Humankind has been relentless in its pursuit of flight, and we have achieved a modicum of success, caged in large metal tubes or dangling precariously from para-gliders. But actual flight has eluded us, inspiring countless poets and dreamers to ponder what it must be like, imagining what birds see as they soar above the earth. In reality, though, a bird’s life is nothing to envy. It is, instead, one of near constant movement, an endless chase to find food and to avoid becoming someone else’s food.
This much is made evident in the Discovery Channel’s new nature documentary, Winged Planet, which offers a view of birds literally never seen before. Over a four year period, filmmaker John Downer filmed breathtaking footage of birds in every conceivable state, from flying to plunging deep into the water, mating to being born, and pursuing prey. The view from the skies may be spectacular, but getting up there and staying alive is too much work for most humans to undertake.
Still, Winged Planet makes that effort look breathtakingly beautiful. For some shots, cameras were actually attached to birds. This not only allows viewers the opportunity to examine the world from above, it allows scientists close-up views of how wings, tails, and feathers operate and interact in the process of flight. We see a flock of geese flying through a thunderstorm, water rolling off their feathers as they flap onward into the wind and driving rain, just as we see an eagle fold and manipulate its wings so that it can glide further on wind currents. While these spectacles are fascinating, they are not Winged Planets’ best, as birds tend to not fly as steadily as most cameramen would like.
More interesting, though, are the side shots of the birds as they fly and the images of them on the ground. Many of the in-flight shots are extraordinary close, giving the impression that the photographer is flying alongside the bird being filmed, just inches away from its wingtip. Approximately the last fourth of the film explains how such shots were achieved, and the photographer was, in fact, flying alongside the birds. This accomplishment took years to realize; scientists raise families of birds from the moment they hatch, making the birds believe that the primary scientist is Mommy.
The birds naturally follow their “mother” wherever he goes, including flying alongside him when he takes off in a small aircraft. Once the birds are comfortable with flight, the scientist then is able to shoot footage of the birds. It is a clever technique to gain the birds’ trust, but it is not without problems. In one instance, hand-raised geese decide to go on an adventure of their own, ditching their human handlers and getting lost in New York City. They are eventually found eating in a public park.
Other amazing images are achieved through the use of mechanical birds or drones rigged with cameras. The real birds seem to treat the mechanical devices with suspicion, but do not flee from them. Hidden cameras in the midst of birds’ natural settings produce shots on the ground; one cameraman buries his camera in a mound of mud, with only the lens visible. As a result of these innovative techniques, Winged Planet offers spectacular detail of behavior, texture, and color.
Just so, we can contemplate two million flamingoes, sated after a good meal, all dancing together, or two storks, male and female, reuniting after a long separation, clattering their bills in joy. Further, even the most dedicated ornithologist may learn new bird trivia, that eagles can spot a fish in the water from 200 yards and gannets plunge deeper into water than any other bird, up to seven stories deep.
Among these bits of information are the many ways that birds interact with and are dependent upon their environments. Winged Planet shows how birds use wind currents to establish flight, something that is especially important for migrating birds, who coast on a breeze as a chance to rest. In addition, birds are often reliant on other animals to be fed. While images of vultures feasting on the carrion left behind by a lion are not new, explanations of how many birds rely on dolphins and sharks to scout out food for them might be. Gannets, for instance, lead dolphins to schools of fish; the dolphins then drive the fish to the surface, making them easily accessible to the gannets. Everyone leaves full and happy.
Winged Planet will undoubtedly be hailed for its revolutionary photography and innovative technologies. But it also tells remarkable and compelling stories, following whole flocks of birds on perilous journeys, as well as single birds under attack. I found myself actually rooting for many of the birds, particularly a young goose in a life and death battle with an eagle. Nature enthusiasts will enjoy Winged Planet. So will anyone who has dreamed of soaring.