Bird’s-Eye View

How the world looks from inside the flock.

gannet dives
Michael W. Richards

In 1980, BBC director John Downer set out to film the world from a bird's perspective for his documentary In-Flight Movie. His plan was to have a green-winged teal imprint on a willing cameraman as soon as it hatched. But as Downer was driving to deliver the egg to the cameraman, the duck hatched prematurely in his lap. By the time he reached the cameraman’s house, the duckling had firmly imprinted on Downer, and for the next six months, the director was the bird’s surrogate mother. “Wherever I went and whatever I did, the duck kept me company,” he writes in his new book, Earthflight. “In the car, she would sit beside me in the passenger seat. In the office, she would sit on my head while I tried to make telephone calls. In the evening, as I relaxed in front of the television, she would snuggle up to my feet. We would even go out to dinner parties together.”

Downer was not qualified to fly an ultralight, so he used a “parascender.” “The basic idea was simple but utterly terrifying,” he writes. “A parachute would be strapped to my back and I would be towed into the air by a vehicle travelling along the ground at high speed.” On the pair’s maiden flight, Downer placed the duck in a shoebox and held on as the car accelerated. When he was 200 feet in the air, Downer released the duck, and captured her first flight on film, just inches away. He was hooked.

Twenty-five years later, Downer began working on Earthflight, a six-part BBC series (see a clip below). In the photograph above, taken from the companion volume published by Firefly Books, northern gannets (Bass Rock in Scotland) return from the open sea in January to nest on the rocks. In October, young birds may fly as far away as West Africa for the winter.

See the gallery below for more photos from Downer's book.


(Christian Moullec)

For Earthflight, meteorologist Christian Moullec worked with birds that are not usually imprinted—common cranes, white storks, and various species of geese. To get the hatchlings comfortable enough to follow his microlight, Moullec introduced the aircraft's wing into their pen. The birds soon became used to the wing, even hiding under it for security. To get them accustomed to engine noise, Moullec “turned to the best substitute he knew of: a chainsaw. He would walk around his farm followed by a bunch of chicks, all the while revving a chainsaw.”

Here cranes fly over the Château de Chenonceau in the Loire region during their spring migration.


Scarlet Macaw

(John Downer)

Downer’s team captured their footage in a variety of ways. “We experimented with ultra-lightweight onboard cameras with custom-built bird harnesses and camera mounts that reduced vibration to a minimum,” he writes. “Working with trained, or “imprinted,” birds we were able to have them fly over, under and alongside microlights, paragliders, boats, trucks and cars and, in one case, a specially modified trailer. We developed novel camera platforms and associated kit—programmable model helicopters that were more like military drones, and model gliders designed to work like the birds themselves, flying in the thermals right in among the flocks. We had full-sized helicopters with gyro-stabilised HD cameras and ultra-long zoom lenses to capture the overall spectacle, as well as full-size gliders that followed the birds along their migration path. Above all, what remained key to this new approach were the heroic birds that would fly alongside the cameras and even carry them.” In this photo, a scarlet macaw flies over the Manu River in Peru.


(Robb Pilley)

"Flying with a trained camera bird to obtain a bird's-eye view of a continent was one challenge," writes Downer, "quite another was soaring high in the sky with flocks of wild birds. To do this we brought in Malcom Beard, a scale model-building supremo. He built 'vulturecam,' a vulture-shaped model glider made from strong but lightweight materials, such as carbon fibre, which would be able to fly with the birds. He was pushing the boundaries of what was possible with gliders, and such was the detail of his model that it even had a tail like a vulture and so, to some extent, it flew like the real thing."


(Philip Dalton)

Inspiration for the film came from a variety of sources. "I was visiting Bath and West agricultural show," writes Downer, "when my 8-year-old son, Rory, implored me to take him on a giant fairground ride—an instrument of torture consisting of some flimsy seats attached to a 50-foot rotor that whirred around at terrifying speed. Predictably, the next five minutes were to be among the most vomit-inducing of my life but, at the height of my nausea and while in full 360-degree rotation, I glimpsed what I thought was an apparition—a microlight flying over the showground with several common cranes flying in close formation beside it." Downer later asked the pilot, Christian Moullec (as well as other microlight pilots), to become a part of Earthflight.

The microlights would involve a number of teams working with a variety of imprinted birds, from storks and cranes to geese and ibis.

Brown Pelican

(Michael W. Richards)

The production team battled bureaucracy, the outbreak of bird flu in Nepal, bird mites, and bat guano in order to get the best footage possible. In Manhattan, an imprinted snow goose lost sight of the camera boat and began to follow a tourist boat on the Hudson River. Realizing the mistake, the bird headed to Liberty Island, then to the Statue of Liberty for a rest. The crew was denied permission to retrieve the bird, and a huge police cutter was launched. The goose promptly hid under the pier. At this point the film crew was allowed to retrieve the shy bird—to a standing ovation from watching tourists.

In this photo, a brown pelican flies underneath San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. The pelicans head north, dispersing along the California coast and as far as Oregon and British Columbia, where they arrive in June just as the baitfish are schooling.

Snow Geese

(Rob Pilley)

Downer and his team spent nearly five years filming Earthflight, using ultra-high-speed video cameras shooting at 1,000 frames per second. In this photo, geese on the Pacific Flyway pass through Monument Valley, Utah, on their annual 5,000-mile round-trip between wintering sites in California and Mexico, and the Arctic tundra where they breed.

Rüppell's Griffon Vulture

(Rob Pilley)

One thing the filmmakers learned, according to Downer, was how birds use their feathers in flight. The key to the discovery was through the development of ultra-lightweight, onboard cameras.

"The size of the camera," he writes, "depended on the size of the bird. Large birds, such as Rüppell's griffon vultures [above], were able to carry a specially adapted HD camera about the size of a matchbox, that weighed little more than 3 ounces." The camera was attached to a foam mount, which was strapped to the bird's back like a tiny rucksack. "Within minutes the bird preened the harness into its feathers, so it was almost invisible, and it quickly seemed unaware that it was carrying anything at all."

The team had to position the camera so that it wouldn't interfere with the bird's flying, and they discovered that eagles, cranes, and geese hold their heads out front as they fly, while condors and vultures tuck their heads underneath once they become airborne. "With a camera mounted on a Rüppell's griffon vulture," writes Downer, "we could see the intricate way in which the feathers on its wings and body worked at take off, during flight and on landing."

"When the bird came in to land," he continues, "the onboard camera revealed how it slows to a stop. The secondaries drop like airbrakes, much like an aircraft's flaps, but the big surprise was on the wing's leading edge. All along this edge are what look like simple contour feathers, but as the bird slows down these flicked up, much like the slats on the aircraft that increase lift at slow speeds. Scientists are now studying the pictures we obtained as part of their study of aerofoil performance to improve aircraft wings."

In this photo, a Rüppell's griffon vulture flying over the great plains of Kenya is quick to spot a lion kill or the commotion of a crocodile attack in the rivers below.

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