(Click here to watch and listen to the video version of this blog entry)
Occasionally you may come across a photo that you need to geolocate but there are no distinct landmarks or features that can guide you. You might think that there is nothing to be done. Sometimes, even in those cases, geolocation is still possible, you just need to take a slightly longer route. This blog entry is an example of one of those situations.
On February 10, 2023, NASA published a photo of an American bald eagle in a nest. According to the information provided by the space agency, the photo was taken a couple of days earlier, on February 8, 2023. I looked at the photo on Twitter and thought that the best way to spend a few minutes on a Saturday afternoon was to attempt to geolocate a nest on a tree somewhere “near Kennedy Parkway North at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center“. The photo can be seen in the tweet below.
I did consider turning the challenge into an OSINT exercise but figured it would perhaps have been a bit too hard for beginners so here is the full explanation nevertheless.
If you want to give it a go anyway stop reading here and go for it. Anything below this line will be an explanation on how I did it.
The first step in any geolocation is to look at the data and see if there is anything we can use to help us navigate and find the correct coordinates. If there is not much to go by, the second step is to find more data.
Looking at NASA’s tweet you can see a pine tree, an eagle and there’s an implication that there is a nest underneath that eagle. It’s not possible to fully see the nest but if the person who took the photo claimed it was there, I believe it.
The photo on its own is not enough. We need more information on this and, if possible, photos from other angles.
I figured that the resident American bald eagles at a NASA Space Center would possibly attract some attention from visitors or staff. It is very likely that they have been photographed before. We just need to find those photos.
I quickly googled “Kenned Parkway North eagle nest”. The second result was a photo on Wikipedia entitled “East in nest-by NASA”. Look at this beauty below!
And what can we see in the distance? A building! A perfect photo for a geolocation. There’s a road visible on the right, highlighted in blue, and a building with interesting features, highlighted in red. We can use all of this to triangulate the nest.
According to the Wikipedia article, the photo was shared in March 2008 but had been taken in 1992. The accompanying text mentioned how “the nest is particularly well-known because of its huge size and close proximity to a busy road“. Luckily for us we can already see the road so we already know the rough distance from it.
If you are disappointed by the lack of American bald eagle chicks in the nest I got you! I also found a photo of the nest on an old NASA page. This time with one fluffy chick on it! The page was last updated in 2008 but I found the same photo on a website as early as July 2007 so who knows when it was taken.
Nevertheless, here’s the happy family:
Triangulating the location
Now that we have a clear idea of the whereabouts, let’s focus on the details to figure out the precise location of the nest. We can see a building in the distance but there’s no shortage of buildings at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and I am not a fan of looking through maps aimlessly.
To speed up the process I just googled “NASA’s Kennedy Space Center buildings” and checked the “Images” tab hoping to find one similar enough to the one visible on the photo. It was quite straightforward. Almost all the results were of the “Vehicle Assembly Building” as seen below.
You can compare the building seen in the distance in the 1992 photo showing the American bald eagle’s nest (left), and the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (right). They are clearly the same structure. The old photo had a different logo at the time, but other than that it has not changed that much.
Once I established which was the building I was after I simply searched for “Vehicle Assembly Building” on Google Maps and checked out the area. Fortunately there are various paths with streetview available. I navigated around until pegman was facing the general direction of the building seen in the 1992 photo. Below you can see how I tried to align the building’s angle to figure out the cardinal directions of our target road. From that, I deducted that the nest would be located south-west of the structure, and we would have to be facing north-east to see the Vehicle Assembly Building in the far distance.
From there, and because the street going South had Google streetview, I started navigating and trying to really look at the trees by the side of the road. The available streetview was from 2012 but we know that the American bald eagles have been around since at least 1992 and their nests get reused each breeding season. It is very likely that the nest would be visible from the road (with a bit of luck, that it).
I wanted to confirm that so I googled “kennedy parkway eagle nest” and checked “images”. I figured that if it was near the road and visible, other people would have attempted to spot it, perhaps even taking photos. I was right and found a couple of photos taken from the road, as seen below.
They led me to a Foursquare page with a gallery of 46 photos of the nest as seen from the road, all very similar to the ones above. There was no indication as to when the photographs had been taken but it was good enough.
I clicked a few of them and tried to memorise the pattern of trees so that I could easily spot it when moving along the road on Google’s streetview. Using that information and a general idea of how far the nest would be from the building, I quickly found the nest on a tree! The screenshot below highlights in red the building visible in the distance, the road we had seen at the beginning in blue, and the nest on the top of a tree. You can check it out for yourself using the following coordinates: 28.547877, -80.658811.
Verifying the location
No geolocation is done without proper verification! Although the image above already established the likelihood that this is the correct nest, I always like to double and triple check all the information.
First of all I wanted to confirm that there is no possibility of other nests in the area. I googled simple questions such as “are bald eagles territorial” and “do american bald eagles always use the same nest”. The answers were as expected, yes and yes. It is therefore highly unlikely that there would be another breeding pair in the same area due to their territorial nature, and highly unlikely that this would have been an abandoned nest as they get reused each year.
But I was not satisfied so I also checked if the nest seen in the streetview image was an American bald eagle’s nest. I searched for “American bald eagle nest tree” images and I found various photos. They are very similar in shape and size to the one seen on the NASA photo of the day. Below are two examples.
Lastly, I wanted to compare the tree so I went on YouTube and searched for “eagle’s nest at kennedy space center”. The first result was a 3 years old video entitled “East Nest Along KSC Bus Tour”. Brilliant, exactly what I was looking for!
I stopped the video at the 2 second mark and took a screenshot of the tree with the nest at the top (left image below). Then I compared it to the streetview screenshot I took (right image below) and looked at the branches. Below you can see a couple of the details highlighted. Also visible are the power lines in front of the trees.
Mission complete. I am 100% sure this is the correct tree with the American bald eagle’s nest as seen in the NASA photo of the day on February 10, 2023.
And with this we complete the geolocation.
This blog entry explored how to geolocate an image with very limited visual information about its location. We started by finding more information about the subjects featured on a photo and the possible location. Afterwards we examined the area and found new landmarks. We analysed the features in the photo and triangulated the possible direction from which we would be able to see them all in the correct angles. Then we found more data to help us locate the exact tree. We ended by confirming that the tree indeed contained an American bald eagle’s nest and there was very unlikely to be an abandoned nest or in use by a different breeding pair. All the evidence put together pointed towards the nest we found being the one featured on NASA’s photo of the day of February 10, 2023.
Not having enough information visible in a photo should not stop you from attempting to still geolocate it. There are always ways to work around it and still accurately get to the coordinates.
I hope this geolocation walkthrough was useful or at least entertaining.
Thank you for reading.