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Earth Flight

(BBC Earth; US DVD: 8 Apr 2014; UK DVD: 26 Mar 2012)

Earth Flight is the latest in the BBC’s ongoing series of outstanding nature documentaries, this one focusing on birds, generally larger birds (condors, raptors,) and especially those that migrate hundreds or thousands of miles every year (geese, flamingoes, swallows). The photography is stunning, as expected, and startling images abound in every episode. While not quite up to the level of, say, Planet Earth, or the other David Attenborough-narrated shows that set the standard for programs of this type, Earth Flight is nonetheless a solid addition to the canon.


This time around, the Beeb has gone to extraordinary lengths to photograph birds in flight from the perspective of the birds themselves, using an ingenious array of ultralight planes, gliders, and birds that have been trained (or raised by) human handlers. The result is that the viewer is not standing on the ground looking up at the migrating flocks, but rather is up there with the flocks, looking down at the ground. In the case of familiar sights such as Arizona’s Monument Valley, the Sydney Opera House or the lagoons and piazzas of Venice, the effect is breathtaking.


Not all of the series focuses on migrations, but much of it does: pelicans traveling north along the California coast, flamingoes in their thousands traveling from Africa to Europe, storks and swallows making the same trek, and of course geese of all kinds flapping through North America, Great Britain and Russia. The scale of these journeys is genuinely humbling, as these tiny creatures travel thousands of miles on muscle power alone, eating as rarely as every three days. The camera effectively captures these great journeys, as well as their attendant dangers of starvation and predation by other birds.


This is where the series falters somewhat. Too often, the narrative falls into a predictable pattern: here are some migrating birds starting their journey, here are the geographical obstacles they face, such as open stretches of ocean, barren deserts with little water, or human development that has gobbled up their natural territory. Then come the golden eagles, the harriers and hawks, who harass and harry the travelers and, more often than not, pick one off for a meal. The rest of the flock flies off in a flurry of squawking and honking, then another species is spotlighted, and the cycle repeats.


There are some exceptions, but they are few. Parakeets in South America are not presented as migratory, simply in search of a nutritional salt lick as they roam from spot to spot, and the predators they have to contend with are as likely to be monkeys and jaguars as other birds. Hummingbirds in South America, arguably the most exquisitely beautiful creatures on Earth, get only about two minutes of screen time but still manage to steal the show. Those pelicans out in California are more likely to be hunters than hunted, while nobody messes with the South American condor.


Scottish actor David Tennant provides able narration throughout, his wide northern vowels lending a degree of charm to the proceedings. However, he’s hampered by a script that sometimes borders on cute, as when a nest-building swallow is said to be “feathering his nest” even as he tucks a feather in with the twigs and mud—all in a tone that apparently expects us to laugh aloud at the screenwriters’ cleverness. There are plentiful examples of wildlife being assigned human characteristics, for example when a turkey vulture is described as “earning his living” by following predatory mammals, and so on.


Fortunately, the birds themselves are far too spectacular to be undone by such sappy writing. Watching the synchronized courtship rituals of Japanese cranes is truly moving, and no amount of brogue-laden wink-wink-nudge can undo that. Similarly, flamingoes undergoing their own highly stylized and dramatic courtship dances reminds the viewer that flamingo is the source of flamenco, both the word and the dance. It’s easy to see why.


There are no extra features as such in this two-disc set, but the sixth and final episode focuses on the techniques used to capture these astonishing images, and amounts to a behind-the-scenes featurette. The series is divided up geographically, with episodes devoted to North America, Africa, Europe and South America. Bizarrely, the largest continent in the world, Asia, is forced to splits its time with Australia, which has probably the most unique wildlife of any continent. Go figure. That said, the “Asia” segment focuses almost entirely on birds in India, such as pigeons (woo-hoo!) and cranes.


It’s bewildering, but not a deal-breaker. Fans of beautifully-photographed nature documentaries have come to trust the BBC, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t. Earth Flight isn’t the best that BBC Earth has ever produced; heck, it’s probably not even in the top ten. Nevertheless, it’s solid and engaging, and it fulfills its goal of giving us a bird’s-eye view of the world.

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DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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