BLUFF CITY, Tenn. (AP) — What's the hottest show on television this season? For many viewers, it's a live drama unfolding at two active bald eagle nests in Northeast Tennessee.
It's the ultimate reality TV experience, according to Fred Alsop, the resident ornithologist and professor of biology at East Tennessee State University who has spearheaded the project that has positioned cameras at two active bald eagle nests in the region.
Alsop explained that the show went live in November of last year when ETSU's Department of Biological Sciences — with help and support from both the public and private sectors — set up live streaming cameras at eagle nests in Johnson City and Bluff City to provide the public a fascinating glimpse into the lives of these majestic birds.
Enthusiastic public and private support for the project has poured in, ranging from the CEOs of two major regional power companies to the private landowners whose properties host the two pairs of nesting eagles.
The cam focused on the nest near Winged Deer Park in Johnson City has been streaming for about two months and has already attracted 80,000 viewers from 72 countries around the globe.
For the camera on an eagle nest at Bluff City, a partner — Bristol Tennessee Essential Services — agreed to install $28,000 in high-tech equipment. According to Alsop, BTES CEO Mike Browder has been extremely helpful.
Alsop also said veteran Bristol birder Wallace Coffey and Bob Cheers, the owner of Mountain Sports in Bristol, were involved in working with BTES to establish the eagle cam in Bluff City.
Both of the nests are located on private property, a fact that could have complicated the installation of the cameras. Instead, the property owners have been very responsive to the project, Alsop said.
There are educational opportunities for ETSU students, as well as the public, in this all-natural reality TV show.
"I've been exploring with my biology colleagues the creating of a protocol of behaviors to look for in the eagles," Alsop said. "The protocol could be downloaded from our website, and volunteers could help collect data."
The bald eagle, which has official distinction as America's national bird, is no longer identified as an endangered species. "Bald eagles were downlisted to threatened status in 1995," Alsop said. "Nationwide, eagle populations are improving."
About five years ago, he added, birders in the region reported a rash of eagle nesting activity in the region. Since those first reports, other nesting attempts have been confirmed. The eagle pair at Winged Deer Park has nested for four consecutive years in the same location while the pair in Bluff City are in their fifth nesting attempt.
Alsop is not certain what prompted eagles to initiate nesting again in the region. "It may be due to all the reservoirs and rivers we have," he said.
"Eagles begin to nest in November and December," he explained. Eggs are usually laid by February and are incubated for about 35 days. Once hatched, the eaglets will spend a couple of months in the nest being fed and tended by both parents.
"The young are usually out of the nest by late June," Alsop said. "That means we usually have active viewing of the nest for seven months out of the year."
Several of the first nests reported were found along rivers like the Nolichucky near Erwin, Holston in Kingsport and the Watauga between Elizabethton and Johnson City.
Alsop speculated the eagles could have been born farther west in the state. "Young birds have to find new places to nest after they're displaced from their parents' nesting area," he explained.
Alsop developed the eagle cam project. A well-known birder, he said the project sort of "fell into my lap."
He has been particularly pleased with the level of cooperation from local businesses and private property owners. For instance, he noted that the Johnson City Power Board provided access to its machinery and engineers for some of the essential work on installing the cameras.
Alsop said several sponsors have signed on with the project, including the Tennessee Valley Authority, ReMax Checkmate, Mahoney's and local Roadrunner Markets.
Live Stream, which is the program for broadcasting the streaming video, set up a lot of the technology used with the web cams. A chat room has also been established. The public has flooded the chat room with many questions about the eagles.
Alsop fully expects the eagle cams to become an ongoing project. "Eagles mate for life," he said. "The same pair uses the same nesting site year after year."
Eagles also added new nesting material to their considerably large nests each year.
Alsop believes that each female eagle has laid two eggs again this year. "These pairs of eagles have consistently produced two eggs each year," he said.
At least one of the eggs in the nest at Bluff City has successfully hatched. Wallace Coffey, moderator for the list-serve bristol-birds, posted that the first bald eagle hatchling known to have hatched in the region during the 2016 breeding season was confirmed Friday, March 11, at 6:45 a.m. on the Bluff City nest.
However, federal regulations that govern whether endangered and threatened species can be approached mean that Alsop and his biology students cannot visit the site to confirm the number of eggs in the nest or even check the condition of hatchlings.
"Federal regulations prevent direct monitoring while the nesting season is active," Alsop explained, "so if a camera goes down, if we cannot fix it remotely, we cannot go to the site and make repairs. We have to hope all our tech stays working."
For next year, he already has plans for some new features for the cam, including a working sound system and night vision to permit nocturnal observation of the eagles.
He offered words of praise for the dedication the bald eagles show as parents. "The older these birds get, the better parents they are," he said.
During a recent snowstorm, the female eagle at the Johnson City proved her dedication by remaining on the nest until she had been completely blanketed by falling snow. "At one point, all you could see was her bill," Alsop said.
The eagles are also very defensive. Alsop told of a recent intrusion by another adult male eagle that gave the nesting female "fits" in what he described as a very interesting interaction. On another occasion, the eagle seemed upset by the presence of a much smaller blue jay.
So far, the birds have successfully fledged all their hatched young, although a few years ago one young bird recently out of the nest was killed after it landed in a roadway and was struck by a vehicle.
"Weather is the biggest peril," Alsop said. "Strong winds can bring down these heavy nests."
The nests are also exposed, which means one stray bolt of lightning could spell disaster. Alsop made reference to a nest a few years ago at Wilbur Lake in Carter County a few years ago. The nest, located in a dead tree on a cliff, was toppled by strong winds.
From observation of eagles in the region, Alsop believes these large raptors are quite efficient at fishing along the region's many rivers.
Although they will, in much the same manner as vultures, scavenge for food, eagles subsist mainly on fish, which also provides the basis of the diet for eaglets in the nest.
Although he is one of the biggest fans of the two eagle cams, he did strike a chord of caution.
"We have developed a window into nature," he explained. "This is a real reality show, and we can't manipulate it."
Once the young are hatched, he said there will probably be a contest to let children name the eaglets.
But the show could suffer a premature cancellation if the cameras fail. "We are just done if a camera goes down," he said. Despite all the technology involved, one simple fact is undeniable.
"We're at the mercy of nature," Alsop said.
The project also depends on sponsors and donors.
To make a donation, Alsop directs fans to the ETSU website.
So far, "Eagle Cam" is a hit with viewers, but this unique reality show carries some expenses. For example, there's a yearly cost of about $2,500 to just run the cameras.
In the meantime, Alsop welcomes more people to enjoy the free show. Once the young are hatched, the show's only going to get even more engrossing as fans throughout the region — and the world — get their daily eagle fix by checking on the progress at the two nests.
To watch the Johnson City eagles and their nesting activity, visit http://www.etsu.edu/cas/biology/eagle-cam/.
All cable TV subscribers through BTES can access the live feeds of the ETSU/BTES Bluff City EagleCam.