(Editor's note: Due to a severe wind storm on February 12th, the tree that hosted the Bald Eagle nest featured in this story was knocked over. Neither of the eagles were injured, but sadly, the pair lost their three-day old egg. The Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, which jointly runs the web cam that follows the nest, said that it expects the birds to continue nesting in the area, and there have already been sightings of the birds gathering nesting materials. For continued updates, check Western PA Audubon's Facebook feed.)
Patricia Buntz, 71, walks with a cane and has suffered medical problems in recent years that have left her homebound in Scranton, Pennsylvania. But thanks to a webcam outside of Pittsburgh, for several hours each night she's transported 300 miles away, high into a tree with a pair of Bald Eagles.
“My family thought I was nuts,” says Buntz, of the period in early 2014 when she fist started watching the livestream and conversing with people in the accompanying chat room, where she goes by Paddy. It got to the point where Buntz was signing on every day, chatting with other eagle-cam enthusiasts from across the United States and abroad like they were close family, and getting her grandkids to crowd around when one of the eggs was hatching.
Buntz says she didn’t know anything about Bald Eagles before her sister told her about the cam, but she quickly picked up tidbits from her fellow fans, from clutch size (usually one to three eggs), to wingspans (as much as eight feet), to ways to tell males apart from females (ladies are larger, for one).
Buntz is hardly the only one who has become obsessed with the flash of feathers on a computer screen. Since the Hays Bald Eagle Cam (named for the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Hays and jointly operated by the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania) went online in December of 2013, it has garnered more than 5 million views, with regular chatters hailing from as far away as Texas, California, Ireland, Holland, and Greece.
“For me, it’s an obsession,” says Annette Devinney, a Pittsburgh photographer who has been visiting the nest since the eagles arrived three years ago. As one of the chat-room moderators who lives close to the nest, Devinney, whose handle is annette_2014, has become a sort of mother hen to the group. One day last year, for instance, chatters heard a loud noise, "like a gunshot," says Devinney. She rushed out to the site to see what had happened, while chat-room members waited nervously for updates. Devinney reported, to everyone's relief, that the crack came from a tree that had fallen in the woods. Usually she goes to the nest to quell anxious chatters when the parents disappear for a day or so. "I go, locate the adult eagle, report back," she says. "Then everyone is happy."
For the past three years Devinney has organized a picnic to celebrate the season of eagle watching and to give chatters a chance to meet in person. Local fans of the cam gather regularly for meals and community cleanups, and every Fourth of July they drink cocktails on the trail. When someone’s sick, they organize hospital visits. When Devinney hosted the first picnic in 2014, she expected a few dozen, mostly local, chatters to show up; 110 attended. “Who would have thought,” she says, tearing up and breaking off. “Really though, who would have thought that these two birds showing up here could create all of this?”
In September more than 130 people attended this year's picnic, some coming from as far away as Boston and Florida. There were Bald Eagle T-shirts, Bald Eagle cupcakes, and Bald Eagle pictures on display through a projector. Devinney and the other organizers raffled off framed portraits of the eagle pair, affectionately known as Mr. and Mrs. Hays, or just Mom and Dad. And everyone had a good laugh over a trivia game that included questions about eagle biology and nest incidents. (What unusual food was brought to the nest this year? A cat!)
Buntz, who has trouble traveling long distances because of her handicap, was able to make the six-hour pilgrimage for the first time this year. Her daughter and son-in-law drove her as part of her birthday present. “We had to stop a few times and walk around the car. You know, stretch the legs a little bit,” says Buntz. “I was glad I came. I can’t get over how many people are here.”
The group has weathered dark times, too. When Mr. and Mrs. Hays failed to hatch any eggs in 2015, the group mourned. Devinney and other locals created a memorial on the bike path that runs below the bluff where the birds nest. They left roses, laminated pictures, and notes of sympathy as a means of grieving for the little ones.
“I was called some really nasty names by folks who commented on that article,” says Linda Knisley, another chat moderator who goes by Pandora. “They didn't and don't get the sense of loss we all collectively felt."
It may be tough for outsiders to understand the community that’s formed around the Hays Bald Eagle nest, but there’s no arguing that they are a force to be reckoned with, as evidenced by the Great Rat Poison Scare of 2014.
That year, the abrupt closing of a recycling plant led to an explosion in the rat population. In response to complaints from locals, the property’s new owners promised to address the problem with a mass poisoning. Cam watchers worried the strategy could be dangerous for the eagles—and they had evidence to back up their concerns.
When they aren’t asking after each other’s kids or reminiscing about something Mom or Dad did recently, cam watchers dutifully note everything that happens at the nest. Each time the eagles enter or exit the frame, add a stick to the nest, or defend the eggs from a raccoon, it is marked down and archived in a digital log. The detailed data collection allowed the chatters to point to three instances in which the eagles had brought a rat into the nest in the week after the plant owners announced the eradication plan. If huge numbers of rats were posioned less than a mile away, they argued that the toxins could end up in the chicks’ dinners.
“We couldn’t risk that,” said Devinney. The group contacted the state wildlife agency and conservation organizations, and “made a couple thousand phone calls, and got thousands and thousands of online signatures.”
In the end, the recycling plant opted to go with a rodenticide suggested by Western PA Audubon that was determined to be less dangerous for eagles and other avian predators. The chat room went wild.
“Even when others said don't rock the boat, we rocked it!” typed a chatter who goes by polandohio.
“With all these eyes…we can stop or help [before] something gets bad,” typed Roujina "Rou" Salaj, whose handle is glenhazelwoody-1.
Now that the two eaglets have fledged, the cam has been switched off for a few months. Each fall, PixController and WildEarth TV, the companies that run the cam in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, swap out the eagle feed for cameras trained elsewhere in the woods. When breeding season starts up in January, the nest livestream will resume.
But that doesn’t mean the chat room has gone dark—not by far. The Hays Eagle Cam watchers are still there, staying in touch and eagerly awaiting the next chapter in Mom and Dad’s lives, and a few locals are planning a trip to the trail this week to have some chili and catch up. For hundreds of people across the globe, the cam connection is as much about the friendships formed as it is about the eagles fledged.