I like to think of myself as a sensible bloke with a touch of the artist’s flair of imagination. But mostly, I see myself as solid, sensible, unlikely to give in to flights of fancy.
Recently, I discovered that my toehold in reality is more tenuous than I ever expected. It appears all I need to really test the boundaries of my sanity is 10 minutes of uninterrupted views of Dollywood’s Mountain Eagle Sanctuary Webcams.
The Eagle Mountain Sanctuary is a 30,000-square-foot (400,000 cubic foot) aviary that houses the country’s largest presentation of non-releasable bald eagles.
The Birds of Prey at Dollywood are under the care of the American Eagle Foundation which is authorized to possess birds for education, exhibition, rehabilitation and breeding under permits from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
The Bald Eagles residing within Eagle Mountain Sanctuary are all permanently disabled and would not be able to survive in the wild. The aviary houses two Bald Eagle nesting pairs in separate breeding enclosures, as well as about a dozen other non-mated, co-habitating eagles, all cared for by the non-profit American Eagle Foundation.
Eaglets hatched and raised at Eagle Mountain Sanctuary are transferred to the AEF’s hacking tower at about 6–7 weeks of age where they will acclimate to a wild, natural setting into which they will be released at fledging age.
When I’m in the park, I like to check out the eagles, especially if I have a good camera with me. They’re visually arresting creatures with the stark contrast between their head and body with the powerful hooked beak and alien gaze. And the sanctuary is a great spot to stop and rest in the shade on a sunny day.
My instinct, when I don’t understand something, is to make fun of it. Mostly, I’m harmless and charming but sometimes I’m charmless and harming and occasionally I don’t know the difference. I’m going to try and refrain from making jokes at the expense of the eagle fans who find the cameras diverting. I can’t make similar promises about avoiding Don Henley jokes.
I turned on the eagle cams and immediately even my low expectations were underwhelmed. On one cam, the Grant and Glenda cam, a lone eagle stood at the far boundary of the park.
Grant and Glenda are recent “empty nesters.” Their eaglet, GG3, graduated to the hacking tower just last week.
On the other cam, eight eagles stood stoically, like a lost verse from the 12 Days of Christmas, doing nothing other than the occasional act of self-grooming, the eagle equivalent of a ballplayer scratching his ass.
Another eagle, sitting high up on a perch, was visible only by his talons and butt feathers. The avian equivalent of an unfortunate accidental photobomb when your aunt is taking family pictures for Facebook and you don’t realize you’re in frame.
But I didn’t want to be dismissive. I wanted to really give the eagles a chance. I stuck with it. I turned both cameras loose and tried very hard not to be rocked to sleep by the hiss and crackle of the microphones turned up to 11.
This, my friends, is where I began to cavort – briefly – with madness. The eagles began chirping. Do eagles chirp? It wasn’t a screech, it wasn’t a caw. It was a caterwauling chirp that echoed back and forth between the two games, creating a swirling vortex of bird sounds. For the record, they screeched their little butts off later but this was different.
I closed my eyes and listened, trying to see what it offered. It felt a little like an aural kaleidoscope and I allowed my mind to float, trying to think of things I could write about a bunch of birds sitting around on a webcam. As the eagles barked their calls, my mind wandered into the idea of plumage and the stark contrast of the eagles as opposed to a bright red macaw I’d written about earlier. Maybe there was something to this idea of the bald eagles’ near colorless beauty.
So I focused on the second cam, which covers an area called pick-a-mate. It is home to eligible bachelor and bachelorette eagles which, although disabled, retain at least partial flight ability.
This is where my detachment from sanity got interesting. Suddenly these bald eagles weren’t worthy of their place in American iconography alongside moms and baseball and apple pie. These naughty swinging eagles belonged in more reckless times, like Austin Powers in free love London.
These eagles, quite frankly, needed to get a room.
Friends, there’s no telling where our little story was about to go, at least in my mind, but the Dollywood Express chugged by and saved the day. The sound of the powerful steam engine and its whistle brought me back from my more “creative” avian observations.
It was roughly at this point, somebody began to move the camera.
Now, we’ve got a whole new deal. The live eagle cams can move and zoom. The clarity is great so they can get right in there on the birds and let you see exactly what they’re up to, which frankly, still not a lot. It’s not like we’re watching a monkey cam here.
I did enjoy watching their furtive head movements, keeping a watchful eye on their surroundings. These aliens killing machines, descendants of dinosaurs, can actually be pretty interesting.
You wonder a bit, what’s going on in their bird brains. The roller coasters and the tourists and the train must be normal to them by now, but it’s still got to be a bit odd right?
Also, I think they may be assholes. I don’t have definitive proof, of course. But it seemed like while in the wide shots, they’d sit comfortably for a long time but then, if the cam zoomed in, it seemed like they’d sense it and move out of frame. I think they knew and were doing it on purpose.
There’s a community that has grown up around the web cams it seems, with periodic live chats and a nesting archive that goes back more than a decade. Why you’d want to watch videos of eagles nesting from 2008 I’m not sure, but again I don’t want to judge.
If you want to get in on the action, simply go to https://dweaglecams.org/.