- Associated Press - Friday, November 28, 2014

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) - A live-feed video project at The Landings that was planned to feature a pair of bald eagles raising their young has new stars vying for the spotlight. Recent footage from the eagle camera captured eagle visits to the nest, but it’s also shown unexpected squatters.

In one nighttime sequence from late October, a great horned owl arrives in the nest 75-feet above a golf course tee box and shares a love offering - a small songbird it’s hunted - with its presumed mate, who gulps it down whole.

In another set of videos an eagle shows up only 15 minutes after the owl vacated the premises. On Thursday morning, a red-tailed hawk was poking around the place.

“We don’t know what we’ve got,” said Meredith Welch, Skidaway Audubon’s project manager for the Eagle Cam project. Both owls and eagles have repeatedly visited.

Skidaway Audubon, in collaboration with local and national partners, installed two video cameras high up in the loblolly pine in July. One is a regular video for daytime viewing and the other an infrared system for night.



It was no simple task, requiring the assistance of a bucket truck from the Southside Fire Department and the expertise of California-based IP Video Systems, which has installed animal-watching cameras around the world.

The plan was to keep tabs on nest activity, taking video only when a motion detection system perceived a bird had arrived. They’d go live with a public video feed to the Internet as soon as the eagles moved back in.

This established eagle nest was a good bet for that. Eagles, which mate for life, have been documented elsewhere returning to the same nest year after year for a decade or more. And bald eagles had just built this nest in 2012, making it a relatively new home. The pair had proven themselves as parents, raising at least three chicks since then, including at least one last season.

All that is clear because of the work of Jim Ozier, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist who crisscrosses the state in a helicopter each year cataloging the bald eagle population. As the cameras went up, Ozier gave this nest a better than 90 percent chance of being occupied again by the same eagle pair.

But the eagles didn’t get the memo.

“They don’t usually abandon their territory,” Ozier said, adding that he didn’t think the cameras had anything to do with the birds not yet returning.

Something may have happened to one of the pair. Or they could be building a new nest nearby. Or they could still return to this nest. Eagles usually lay eggs in December in Coastal Georgia.

Great horned owls, which like eagles are raptors equipped with strong beaks and razor-sharp talons, don’t typically build their own nests. They prefer to have other birds do that work. In fact, Ozier’s 2012 eagle survey in Chatham County turned up a great horned owl and chicks in what had been an eagle’s nest on Long Island in the Savannah River.

But if it comes down to an eagle versus owl struggle for the nest, Ozier has his money on the eagle.

“There are some conflicts once in a while,” he said. “I expect most times the eagles win those.”

Such an encounter could make for “the best YouTube video ever,” Welch said.

Volunteer Jim Siler routinely checks the cameras for activity. Midmorning on Friday he found an eagle sitting in the nest.

“He or she was undoing all the work the great horned owl did the previous evening,” he said.

The nonprofit Skidaway Audubon is the primary funder of the nest camera project. Others that contributed money or in-kind services include Southside Fire Department; the Georgia Golf Course Superintendents Association; the Georgia Golf Environmental Foundation; Ogeechee Audubon; the Coastal Conservation Association, Skidaway Chapter; The Landings Club; and The Landings Association.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is partnering with Skidaway Audubon to broaden the impact of the cameras by linking to live chats with bird experts and providing technical assistance such as operators for the main camera, which can pan, tilt and zoom. Cornell has committed to livestreaming whichever birds species, owl or eagle, decides to nest.

The project already has faced unexpected setbacks, including a beetle infestation that’s killing the tree, a lightning strike that damaged equipment and a glitch with the infrared system.

Funds to fix the latter came from the local Wild Birds Unlimited store whose owners Craig and Nancy McEwan live at The Landings. It’s a good thing it was fixed, Welch said, because without the infrared it would be impossible to know that the owls have been frequent nighttime visitors.

Eagle cameras have been wildly popular, with one at Berry College in Rome racking up more than 18 million hits. Great horned owls may not have the glamor of the national bird, but they do have fuzzy, big-eyed babies that could draw a crowd.

Welch has her fingers crossed that one pair - either owls or eagles - decides to settle in and raise a family.

“Neither bird is committing,” Welch said.

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Information from: Savannah Morning News, https://www.savannahnow.com

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