Want to get up close to a great horned owl in Texas? Check out this 24/7 livestream

With the help of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center installed a camera to watch its annual visitor Athena nest and rear her young.

By Stephanie Federico, KUTMarch 11, 2024 11:36 am, ,

From KUT:

YouTube’s latest star may be a great horned owl from Austin.

For the last 14 years, Athena has returned to the courtyard at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center to nest. She hangs out incubating her eggs in a planter above the entrance of the courtyard, while her mate hunts for meals.

This year, she has a bigger audience than those who’ve caught a glimpse of her from below: With the help of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Wildflower Center has set up a camera that livestreams her every move. Now, fans can watch her at all hours of the day and night.

“There’s not a lot of work getting done at the Wildflower Center this week,” joked Scott Simons, the center’s director of communications.

Watching the live cam, which launched Tuesday, is addictive.

“We have learned a lot about her behavior in literally less than 24 hours,” Simons said. “It’s been kind of amazing and exciting, honestly.”

There’s even an advisory on the livestream, warning that some viewers may find occasional “natural behaviors” disturbing. (We at KUT are here for it.)

The camera includes infrared technology, which allows viewers to see the nocturnal bird’s behaviors at night. Birds can’t sense the infrared light.

Simons said the idea for a livestream had been kicked around for years, but since wildlife is not the center’s focus, it wasn’t a priority. Last year, he brought it up again and staff started to do some research. They contacted the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, one of the most authoritative organizations dedicated to bird research and education. The institution hosts livestreams of birds all over the world.

Charles Eldermire, bird cams project leader for the lab, said the decision to partner with the Wildflower Center was simple. It already had a power source and internet in the courtyard, as well as a great view of the owl.

He came out in January to set up a camera about 20 feet from the nest. Then they watched the stream privately before flipping the switch Tuesday.

His team monitors the feed and can control the camera remotely from their base in Ithaca, New York.

Eldermire said he hopes viewers find the live cam as engaging as he does.

“Owls live a life in the dark. They live next to us and yet can operate in part of the day that we cannot. They hunt in the dark with pinpoint accuracy,” he said. “They’re marvels of evolution.”

But we are also remarkably similar to owls, he said.

“When I watch [Athena], I know that owl is feeling something I feel,” he said. “Hopefully that shared outlook leads people to try to conserve the animals and think about them when decisions are being made that could affect their survival.”

“If we forget about them,” he said, “they will be gone.”

So far, Athena has laid two eggs, but great horned owls can lay up to four. If all goes well, the eggs should begin to hatch in about a month.

Simons got to see her lay her first egg on the livestream before it went public.

“Working on this project from start to finish, it was an emotional moment,” he said. “It’s been one of the most fun work projects of my life.”

Whether it’s actually the same owl returning year after year is debatable. She’s not banded, and great horned owls are hard to ID without being tagged.

“If it were more than one owl we would actually sort of celebrate that,” Simons said. “Because what it means is that the chances of owls coming year after year and nesting in that site are then increased.”

Eldermire said it’s also great to pop on a livestream from another environment like New Zealand, for instance, to see what’s happening there.

“To see these birds living their lives on the other side of the planet,” he said, “it’s reinforcement that the world keeps going despite all the turmoil I might be experiencing.”

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