March 17, 2010

The Birds and the...Birds

Posted: 07:09 PM ET

Barrie Britton has a very unique job.  He's a cameraman for the Discovery Channel's new 11-part series, LIFE.  In this LKL Blog Exclusive, Barrie talks about the numerous challenges and wonders of his fascinating job.  LIFE is a follow up to the PLANET EARTH series, and premieres Sunday on Discovery at 8 pm ET/PT.  The series will air through Sunday, April 18.

The tropical island of New Guinea has some of the world’s most amazing birds. It is home to the spectacular birds of paradise with their brightly-coloured plumage and elaborate courtship dances. In the cloud forests of western New Guinea there also lives a drab brown bird with none of the bright feathers of its flamboyant neighbours. The vogelkop bowerbird may at first sight appear unassuming, but in fact it has truly one of the most incredible courtships in the entire bird kingdom. It was our mission for the “LIFE” series to capture this extraordinary behavior as never seen before.

In August 2008 I flew with my colleague, assistant producer Stephen Lyle, to the Indonesian western half of New Guinea. We set out with enough camera equipment and supplies for a month living in remote jungle.

The cloud forest was a beautiful green world of buttressed trees, ferns and tangled vines, everything covered in a layer of glistening moss. Deep in the forest, after scrambling over roots and boulders, we came upon an incredible scene. In a clearing in the undergrowth there was what appeared to be a small thatched house, about a metre high, constructed out of vines and orchid stems. There was a manicured lawn of moss in front on which had been placed piles of brightly colored objects. There was one pile of orange flowers, another of red berries and another of black beetle wing-cases. Inside the opening there was a pile of blue berries and another of iridescent blue ladybirds. It seemed as though we had come upon the mythical home of a goblin or forest sprite. Yet the entire scene had in fact been created by a small bird – the vogelkop bowerbird!

The next day, as dawn light penetrated the forest I peeked through the tiny windows of my blind to see an all-brown thrush-sized bird sitting above his bower and singing a strange song with all his might. This was the male vogelkop bowerbird. As the morning progressed I began to realize that he was including the sounds of other forest birds in his repertoire – the song of a sicklebill, the shriek of a cockatoo, the wing-flaps of pigeons – he was an excellent mimic.

From time to time the male would pause his vocal efforts, fly down to his bower and start renovating it. He would tuck in a loose piece of thatching, remove a dead leaf from the mossy lawn or fly off and find a new brightly coloured object for his collection. As the days went by I filmed the male singing and working on his bower, until finally the reason for his endeavours became apparent when a female bowerbird paid him a visit. He immediately dashed inside the bower and set about producing the strangest song I have ever heard from a bird, a throbbing symphony of peculiar noises much more intense than his normal song. He seemed to be using the bower as a sound box for his strange vocalisations. The female hopped down onto the mossy lawn and inspected his decorations before briefly peering into the darkness of the bower and then flying away. The male was very cross that she had deserted him and burst out of the bower calling as loudly as possible, but she had gone, maybe to inspect the bower of one of his neighbors.

After 3 weeks of filming, spending 10 hours a day in the blind, I had some excellent footage of the male singing and working on his bower, plus occasional shots of visiting females. What was missing from our sequence was the ultimate reason for all this industry – the male mating with one of the females. With our time running out, I decided to move the blind further away from the bower, just in case it was making the females nervous. Sitting in my blind one morning in its new position with just a few days of filming left, a female flew down onto the mossy lawn. She hopped up to the bower inside which the male was furiously singing and rather than fly away as other females had done, she sat there and began raising her tail feathers. I thought that with this new turn of events the male would jump straight out, but he stayed stubbornly inside his bower singing away. I feared that he would miss his chance, but finally he emerged with wings raised like a strutting matador and mated with the female. At last I had filmed the complete story of the courtship of the vogelkop bowerbird!

I had spent 2 years working as the principal cameraman on the birds episode of “LIFE”. This was my final filming trip and a fitting end to my work on a great series.

Filed under: LKL Web Exclusive

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still me just a new name   March 17th, 2010 7:32 pm ET

what it must of been like to work on a project like this for the Discovery Channel...I would love a job like that...this is how the world and all its inhabitants should be viewed and not in cages behind metal bars or over sized bath tubs...

A. Smith, Oregon   March 17th, 2010 9:43 pm ET

It is expected as a result of Global Warming that birds would become smaller and lighter to offset the increase in Global Temperatures.

This was recently verified after carefully netting, weighing and measuring hundreds of different variety's of migrating birds, they are measurably smaller and lighter than they normally were previously.

Bonnie Miller   March 17th, 2010 10:06 pm ET

Good show tonight, BUT I was terribly disappointed that you did NOT adhere to the original show plan. You advertised that you were going to have a full hour with Betty White, and you acquiesced to the "political arena". We Americans need a break every once in awhile from hearing about the Healthcare Bill, Tiger Woods, John Edwards, etc. Please, in the future, stick with the program. Thank you for having an entertaining show and congratulations for 25 years on the same channel, at the same time. You obviously work very hard, and deserve many accolades.

LacrosseMom   March 17th, 2010 10:12 pm ET

A. Smith, you are always so well-informed. Peace.

Mel   March 18th, 2010 12:15 am ET

This is very interesting, it seems like most birds share some mating rituals because I read about a similar courting pattern of thr male satin bowerbird that is found in Australia. So far, yet some close.

Cajazz76:24:8   March 18th, 2010 12:40 am ET

I will give Barrie Britton this, he's not out shooting with a rifle or corraling Orca whale's for the sideshow debacle's at Sea World or the tragedies in the zoo's throughout the world.

Though you have found the challenge's can be daunting you certainly find the reward's, as well. I wish you and the Discovery Channel success and high profit's for our endeavor's.

Rose   March 18th, 2010 4:09 am ET

You will never.. ever think put ....birds the cage...just one
Thanks for suport...all the time....

Jessie from Auckland, NZ   March 18th, 2010 9:26 am ET

Hats off to Barrie Britton, Cameraman for the Discovery Channel and his team, for the joy they bring me and many others, with their amazing series.

I find them so interesting and fascinating. One doesn't realise what it takes to put series like this together, to bring to us. It is a lot of hard work I can imagine. You have to be dedicated. Kudos to them and thank you for the wonderful viewing.

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