Verizon's cellular network. It was installed in December, but due to federal wildlife protection rules, Powers' group can't go in and fix the camera if anything goes wrong, as people are prohibited from getting too close to a nest. Eagle experts man a live eagle cam chat room around the clock. A more popular moment, replayed tens of thousands of times online, is of the mother eagle fending off a raccoon trying to steal her eggs in late February.
"These are just the kind of dramatic things that you just never expect to happen, and the beauty of these cameras is it can capture all of this," says Powers. "You learn something new when you're able to watch wildlife without disturbing it."
The eagle cam has documented babies hatching, and now they're growing up. Along with this one, there are at least a handful of live-streaming eagle cams around the country, including in Iowa and Maryland. And along with its main business of wireless security cameras for law enforcement and the shale gas industry, PixController has set up cams to document rhinos and tigers in Indonesia, gorillas in Cameroon and bears in Minnesota. Back in Pennsylvania, Powers hopes to set one up in a beaver's lodge and another Pittsburgh eagle's nest.
As for Stolz, he thinks the eagle cam is fantastic, especially for education purposes.
"The eagle cam is an incredible way to bring it into the homes and schools of millions of people across the entire world that might not have access to be able to come out here," says Stolz.
But he adds the web cam is nothing compared to "the real McCoy," seeing bald eagles here in their element out in the wild.
After swooping down to the creek earlier, Stolz catches the eagle pair again, this time perched on a different tree in a nearby marsh. Then, one takes off to the west.
"There she or he goes. You can see the white head and tail, catching the sunshine now," he says, looking on. "Unbelievable."
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