This spring, hundreds of bird nests around the world are being streamed in real-time to our living rooms, thanks to remotely operated "nest cams."
For many of them, the main show is about to begin. “We're on hatch watch,” says Charles Eldermire, the bird cams project leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Wildlife cams have proliferated in the last decade—and so have their audience, which is hooked on the excitement of watching nature 24/7. (Read why birds matter, and are worth protecting.)
"There's a reality show phenomenon," says Joel Dunn, president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy, which operates three cams that racked up nearly 10 million views in 2017.
"It's not the Kardashians or The Bachelor, but it's pretty close."
Indeed, there's no shortage of drama in nature: After weeks of careful incubation, an egg doesn't hatch. Predators swoop in and kill babies. Parents arrive with shocking prey, like the bald eagles that fed their chicks a domestic cat.
But it's not just about entertainment; viewers are discovering a new connection with the natural world, adds Eldermire.
Seeing these nests in real life is out of reach for many—whether they're disabled, elderly, or live far away. "This opportunity has never existed before," he says.
THE YEAR OF THE BIRD
In 1918 Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to protect birds from wanton killing. To celebrate the centennial, National Geographic is partnering with the National Audubon Society, BirdLife International, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to declare 2018 the Year of the Bird. Sign the pledge to find out this month's action and share your actions using #BirdYourWorld to increase your impact.
So take a break from network television and tune into some of this season’s best nest cams.
Ospreys in Savannah, Georgia
First Hatch: April 13-19
Perched high above a golf course outside Savannah, this osprey pair (above) hides three brown-and-white speckled eggs in an abandoned bald eagle nest.
While one parent patiently warms the eggs, the other goes fishing nearby, often returning with a fresh-caught meal clasped in its sharp talons. (Read how many osprey are ingesting poisons from their food.)
In 2017, this family had a few mishaps; only one of two eggs hatched, and the lone chick was injured by another osprey. "This is the first year where they’ve had three eggs," Eldermire says. "It’s no longer dress rehearsal."
Looking for more osprey action? Check out another nest cam at Lake Murray, South Carolina.
Bald Eagles in Decorah, Iowa
First Hatch: April 1
These Iowa baldies are true nest cam stars, frequently garnering well over a thousand live viewers at a time.
Two adorable eaglets just hatched, and the last egg is about to pop.
But they won’t be kids for long; these eagles have one of the fastest growth rates in the animal kingdom, she says.
Barred Owls in Zionsville, Indiana
First Hatch: April 5-10
Be sure to watch after sundown when the camera switches to infrared. "They are tremendous hunters of the night," Eldermire says. While the female incubates, the male hunts for "the world’s most diverse buffet," from crayfish to small mammals. (See 13 pictures that capture the beauty of birds.)
If this female’s snoozing (which she does a lot) check out these great horned owls in Reno, Nevada.
Great Blue Herons Along Maryland's Eastern Shore
First Hatch: April 22, Earth Day
Why look at one nest when you can view three?
Operated by the Chesapeake Conservancy, this cam pans between three nests of the majestic great blue heron along the state's eastern border. Though the birds are enormous, they don’t need their space—they breed in groups called “rookeries,” which have up to 500 nests.
Last year, the heron cam focused on a single nest, which the birds, as if camera-shy, never occupied, says Dunn. (Read how great blue herons have daily commutes.)
"We were kind of stuck with that view," he says. This year, "we got creative," he says: Now the camera pans remotely on the command of a handful of trained volunteers.
White-tailed Sea-Eagles in Durbe County, Latvia
First Hatch: May 1
And then there’s Milda and Raimis, a pair of white-tailed sea-eagles nesting in the forests of western Latvia.
The view alone is stunning—especially during sunrise—but the charismatic couple is what gives this cam its kick. (Can there be too many eagles?)
These apex predators take turns incubating recently laid eggs and hunting for fish, mammals and other birds, which are then torn apart by the hungry mate.
Before the chicks hatch in a few weeks, be sure to listen for the shrill call of the nesting bird. It often foreshadows action, such as an incoming threat or an incubation changeover.
Benji Jones is a freelance reporter who writes about science, animals, and the environment. Follow him on Twitter.