Continuing their excellent series of nature documentaries, BBC Earth has taken a look at the lives of birds in Earth Flight. Filmed over a four-year period, Earth Flight follows migrating birds over six continents, using unique filming techniques to get the proverbial “bird’s-eye view” of life on the wing for these remarkable creatures. Never before have birds been filmed in this way and the results are astounding.
Narrated by David Tennant, the series is broken down into six episodes, with five episodes focusing on a specific continent, save for one, which covers both Asia and Australia. The sixth episode, “Flying High,” goes behind the scenes, showing the viewers how BBC Earth achieved their fantastic shots. In “North America,” we witness a flock of pelicans following a school of dolphins to take diving cues for fish. The pelicans, whose beaks can hold up to 10 liters of water, let the dolphins do all the work for them, taking advantage of the fish they find. At Bracken Cave in Texas, red tail hawks go after some 20 million bats. In spite of the great odds, the bats prove a challenge to the younger hawks, as they are more adept at maneuvering than they are. It is the largest gathering of mammals in the world and captured in great detail by the BBC’s cameras. They make us feel as if we are there without interfering with nature’s natural processes.
In “Africa,” we find other birds, in this case cape gannets, chasing dolphins looking for food. The birds can dive up to 20 meters down, looking for sardines. By driving the dolphins there with them, it causes the dolphins to attach the sardines, making the fish easier for the gannets to catch. The incredible camera footage allows the viewer to see the gannets diving into the water to catch the fish from the gannet’s perspective, giving a unique view of this event. Similarly, vultures rely on sea lions to catch food, scavenging the remains. It is a way these birds have adapted to ensure food is plentiful for them.
“Europe” begins with thousands of storks leaving Africa for their breeding grounds in Europe. The birds need rising currents of hot air, but, as we learn, that is difficult over water. Luckily for them, the Princess Island creates the thermals needed for the birds to make the journey for if the stork’s wing touches the water, it will fall in and drown, making their journey a dangerous one indeed. We are able to witness peregrine falcons hunting starlings over Rome. The starlings are in formation, forming an incredible display and, in spite of the falcon’s efforts, manage to escape. The starlings stay in the city during the winter, but breed in Siberia. The documentary provides incredible close-ups of male storks in Germany, who have just arrived from South Africa. The birds remember their nests, which have often been in their families for generations, and prep them for the arrival of the females. Here the BBC manages to get footage from the nests themselves, as well as aerial shots of the birds catching feathers in mid air to soften their nests. The level of detail shown by the filmmakers is outstanding throughout.
In “South America,” we learn that condors, which, at times, travel over 100 miles for food, use caracara birds as their official food testers. These intelligent condors won’t scavenge the remains of an animal until the caracaras eat it first and they know it is safe. Scarlet macaws in the rainforest look for fruits to eat, but find poisonous berries that are not to their liking. Fortunately for them, there are clay banks, which when eaten, provide soothing qualities for their stomachs. Their hunt for the clay is not an easy one, however, as they encounter spider monkeys, a tapir, and a jaguar along the way. All along, the camera is right there with the viewer, making it feel as if he or she is part of the flock. It is a rare sight for most to encounter these animals in their natural habitats, making these images all the more exciting.
In “Asia and Australia,” we visit Mehrangarh Fort in India, where hundreds of pigeons use the fort’s many cubbyholes for shelter against attacking buzzards. As the buzzards can dive at speeds up to 100 mph, the pigeons need to be resourceful to survive. Meanwhile, we are able to witness the mating routines of parrots in Australia’s Gold Coast and to say they are silly would be an understatement. Similarly, we are able to witness the courtship dance of the Japanese Crane in remarkable proximity. Once a species with only 33 members, today they number over 1,200 thanks to the Japanese people feeding and caring for these revered birds.
“Flying High” explains how Earth Flight achieved its footage. In some cases, it was through near silent drones, flown in to infiltrate the flock. In other cases, HD cameras were strapped to the birds, literally giving the viewer the bird’s perspective during flight. The filmmakers even built a mechanical, remote-controlled vulture to fly with the flock. Much of the footage though was captured by the use of microlights, a type of motorized glider. This was no mere setting up the camera and filming the bird’s, however. A flock of geese was raised in France for two years to gear up for this moment, with their trainer serving as their “mother” and the birds flying in perfect formation with his microlight. Similarly, a group of macaws was hand raised in the Amazon to help train them to get the shots needed. It’s little wonder the documentary took four years to film as the macaw shots alone took a month to film, this after having trained the birds beforehand. Throughout the documentary, one gets to witness an amazing view of the world through the eyes of these birds.
The Blu-ray is presented in 1080p High Definition Widescreen (16:9) and looks fantastic, really adding to the footage. Audio is in DTS-HS 2.0. There are no bonus features, but subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish.
BBC Earth can always be counted on to deliver excellent material and Earth Flight is no different. The lengths the filmmakers went to get many of these shots is nothing short of unbelievable, but the end results are well worth it. From exotic locales, to views of birds never before offered, it is a worthwhile addition to any nature lover’s collection.