Monday, 29 September 2008

A Guide to Garden Birds : Brett Westwood, Radio 4

Having just moved house and not yet installed my TV, I have been getting my wildlife fix from the BBC iPlayer and my usual radio programmes.

Fortunately (unlike for TV) much radio content is available to us online indefinitely, so long as you have the right software to download and play it.

I am a particular fan of Radio 4's content: Radio 4 replaced the BBC Home Service in the 60s and today broadcasts a very wide variety of programmes from various genres including science and nature. It can be found around 92-95 FM and is the BBC's most expensive network. It's also one of its most successful, winning the Sony Radio Academy Award's "UK Station of the year" this year.

For wildlife programmes Radio 4 is your one-stop shop! Amongst my favourites are Scars of Evolution presented by David Attenborough, World on The Move following worldwide animal migrations, and A Year in the Life of Ants which was partly presented by my current postgrad tutor, the brilliant Nigel Franks. All of these are available to listen to by download and take barely any time to obtain.

"A Guide to Garden Birds" aired in conjunction with Springwatch 2008 and was, in my opinion, one of the most complete and well-presented programmes I have ever heard. Now this may have been achieved through its simplicity as a programme: Brett Westwood and his sound recordist Chris Watson enter Stephen Moss' garden where they sit and chat with him and listen to the birds.
Episodes alternate between bird groups, covering the Titmice, Thrushes, Finches and many more; and Brett and Stephen (pictured) lead the listener through each song and bird including clever anecdotes to help you learn to identify the species. As if this wasn't enough, they also throw in some handy hints on how to identify the birds by sight in your garden, and indicate how each species behaves and how this will affect your birdwatching.

I will attempt to describe some of the best (and my favourite) anecdotes that this lovely programme uses, but to truly appreciate it, I would urge you to get online and download a few for yourself. They're all of 20 minutes long and make very easy listening.

Episode one sees Brett and Stephen discussing the Song Thrush (picture by Bob Glover) and Stephen recalls how his grandfather Snowy, used to be followed home by the call of a bird that nagged him singing "Snowy, Snowy, Snowy. Pay the rent, pay the rent, pay the rent!" Ever since hearing this I have yet to fail to recognise the Song Thrush by ear.

In episode two we hear how the Blue Tit is a bold little bird that literally puts "all his eggs in one nest". The Blue Tit, it appears, lays up to 12 eggs only once in the nesting season whereas most other birds will lay 3 or 4 a few times. The Blue Tits have to work hard to keep 12 hatchlings fed and a breeding pair will bring around ten thousand caterpillars to the nest per day!

Did you know?: The Long-tailed Tit has the shortest body of any British bird (that is of course once we've excluded the tail)!

The blackbird, we are told, has a "fruity" song which we may hear at the first signs of spring. As a woodland bird, it has a particularly loud call which would have been necessary to attract a mate through the dense forest; of course now we find their song carries so well through our streets and gardens that when we expect it to be very close we may find they are halfway down the end of the street.

For amateur twitchers A Guide to Garden Birds is a godsend. Discover more anecdotes for yourself at A Guide to Garden Birds' website.

As mentionned above, A Guide to Garden Birds is just one of the many fantastic radio outputs of the BBC's Natural History Unit. At the moment you can follow worldwide animal migrations with Radio 4's "World on the Move" on Tuesday mornings.

For the truly keen you can revise what you have discovered at Brett's birdsong library, also a useful tool for identifying songs you've heard recently without having to go through the programme.

(N.B. You may need the RealPlayer to play your downloaded radio programmes. You can download RealAlternative for free here).

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Big Cat Live update

As the BBC gears up to Big Cat Live the crew out in the Masaii Mara are working hard to set up camp and find their screen stars.

Chris Howard tell us how things are going in the second camp report.

See my previous post to find out all about this upcoming project.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Why so few posts?

Just a quick note to say that my Masters dissertation is due in this Friday which is why I am otherwise engaged!

I caught most of "Amazon with Bruce Parry" last night though. He is an interesting fellah!

It's on the iPlayer and well worth a look if you have the time!! =)

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

AMAZON: The Adventures of Bruce Parry

My favourite Pub Quiz is run every Monday at 9pm at the Jersey Lily pub here in Bristol but last night I was just too ill to go, so I turned to my television.

I watched the very posh Valentine Warner emphasize that he's never been more at home than with the most Welsh sheep farmer I've ever seen, before demonstrating how best to shoot a rabbit for the pot and how to cook the perfect pork chop. What to Eat Now kept me very entertained and left me wondering where the divide is drawn between cookery documentary and natural history programme.

I pondered away through the BBC2 ads and then was awoken from my trance by the opening scenes from "AMAZON with Bruce Parry". I remembered vaguely hearing of such a programme being on the cards and settled further into the settee...

AMAZON is to be a 6 part series following explorer Bruce Parry (best known for hosting Tribe) from the official source of the Amazon at Nevado Mismi in the Andes of Peru to its end at the Atlantic coast of Brazil.

Episode 1 was simply fantastic!
Bruce started out at the source and then trekked the 6hours to the nearest settlement of Quechua llama herders. We then follow him as he learns their way of life from llama shearing to their deep connection to Pacha Mama the "mother earth". His hosts, the family headed by Rodolfo are a generous and selfless people who despite their harsh way of life seem so content. My favourite scene shows their youngest, the boy Icka (above) spontaneously hugging Bruce before performing a little dance around the workers.
So overwhelmingly caring are these people that after only a few days they are visibly shaken to see him go and send him off with tears and prayers for him on his journey.

Bruce then takes on the treacherous upper waters of the Amazon with a group of daredevil white water rafters before heading downstream for a more relaxing break with the Coca farmers who can't afford not to sell their produce to the cocaine refiners. He sees the conflict between those who must make cocaine to survive and those who enforce the law from both sides, and actually takes part in the refining process before jumping in the back of a machine-gun-bearing truck to try to track down others doing the same. He meets villages that fight the cocaine makers and some who embrace them as desperate survivors. Some portray teenagers wondering around with guns protecting their land with their families.

During this episode the director Matt Brandon falls ill demonstrating how isolated the filmmakers actually are as they desperately attempt to get him to hospital. Fortunately he later made a full recovery but I found myself interested to see exactly how alone and in danger the crew are. It’s clear that many a big series such as Life in Cold Blood has filmmakers working in harsh and desolate conditions but more committed are those who must leave a village for fear of bringing war on their hosts.

It’s not often that I find myself completely engaged by a programme and interested enough to stay focussed through story after story. Frequently with programmes such as Pacific Abyss, in-filler shots and scenes seem to be used to make up the episode’s running time, causing the eye to wander or the viewer to amble off to put a brew on; AMAZON is no such programme. Get onto the iPlayer and watch the the first episode because it’ll be gone by next Monday’s pub quiz!

(AMAZON is co-produced by BBC Wales and Discovery Channel, and first aired on BBC2 on the 15th Sept '08; Producers: Steve Robinson and Matt Brandon.)

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

In the News This Week

Ancient forest fossils found down coal mines in Illinois. At the British association science festival Dr. Howard Lang described their magnitude:
It is quite extraordinary to find a fossil landscape preserved over such a vast area; and we are talking about an area the size of Bristol.

The reintroduction of the Red Kite to Ireland hits a setback as one of the 27 endangered birds that was released was found dead with a bullet wound this week. The wildlife police are investigating but fear it is a senseless killing as these birds represent no threat to humans or lifestock.

The search for the Golden Toad is underway in Costa Rica, where concerned scientists are looking to find this rare toad to aid in its conservation.

Inaction towards Climate Change is becoming a Human Rights issue according to Oxfam, who believe that people living in the poorest countries are suffering for the lack of environmental action by richer, more developed countries (who are also those contributing most to pollution). With floodings in the UK at an all-time high it's clear even without Oxfam's suggestion that it's long time we engaged in preventing climatic changes.

Britain's native seahorses are at risk and urgent action is needed according the The Seahorse Trust. It is believed that the site at risk is the only one in Britain where both indigenous seahorse species - the Spiny and the Short Snouted - are known to be breeding.

Climate change may be bringing even bigger waves to Australian shores. Although this is obviously of concern to coastal settlements and their environments, it is noted that this increasing surf may benefit schemes to harness the power of the ocean for greener electricity.
Climate change seems high priority in various news feed at the moment with increasingly extreme weather conditions and it's not just our native seahorses who are suffering: walruses, Beluga Whales, Polar Bears and the elusive Narwhal were all noted this week to be at risk.

Dire weather across Britain this Summer has had a drastic effect on the honey harvest according to beekeepers. Winter viruses nd rainy weather have kept the bees hive-bound resulting in greater colony death and honey harvest levels lower than beekeepers would ever have expected.

Do you have any news you'd like to share? Please leave a link in your comment.

Last night's The One Show: Wildlife Police!

Last night The One Show took us to Stonehaven to visit the Grampian Police Wildlife Crime Officer.

David MacKinnon works full time to investigate possible crimes such as game poaching, "offenses against badgers and birds", hare coursing, poisoning, trapping, nest destruction, egg collecting...the list goes on and on. I think it's brilliant that every Scottish police force has a wildlife crime coordinater: Someone who keeps an eye on the human-wildlife interface to check that endangered species are protected.

The One Show had Miranda Krestovnikoff follow the story of a dead buzzard which had a cricular wound that might have been from a bullet (and was subsequently found to come under "natural causes"). Although The One Show had a giggle, the police are very serious and will actually send of samples to crime labs to check for poisoning.
Like in any crime investigation they look for motives amongst the human community: does the game breeder want rid of the Kite that hunts his pheasants? Is that local farmer having suspiciously fresh Salmon again?

It's quite clear how this benefits the wildlife but for those living in the community the Wildlife Police are also keeping their sites of outstanding natural beauty and special scientific interest safe and pristine. In my opinion it's highly valuable to have specific police to whom offenders are answerable. It represents a committment of the community to keep their environment healthy and should be commended.

I'm very glad The One Show found this worthy of the time. Good work chaps!

Friday, 5 September 2008

Locked up rights to filming output

One of the most wonderful and successful films from Wildscreen 2006 was that made by Neil Curry entitled "The Elephant, the Emperor and the Butterfly Tree". This was a remarkable account of the amazing relationships between the elephant, the emperor moth and the mopane tree. This film won the Festival's most prestigious award, The Golden Panda.

You can see clips from The Elephant, the Emperor and the Butterfly Tree here where the copyrights are also clearly stated.

However, it appears that film producers wanting to share their content have limitted options due to these copyrights.
Firstly I'd say legally, this is fair. The copyright owners (in this case the BBC and Oxford Scientific Films) have funded their right to decide where and when the programme is shown. On the other hand though, perhaps we would have a different view if we learnt that they refuse to allow the locals from the developing country in which this programme is set to see the film.

I am not sure how much of this is accurate and if you know better please do contact me or comment, but it appears that they have been particularly stingy on this front. If you are interested, take the time to read this article by Nalaka Gunawardene which gives his standpoint. It appears that whereas some companies are happy to publicly promote the education of developing countries they won't do so if they fear being out of pocket.

All comments and any enlightenment are welcome!

Wildscreen Film Festival 2006

Director: Bobby Proctor
VFX: Aardman

Coming soon: Wildscreen Film Festival

The international wildlife filmmaking event of the year is about to descend on Bristol this coming October.

Wildscreen is a Bristol-based charity who work globally to
promote the public appreciation of biodiversity and the conservation of nature through the power of wildlife imagery.

The biannual festival that Wildscreen runs is a week-long event through which film makers from around the world get together, compare their work, learn about the making of some of the best programmes from the last two years and compete to win Wildscreen awards.

The Wildscreen Film Festival Panda awards are equivalent to the Oscars for wildlife filmmaking. I was lucky enough to be selected to volunteer at Wildscreen Film Festival 2006 and introduced myself to David Attenborough at the Panda Awards.

The "Green Oscar" or Panda award

The much sought volunteer positions for Wildscreen 2008 are already filled but I believe delegates can still register on the Wildscreen Film Festival Website.

Registration gives you access to all events, talks and screenings, as well as the opportunity to enter workshops to learn more about aspects of Wildlife Filmmaking such as researching and getting commissions. There is also a brilliant video library run throughout the week giving delegates access to every Panda award entry including Life in Cold Blood's "Armoured Giants" and "The Cold Blooded Truth", as well as Expedition Guyana, "Wye": Voices from the Valley, and Meerkat Manor.

See the Wildscreen Film Festival 2006 Showreel here.

COMING SOON: Behind the scenes at Wildscreen Film Festival - a volunteer's experience!
My Favourites from Wildscreen 2006, including the Bedi Brothers' "Cherub in the Mist".

Thursday, 4 September 2008

A Few Fabulous Frogs!

I just came across this great collection of short clips about frogs in Costa Rica and had to share it: Enjoy!

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Big Cat Live

With so much going on in the world of Natural History media at the moment I've been having difficulty deciding what to post on first!

If you're in any way interested in wildlife television you should be aware of the new live multimedia project the BBC is preparing to launch later this year: Big Cat Live.

Big Cat Live is going to be in a similar format to the groundbreaking project "Springwatch" which first aired in 2005. Springwatch involved (and involves) an overview of live camera feeds from nest boxes and animal burrows, allowing us to follow stories of British wildlife. Its huge success with viewers here in the UK has been partly due to the way in which they were able to follow wildlife in their own back gardens and feedback to the programme online.

Big Cat Diary (which preceded Springwatch) and Elephant Diary also highlight the way in which these programmes engage viewers by following individuals of a species.
I think it's something to do with human empathy. We are drawn into stories when we start to become familiar with and care for the individuals involved. Thus, viewers are encouraged to tune in to find out how that batch of coal tits or those young lion cubs are doing. It's similar to our affinity for sitcoms and series such as Neighbours - we want to know what's happening in their lives next!

Springwatch was highly ambitious in relying on participation from the public to look out for their local wildlife and aid in the wildlife surveys conducted; but most notably it was a pioneer in multimedia effort. Springwatch on television ran in conjunction with an online British wildlife survey and programmes on Radio 2 and Radio 4 as well as providing an online blog and online live feeds from selected cameras.

Big Cat Diary is possibly the BBC Natural History Unit's biggest venture yet. Live feeds from cameras strategically placed across Kenya's Masai Mara reserve will be brought to us here in the UK on our screens. Aside from the obvious difficulties with streaming live content reliably across the world on the presenters' cue, this project will also attempt to bring 24hour surveillance to its website for the superkeen to access!

Big Cat Live intends to give the public a lot more behind the scenes footage to envelope us into the project itself. There'll be an interactive website available two weeks before the launch, and the three week long event will run in conjunction with a programme on CBeebies (Little Big Cat) although unfortunately there does not appear to be any Radio production planned. Obviously most of us won't be able to follow the species in our own back yards, but the programme will bring us an overview of daily life on the reserve with information on the activities of a wide variety of species; and unlike Springwatch, Big Cat Live's feeds will continue streaming beyond daylight hours for more exciting behaviours!

To me the technology involved for the video streaming across the world is enough of an obstacle, but if you think about it the programme will face many other hurdles!

For one, lions and antelope and hyaenas don't breed as often and regularly as the birds we see on springwatch and have much wider territories: we can't simply slot a camera into a cheetah's den to see how the cubs are doing.

Two: A bird's daily life involves much flitting and feeding, whereas a lion spends about 20hours of the day resting!

Three: This is no sofa-in-Norfolk jobby (Springwatch reference!)! Kate Silverton, Simon King, Jonathon Scott and presumably a whole host of production team fellahs will be spending the duration of the programme in the heart of an African reserve! Just think of the health and safety issues!

It's going to be a huge challenge for all involved at the BBC and I can't imagine any other production company or channel being able to host something at this scale. The BBC say it's a test-run for future 360-degree productions to see if their technology is robust enough to move to the next level. I for one can't wait for Autumn!

(BBC Press Release. Big Cat Live is to be produced by Colin Jackson, series producer Nigel Pope.)

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Wild: Killer Whales in the UK?

The series Wild is an almost bizarre mish-mash of half an hour and hour long programmes about various locations and species with "access to never-before seen footage".

It includes episodes about the "mysterious batwomen of Panama" who are in fact rather unmysteriously studying the bats and just happen to all be women; next to some brilliant presenting by Saba Douglas-Hamilton despite ironically discussing the terrors of poaching weaponry whilst wearing a leopard-print top. There's absolutely no connection between the episodes in locality, species, behaviour or presenting manner, but they are still quite fascinating in a kind of brief encounter "The One Show" style. The episodes presented by Saba and Gordon Buchanan are quite personal presenter-story led and include a bit more action on Saba's part (including her swimming through bat guano), as well as quite a bit more comedy on Gordon's.

For this reason in fact, I found my favourite to be "Killer Whales in the UK?" presented by Gordon. Gordon Buchanan started his career as a camera assistant to Nick Gordon who helped bring us the Life of Birds and The Heart of the Amazon. Gordon went on to be a big part of Big Cat Diary, The Natural World and Springwatch, and has evidently only recently come around to the idea of presenting.

Gordon's style of presenting is brilliant! He's very colloquial and chatty as we follow him to the Shetland Isles where he is to set up his "Killer Whale HQ" in a lighthouse. He has a lovely Scottish accent which is relatively rare in Natural History presenting and is refreshingly comical, and even slightly satirical: At one point he delights in the presence of inquisitive seals coming to meet him, as while they're looking at him a killer whale might come up, throw one of them in the air, kill it and eat it so he can catch it all on camera!

This episode is in fact all about Gordon: Gordon gets fed up waiting for the whales so he goes to visit some Puffins and attempts to woo them by copying their moaning sounds; Gordon gets attacked by gulls; Gordon flirts with the locals; Gordon gets bored of looking for killer whales so starts to sing and make seal sounds to keep his spirits up... and all of this is actually really good to watch! He's personable and fun and still gets across some interesting bits and bobs about wildlife too! It feels like he really is fascinated by the animals and it's nice to see things from a cameraman's perspective. He has to grab the right lens to see if a wild otter has caught something, and has to be careful when rushing to film a porpoise, that he gets his tripod set up safely!

There's also some cheesy pop played over the top to match his jovial manner such as Lionel Richie's "Hello, is it me you're looking for?" and Van Halen's "Jump!" to get guillemot chicks in the mood to leap a few hundred feet down a cliff before their swim to Norway! It's all good fun, although the story ends slightly disappointingly (I don't want to spoil it) and we get to see Gordon's motivation repeatedly rediscovered to the serenade of Blondie's "One way or another, I'm gonna find ya".

If you're a fan of British wildlife, which I hope you are, and you're in the mood for something lighthearted one evening, try to get hold of this episode because it really is a simple pleasure to watch! The only negative thing I'd say is that in terms of footage that's never been seen before it's one of the only episodes that's particularly lacking!

(Wild was produced by Tom Hugh-Jones and Chris Cole, and episodes are available to view on the BBC iPlayer alternately over the next few weeks.)

Let me explain...

I've had a few questions from friends and readers about the title of my blog.

I could't possibly decide on my favourite film but if you held a gun to my head and told me I couldn't include wildlife programmes I'd probably go with Neil Gaiman and David Mackean's Mirrormask. It was produced by the Jim Henson company, being the people who brought us Sesame Street, The Muppets and Labyrinth (with David Bowie) and it's the most fantastical film. And no, it isn't second to any production of Guillermo Del Torro's (e.g. Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy and Blade), it's better!!

It's full of fabulous mysterious creatures, riddles and magic with an absolutely awesome soundtrack, and my favourite concept of all (after the best knock knock joke in the world) is that of the Giants Orbitting. I simply can't explain the power of the Giants scene to you (you'd have to see it), but I love the idea of a substellar fountain of knowledge who's mind is so great that he can only speak veeeery sloooowly.

Again, you've got to see it. That's all I'm going to explain because much as I'm sure people would like me to I will not hand everything to them on a plate.

In the quest for knowledge we learn best when we go searching. Rent or buy Mirrormask and I promise you will not be disappointed.

N.B. My blog is in no way related or affiliated with the band gIANTS oRBITTING!!

Monday, 1 September 2008

Galapagos and other excitements

I'm quite excited about the Galapagos series showing on National Geographic Channel on Sundays at the moment. I came across a ridiculous promo clip on youtube a while back that had me vowing never to touch the National Geographic channel again.
Cue an evening of random internet trawling and I came across the Galapagos page on the National Geographic channel website. Well who wouldn't in their boredom decide to have a laugh at some over-sensational narration?
Anyway a few minutes later and I found myself riveted. I'll admit much of it isn't new to me (I did do a zoology degree and it does repeat some of Life in Cold Blood's best moments - without the snazzy infra-red) but it's well presented and doesn't limit itself to the usual "sexy" wildlife behaviours. Despite this it does include some really interesting inter-species behaviours as well and must be commended for including many interesting facts that can be passed over in programmes such as Life in Cold Blood due to time limits. The narration is nothing like the promo and I find it a lot more likeable than that of for example Pacific Abyss (dire!). The music is also absolutely lovely.
Take a look!

(Galapagos was produced by Patrick Morris from the BBC and first aired on BBC2 in 2006. For those interested you can download the accompanying Radio 4 programme here - you will need a RealMedia player such as Real Alternative to play this file.)
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