homepage logo

Harriet’s last brood: ‘It’s been a wild, wild ride’

By CJ HADDAD - | Apr 12, 2023

Southwest Florida Eagle Cam stars E21 and E22 in the "attic" above their nest off Bayshore Road in North Fort Myers. The juvenile-aged sibs are the last brood of matriarch Harriet and mate M15. Courtesy of the Southwest Florida Eagle Cam

A creator of one of the most watched “eyes in the sky” documenting all things eagle life spoke with members of the Cape Coral community this week to share her story and some insight.

Co-founder of the Southwest Florida Eagle Cam, Ginnie Pritchett McSpadden, was a guest speaker at the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife meeting Tuesday at Rotary Park Environmental Center, discussing all things M15, Harriet, and their eaglets, E21 and E22. She started the live camera project that features the eagle nest off Bayshore Road in North Fort Myers with her siblings in 2012.

“It’s been a wild, wild ride,” Pritchett McSpadden said of this year’s nesting season, which she said all got a whirlwind start with Hurricane Ian. “A couple of days before, the eagles had an amazing foundation for a great nesting season, and by Oct.1, it was completely gone.”

The eagles showed resiliency, rebuilding their nest in six days.

All but one of the cameras were wiped out of the nest due to the Category 4 storm, and, at one point, Pritchett McSpadden and her family were unsure if streaming would be possible.

Co-founder of the Southwest Florida Eagle Cam, Ginnie Pritchett McSpadden, was a guest speaker at the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife meeting at Rotary Park Environmental Center on Tuesday, discussing all things M15, Harriet, and their eaglets. By CJ HADDAD

“Here we are six months later and it’s just been incredible,” she said. “I can’t even imagine that we wouldn’t have been able to watch this had we not acted quickly and got the technology up and running before the nesting season stated. We would have never been able to see up-close-and-personal all the tragedy and the heartbreak, but also the success that (E21 and E22) have had this season.”

Pritchett McSpadden also paid tribute to the nest’s matriarch, Harriet, who passed away earlier this year. She said she believes Harriet was around 25 to 30 years old, which is the average life span of an adult eagle.

“It’s been an emotional season with her passing and we know she’s flying high and free, and she will be missed,” Pritchett McSpadden said. “My honest opinion is that as she aged, she passed on her own time. I knew going into this season and last season we were on borrowed time, because we knew she was older. We’re just so grateful to have those memories and the video footage we do. She was an amazing eagle and mother, had so many great instincts she passed along to M15 and the eaglets.”

Lots of questions are still up in the air when it comes to the next chapter, as we are approaching the end of nesting season, which runs from Oct. 1 to May 1 each year.

“We don’t know what the next season is going to hold and what will happen. Will M15 stay in the nest area? Will a new mate come or just have owlets in the nest? Great horned owls? Or will we see one of the offspring come and take over the nest areas? There’s a lot of unknowns and we’re kind of holding out breath together to see what will unfold.”

Growing up in a rural setting, Pritchett McSpadden and her brother had an early appreciation for wildlife and knew once the cameras were installed and streaming they could do something very special with the opportunity the offer a look into the lives of a mated pair dubbed Ozzie and Harriet. The cam has continued through the years documenting at first Ozzie and Harriet, then Harriet and new mate M15, and now M-15 alone, raising their broods on the Pritchett Farm.

“We saw our first big spike and interest with viewers when (Ozzie) was injured and taken into CROW and rehabbed,” Pritchett McSpadden said. “That’s where the first wave of followers from around the world started. Once Ozzie passed and M15 took over the nest, we saw another huge wave of people interested in being able to see the new pair and start fresh.”

Some important moments captured on the cam over the years include the loss of life in the nest of E3 and later E14, CROW rescue and rehab, the first-ever successful re-clutch captured in the wild, and the first-ever successful fledge of eaglets by a solo parent, which just occurred this season.

“M15 just being the super dad that he is — if you were to have told me two months ago I’d be here telling a happy story, I would have not believed you. I was prepared for the worst,” Pritchett McSpadden said. “To be able to have (E21 and E22) just soaring the skies right now — I’m just so proud and so glad with the outcome we had.”

There are also a lot of lessons learned when it comes to seeing Mother Nature play out in real time.

“It can be pretty, but it can also be ugly,” Pritchett McSpadden said. “I think I learned real quick the lessons of crisis communication and managing people’s emotions on an online platform. We had to dial back a few things and not share as much information because people do get emotionally invested, and so those were some hard lessons to learn, but I think in the end, especially after this season, we’ve been able to explain to people if they can’t handle what they’re watching, they can turn it off and walk away.”

Pritchett McSpadden said the cam runs off of three principals: entertain, engage the community, and educate.

“I think we do any time we do something, we want to hit one of those marks,” she said. “We try our best in any way that we can to provide information and learning opportunities for all of our viewers.

“We’re always evolving and always learning.”

Pritchett McSpadden said she would have never thought the eagle cam would have grown to what it is today, now in its 11th year of streaming. Since its inception, the eagle cam have been viewed more than 20 million times over 190 different countries and is the longest live camera stream running. It has been featured on the Today Show, NBC Nightly News, ABC World News, on TV shows and in national publications.

“It’s unreal and surreal at times,” Pritchett McSpadden said. “We saw it at first as a cool ‘let’s try this and see what happens’ and after that, we started to appreciate the bald eagle so much more.

“I was at a wedding reception in 2015 at a local restaurant and I look over, not knowing the other people in the restaurant, and see three different tables had the eagle cam on streaming it.”

Pritchett McSpadden and her family passed by the nest every day as it’s on their property, seeing their activity from afar, but wanted to try their hand at creating an eagle cam. Her husband holds a technology degree and her brother is an operations expert. Eagle Cam is the first 360 degree live stream camera, giving users the ability to control what they see with the click a mouse (this feature was wiped out by Ian, but is slated to be replaced).

The group, using all of their skills, along with countless volunteers, put together what is now an international phenomenon.

“We wouldn’t be here today if we all weren’t a part of it,” Pritchett McSpadden said.

She added she loves meeting people and hearing stories of how and why the eagle cam brought them joy.

“Just being able to have those touchpoint and see first-hand how it’s impacted so many people’s lives is really special for us, and a reason we keep it going,” Pritchett McSpadden said. “It just shows how awesome Mother Nature is. It’s unscripted and real life. It also gives people a break. When people want something to escape to, this is the perfect way to do that.”

Combatting the weather in Florida isn’t always ideal when it comes to placing technology 60-feet in the air, but the family is always up to the task. The cam was out for five days following Hurricane Ian.

“We’ve had lightning strike out office, which has caused power and internet outages,” Pritchett McSpadden said. “We like to say we haven’t gone offline, and we try out best to keep it as minimal as possible. After the hurricane, I remember trudging out there to try and get it streamed and connected again. It was not easy. And if we had not kept trying, we wouldn’t have seen what this season is all about. Two or three more days we wouldn’t have been able to replace the parts like we needed to.”

For Pritchett McSpadden and her family, their love for the eagles has become unparalleled, and the lack of clarity for what’s on the horizon can be unsettling.

“For me to even think it could possibly be the end, is really emotional,” she said. “I just can’t fathom it because it’s been a part of my and my family’s lives for so long. We love them. Being able to tell their story is important.”

Raising awareness in terms of protecting the bald eagle is also a major plight of the cam, especially when it comes to things like rodenticide.

“That’s the No. 1 thing I think, is just to be able to show what the bald eagle is,” Pritchett McSpadden said. “Everyone is always running around from one stop light to the next or from one place to another, and never have a chance to look up and see or to appreciate what’s around them truly. I think if we can slow people down and give them that opportunity in a way they’re already on their phone still, I think that’s the coolest part.”

Pritchett McSpadden and her family are so grateful for the support of the Southwest Florida community and the millions around the world that have tuned in.

“Being able to share this nest that’s six-feet-wide by six-feet-wide to the whole world, and that people can all share in this together and following along is something so rare and unique, that is positive and can bring joy to every home that watches it is the coolest thing,” Pritchett McSpadden said.

McSpadden has also authored two children’s books about Harriet and the bald eagles. She was inspired to write books for her new family and all young kids around the world who could read, watch and learn from the bald eagle species. She hopes the book series provides another touch point to educating and protecting these beautiful raptors for many years to come.

To view the Southwest Florida Eagle Cam, visit www.SWFLEagleCam.com.

–Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj