It's December, and I was looking over the films I'd watched all year. I was also planning to participate in my first bird count—a winter reckoning of peregrine falcons in the San Francisco Bay Area. Then I saw Frederic Lilien's new documentary The Legend of Pale Male (2009), and it dawned on me that some of the most emotionally affecting footage I saw in 2010 didn't have a director and probably wouldn't even be considered film. The footage was from web cameras focused on nesting birds in various parts of California, and I needed to account for its power over me during the weeks and weeks I spent gazing at it on my computer screens this year.
But first, The Legend of Pale Male. Far from webcam footage, this tenderly told love story of a red-tailed hawk family and its human cheering section in New York's Central Park was made by Belgian immigrant Lilien, who fled his multigenerational family legacy of lawyers to pursue a different career in the US. A succession of jobs left him still undecided until one day in Central Park. As he sat eating his lunch, the sight of a pale red-tailed hawk devouring a freshly caught pigeon revived his childhood dream to become a wildlife photographer. Pale Male, so named by a Wall Street Journal columnist, was the first hawk to make the park its home in a hundred years.
From that time on, the neophyte filmmaker joined a tightly-knit band that had gathered at a bench in front of the boat pond since the early 1990s, training high-powered lenses on the nest of Pale Male, who at nine years old had survived the deaths of three mates and was rearing chicks with his fourth, Lola, at a most exclusive address: the 12th-floor penthouse at 927 Fifth Avenue at 74th Street, one block south of Woody Allen's pad and four floors above Mary Tyler Moore's. The co-op's board of directors had rejected the likes of Barbra Streisand, but Pale Male was living there rent-free over friezes of hawks and cherubs, the nest supported by spikes meant to ward off pigeons.
The Legend of Pale Male, besides featuring some of the most enthralling urban footage of this species of hawk, explores the fascination these birds have for their human audience below. For Lilien, Pale Male embodies the aggressive survival instincts and career aspirations of "the world’s greatest city"—an immigrant's dream. For others he is a devoted and attentive father, siring dozens of chicks and guiding them to adulthood, a reminder of the human fathers who have gone unappreciated, or just gone. Others admire his sexual energy as he tops his fourth consort in full view of his hump-counting boosters. Still others think of him as their avatar of freedom, the spirit of independence who owns the sky and everything beneath. And after the tragedy of September 11—the day on which Pale Male's mate Blue disappeared forever—he became a symbol of hope and renewal for New York City and the country.
Looking over the list of films I've seen this year, I would put The Legend of Pale Male and the animated Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole by Australian director Zack Snyder at the top as required viewing for animal lovers or those interested in the human-animal nexus. Then there were the web birdcam reality shows that took up so much of my mental and visual bandwidth. How to explain that fascination?
Unlike their TV counterparts that are so obviously and tediously scripted and edited, these birdcam reality shows were so compulsively watchable that, on days when the creatures were being tagged or seemed on the verge of hatching or fledging (taking their first flight from the nest), I kept a window open for each site—three nests at a time on view, daytime for the peregrines and hummingbirds and nighttime for the barn owls, especially during a busy month like April. My work couldn't help but suffer—any sound coming from any nest summoned my immediate attention.
I first became aware of wildlife streaming video in 2005, when National Geographic sponsored a camera trained on Pete's Pond in Mashatu Game Preserve, Botswana (now "down indefinitely"). There I rarely caught anything more spectacular than elephants taking a drink, but it was comforting to hear birds at the pond as I lay in bed, or the cacophony of amphibians as I worked. The Snow Monkey Cam in Jigokudani, a popular hot springs resort in Japan's Nagano prefecture, had still shots that refreshed only every 3 minutes in 2006 and still does, showing tourists as they snap photos of the famous snow monkeys bathing in their hot tub.
The Benicia (California) Owl Cam, which captivated me back in 2007, was a bit better—it refreshed every 20 seconds (now "experiencing technical difficulties"). It was all freeze frames, with enough movement and drama that sometimes only a cloud of down and feathers was visible, or a single huge wing sinisterly covering the frame. Barn owls Frida and Diego's owlets seemed to stand en pointe, wearing ballet tutus of down around their midsections. Sometimes they stood atop their spindly legs staring straight into the cameras with their heart-shaped faces, which would rotate upside down à la The Exorcist. Or they'd all be standing facing a corner in a creepy Blair Witch Project parody. It was a relief seeing them go into a series of wing-flapping still poses.
I had been watching a webcam set up by the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group at UC Santa Cruz since 2007. From March to May 2010, peregrine falcons Clara and E.C. resumed nesting in a deluxe box-with-runway on a ledge atop San Jose City Hall. One brand-new hatchling died within days, and viewers fretted in the email list over the listless Blue, who died after one month. "Clara Stands Over Lost Little Blue.mov" on YouTube explored the mother's "stoic" reaction to the death of her second child, compelling nostalgic viewings of an eager and competitive Blue in "May 1 Feeding.mov." But there was little tragedy among the healthy eyases, and watching them teeter forward and shoot liquid out their butts was a highlight. The climax was watching them trot down the runway rehearsing their first flight away from the scrape, or nest.
When it came time to fledge, the anxiety level always increased. I wrote in May 2007, "It's a long, long way down and they can't fly yet. When they get on that ledge I feel like I'm going to pass out with apprehension." Weeks later while I was away, hundreds witnessed sisters Spirit and Esperanza pushing brother Hiko off the ledge. Speculation about the sisters' motives, and moral judgments on the parents, flew thick and fast in the email list. It didn't stop after Hiko was found, safe if a little shaken, perched in a nearby tree.
This past year, the birdcams got out of hand for me. In addition to the San Jose peregrines, I became aware of the exquisitely tiny, multi-generational nest of the prolific Phoebe, a non-migratory Channel Islands Allen's hummingbird, in a rosebush in the courtyard of a house in Orange County (California). I learned the nest was golfball-sized and each hummingbird egg the size of a TicTac. In 2010 viewers saw Phoebe through five clutches in a drama-packed season featuring a conventional as well as a Facebook chatroom acting as real-time chorus. In spring a lizard threatened the nest in an episode christened on YouTube as "Hummingbird Defending Eggs From Lizard—March 16, 2010." Later there was a sinister screen blackout when black wings whooshed down, leaving an empty nest. Only one baby was restored.
Carlos Royal's Owl Box had me captivated through the summer. In a swanky box designed by a falconer atop a 15-foot-high pole in a cul-de-sac next to a series of rolling hills in suburban San Marcos, California, it took barn owls Molly and McGee two years to arrive and make it their nest. In Molly's second clutch of 2010 all four eggs hatched, and over 60 days the owlets morphed from gibbering, staggering little monsters to sleek, imperious birds even if their normal grown sleeping stance reminded me of a top-heavy White Meanie. In June one female owlet, Wesley ("the clown"), lay on her side as her sibling Austin stared at her and started picking at her feathers (viewable as "Wake Up Wesley"). The chatrooms started assigning personalities to the owlets. Pellet cough-ups were occasions for gross-out hilarity, and Austin drew gasps of admiration in the April episode titled "Austin Eats Rabbit Whole!"
Unlike the peregrines and hummingbirds, whose beauty and flying skills could only be appreciated in daylight, the barn owls came to life during the night. Royal's nesting box used two cameras: one height-adjustable and zoomable using available daylight, and the other infrared, not adjustable. The barn owls, spooky enough in daylight, took on a ghostly, negative aura in night vision. But what made the nocturnal viewings so sensational was when a parent swooped in—the chatrooms screamed "Legs!" to signal a landing—with a decapitated squirrel or mangled bunny. Chatroom moderators repeatedly warned parents that nocturnal feeding scenes were "nature" and might be traumatizing to children not prepared to see death in the raw. Some mornings Carlos Royal would burst onto the screen for one of his folksy Q&A sessions designed for schoolkids.
Why were these bird subjects so much more watchable than any reality TV? They were less mediated. There was no musical soundtrack, just ambient sounds like crickets at night, raptors screeching, the miniature vroooms of a hummingbird's arrival and departure, breezes, sprinklers, a resident's footsteps in the courtyard below, children's voices, car alarms. There was no voiceover, no one guiding my observations or preparing me for significant events. In a way the birds controlled any camera movement—if they did something noteworthy like cough up a pellet or crack an eggshell, they commanded a zoom-in or adjustment for a better view.
There was no filmic device to prepare me for the dangers of living wild: an egg that would sit there day after day, never to hatch. One sibling growing weak, not feeding as frantically as the others. The sight of a lizard creeping toward the nest. And finally, the black rush of wings like the angel of death, sweeping off tiny babies never to be seen again. After the black nothingness, Phoebe vroooms back to the nest, takes a look around, and eventually lays another egg. Just one more sign that this nest, and these webcams, will roar back to life in the spring, to quote that searcher Ethan Edwards, "as sure as the turning of the earth."
The Legend of Pale Male opens Friday December 10 at the Opera Plaza in San Francisco, Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.
Cross-published on Twitch.