The second season of the Dulles Greenway Wetlands Eagle Cam has been full of highlights and surprises. There were three eggs and eaglets, countless hours of watching the eaglets grow and develop their skills, teaching moments through classroom chats with almost 2,000 students and teachers all over the country, and countless connections with a growing number of nest fans through social media and twice-weekly Discord chats. Then, as fans watched for the major milestones of branching and fledging, they witnessed the Bald Eagle family go through unexpected events with major implications.
Between May 29 and June 2, the nest experienced three partial collapses resulting in the grounding and rescue of two of the eaglets, Pat (DG4) and Pi (DG3). On June 5, the third eaglet Flora (DG5) attempted a landing for food, and the remaining nest and eaglet fell from the tree. Neither the eaglets nor the parents have been seen back at the nest tree since. Thankfully, Flora had successfully fledged and was seen the next day. On June 7, Pi was released back into the Wetlands, and on June 9, Pat was transferred to Wildlife Center of Virginia after determining it needed further assessment and monitoring while building up its flight capacity. On June 13, the first sighting of Pi and Flora together on the snag tree confirmed both fledglings were doing well and being cared for by Rosa and Martin.
While the reason for the collapse will never be known, factors such as age, weathering and weight could have contributed. Based on aerial mapping dating back to 2011, the nest is estimated to be at least 12 years old. Also, Rosa and Martin proved to be prolific nest builders, requiring the cameras to be raised another six feet in the fall of 2022 to restore a clear view into the nest. Given these factors along with the sheer weight of the nest, it would not be uncommon to see a nest go through a partial or total collapse over time.
The Decision to Rebuild
To encourage Rosa and Martin to come back to the same location and preserve the important and unique experience the eagle cam offers by connecting individuals and classrooms to nature, the Dulles Greenway, in partnership with Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, decided to rebuild a base and core nest in the original tree. Window to Wildlife, who partnered with Dulles Greenway to install the cameras in the fall of 2021 and perform maintenance in 2022, was selected to do the work.
Window to Wildlife was founded in 2018 by three individuals who offer over 20 years of combined experience installing and working on wildlife cameras. Connor O’Brien is a biologist residing in Texas who previously worked with American Eagle Foundation and their many eagle cam projects. Nick, a resident of Washington state and an electrician by trade, is responsible for much of the camera wiring and electrical work and adds his tree climbing and nest building skills to their projects. The team of three is rounded out by Doug, a resident of Florida, who is an arborist and experienced tree climber who ensures their work is in the best interest of the tree’s health. This trio is well known to many eagle fans based on their work through both American Eagle Foundation and Window to Wildlife.
Window to Wildlife takes a holistic approach to wildlife cams, always prioritizing the safety and well-being of the wildlife. All of their cam or nest work takes into consideration the area, the terrain, the ecosystem and the patterns of the adult eagles. Over the five years of the company’s existence, they have completed 10 cam projects, including one other complete eagle nest rebuild (which subsequently had a successful season), osprey nests/platforms and hawk nests.
The work was planned for June 23 through 25, weather permitting. When asked what the hardest part of the project was, Connor replied “packing all the materials into the area, up the tree, and out of the area, since it is a one-mile round trip by foot.” Both Window to Wildlife and Dulles Greenway opted to keep the cameras streaming during the rebuild to allow the nest fans to see what a nest rebuild entailed. At certain times throughout the three-day installation, over 500 people were watching on the Dulles Greenway Eagle Cam YouTube channel, while others followed the Dulles Greenway Eagle Cam website and Window to Wildlife’s live streaming on Twitch.
The nest rebuild was designed ahead of time with adjustments likely needed once onsite and in the tree. The nest would have three components: a base, a core and rails. Connor explained this would provide a good strong and safe base for the eagles to build on and enlarge the nest over time. When asked why the rebuild wasn’t larger in size, Connor explained that the best way is to keep it simple as more complex designs tend to either break or not be successful. Their typical approach is to go with what the tree can accommodate without needing any complex engineering.
Friday, June 23: Nick and Doug, who were responsible for the nest construction, climbed 90 feet up into the 120-foot Pignut Hickory tree. Their first task was to relocate the 4k (side view) camera for a more optimal view of the nest so that the trunk was not blocking the view. Connor provided ground support while collecting the natural material that would be used to build the nest and working with the Dulles Greenway and cam ops on supervising the build to monitor progress.
By the end of the first day, all building materials had been carried to, or collected near, the nest tree area so the nest rebuild could begin the next day.
Saturday, June 24: the team was seen in the tree at about 10:30 am. They worked throughout the day, first building the framework with pressure-treated two by four inch lumber. Once the lumber was secured to the tree, 16-gauge PVC galvanized coated wire was placed on the sides and under the structure, and then weight-tested by Doug for strength. They descended after more than eight hours in the tree, reporting that 95 percent of the build was complete and it would be finalized the next day before adding the inner nesting material.
Sunday, June 25: Nick and Doug were again up the tree, inspecting and putting the finishing touches on the base and wire netting as well as painting areas of the boards to help them blend into the trees. Then Connor began sending up the nest materials: sticks and branches collected at the site (including 15 to 20 percent of the branches from the old nest), and organic mulch and new straw to be used for layering the inner parts of the nest. Use of bug-repellant cedar was limited as bugs and other microbes are important to break down leftover food, keeping the nest clean and the eagles healthier.
Viewers watched as they meticulously placed sticks through the netting that forms the base of the nest. They then added the mulch and straw in multiple layers, with the sticks and branches getting larger as the structure of the nest began to take form. Throughout the process, both Doug and Nick made sure to compress and compact the material down into the nest for density while making sure the netting support was holding. The large nest rails were added last, and greenery was tucked in to make the area look natural.
A final adjustment was made to the side view camera to make sure the nest was in the center and the horizon was level. Then the areas around the camera and all the zip ties were camouflaged with paint, and the zip ties were trimmed for a clean look and to ensure there was nothing sharp to endanger the eagles.
Doug and Nick descended the tree and Connor climbed up to the cam branch to join a Q&A session on Discord, explaining details about the build and answering questions from the eagle cam team and nest fans. Volunteers from other eagle cam nests also joined in, including American Eagle Foundation DC and Northeast Florida and Delta2Nest. Connor also joined our regularly scheduled moderated chat the following evening where everyone asked additional questions, expressed thanks and praised the work that had been done by the team.
Ready for the Eagles
It would be hard to estimate how much time went into the rebuild project, including many hours of planning, discussing and revamping within the Window to Wildlife team both before and throughout the project. At least 25 to 30 hours were spent onsite either on the ground or in the tree, with final clean up on Monday, June 26 before the team headed back to their respective homes.
Throughout the build, the eagles seemed undisturbed by the work. Both fledglings and parents were seen in the area picked up by the cam in the morning before work began and again in the evening. The parents continued to feed the fledglings, and Doug and Nick saw them flying in the wetlands area from their vantage point in the tree during the build.
The team estimates that the nest is currently about three by three feet, six feet in diameter, and about three feet deep. The previous nest was six by six feet, but it was never the plan to rebuild a nest as large as the original. The base of the rebuilt nest gives great support for Rosa and Martin to add to and build to a size they deem appropriate to accommodate future seasons of eaglets.
With plans to leave the cameras on throughout the summer and into the next nesting season, we have so much to watch and be hopeful for. As Pi and Flora continue to develop their skills, will they stay at Dulles Wetlands or leave the area? Will Pat be reintroduced to the Wetlands and be seen thriving on cam? Do Rosa and Martin stay at the Wetlands or leave in the off season? And will Rosa and Martin discover and move into their newly renovated nest so that we have many more seasons of watching the life journey of these eagles and their future offspring?
Whatever the outcome, Dulles Greenway, Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, the Eagle Cam Volunteer Team and the thousands of fans that follow the nest are very grateful to Window to Wildlife for the quality work they performed and for making sure this nest rebuild was done in the best interest of the wildlife in the Dulles Greenway Wetlands.