Monday, May 7, 2012

Earthflight: North America

Apologies if this is turning into the Maniraptor Media Review Blog. I tend to post these because they're easier to put together than other types of posts and there's a lot of material I can cover, so they're good filler when I don't have time (or, I'm sad to say, motivation) to finish more substantial stuff (which, as it turns out, is most of the time).

Earthflight is a recent BBC One documentary that premiered towards the end of 2011 and finished airing earlier this year. Focusing on flying birds from around the world, this documentary specializes in aerial shots of its subjects, utilizing various methods of filming, including cameras strapped to the backs of birds. The resulting footage is truly spectacular. Spoilers ahead!

Each episode of Earthflight covers birds from a different continent; the first being about North America. Three species of birds get much of the spotlight in this episode, snow geese, bald eagles, and brown pelicans. One of the overarching stories of the episode is the migration of the snow geese up to their breeding grounds in the Arctic, with individual groups of geese combining with each other along the way to form one giant flock. Whenever they stop to feed and rest, they are vulnerable to attack by bald eagles, but they are also shown to be very difficult to catch, as the sheer number of geese makes it difficult for the eagles to target single individuals. (The program even makes the assertion that snow geese are the favorite prey of bald eagles, but I'm not aware of any studies that support this.) Towards the end of the episode, an eagle finally manages to isolate a young snow goose from the flock. What ensues is awesome; I'll say that much.

Other bald eagle behaviors broadcast include both fishing and stealing fish from grizzly bears. Of special note to Mesozoic dinosaur enthusiasts is the mantling behavior displayed by one of the eagles, where the raptor spreads its wings around its food to hide it from competitors, as this is a behavior that has been suggested for dromaeosaurids. (That salmon it was feeding on looked really good, by the way.) Also potentially surprising is the sequence showing a group of bald eagles tossing a carcass around in what appears to be play.

Brown pelicans, on the other hand, are shown flying along the Pacific coast. They dive for fish out at sea as well as catch spawning grunion on beaches. The brown pelican sequences are also a good demonstration of the fact that even though Earthflight focuses primarily on birds, it also gives us an interesting look at the other animals the birds fly over. Most memorably, the pelicans pass over a group of leaping devil rays.

Scenes featuring other types of birds in the episode include red-tailed hawks hunting free-tailed bats, cowbirds traveling alongside American bison, egrets taking advantage of the strand-feeding behavior of bottlenose dolphins, California gulls catching brine flies, and turnstones and dunlin feeding on horseshoe crab eggs. Coots and mallards also show up, but mostly to serve as prey for bald eagles.

As mentioned previously, the footage in this show is nothing short of spectacular and many behaviors are rarely showcased. I've heard some complaints about the narration being "twee", perhaps due to the frequent use of metaphors and some anthropomorphism. Personally, however, I find it leagues better than some of the highly inane and sensationalist narration in certain other "documentaries", far from unbearable. If you don't mind the narration and like documentaries on birds, Earthflight is a must watch.

Incidentally, is this really the first dinosaur-centric blog to review this documentary, and more than a few months late at that? Jumping all over Dinosaur Revolution but shirking Earthflight? Shame on you, shame on you all. (I kid, of course.)