Thursday, June 14, 2012

Earthflight: Europe

The third episode of Earthflight continues the journey of the barn swallows and white storks from the previous episode as they reach Europe. Spoilers ahead.

Male white storks are shown arriving at their old nesting grounds. As they wait for their mates to return, they repair their old nests and chase off younger males that may try to steal their sites. Male swallows also arrive at their nests before females do and get around to doing similar activities. The slow-motion footage of swallows snatching airborne feathers for use as nesting material may visually be among my favorite sequences in not just this episode, but in the entire series.

This episode also shows other types of birds making the journey up north, such as common cranes, gannets, flamingos, and brent geese. In particular, barnacle geese are given a lot of focus as they fly up to their nesting grounds in the Arctic. Along the way they are attacked by a golden eagle (which is unexpectedly driven away by a flock of crows) and are forced to fly through a heavy rainstorm (which their waterproof feathers shield them from). After their young hatch, they, along with Arctic terns and skuas, manage to chase away a marauding polar bear in what may be the most awesome sequence in this episode.

Other scenes in this episode include an osprey fishing, a flock of starlings outmaneuvering a peregrine falcon, and sand martins catching emerging mayflies from the surface of a river (in slow motion, of course; Earthflight loves slow motion, to the point where I repeatedly used "slow-motion ____ grab" to describe what was going on when I live-tweeted episodes).

If I had to choose, this may be my favorite Earthflight episode. It may have been because most of the storylines were well wrapped up, or because I found the footage especially spectacular, or because European wildlife doesn't often get much airtime in documentaries. The one thing I may nitpick is that we never see what happens to the brent geese, uniquely of all the migrating birds they showed. They're shown flying along for one scene but are never given any followup, and it would've made the episode even better rounded had they done so.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Earthflight: Africa

Okay, let's see if I can break this just-one-post-a-month thing I've unfortunately been keeping up so far this year.

The second episode of Earthflight focuses on African birds, primarily vultures, flamingos, and African fish eagles. Spoilers ahead.

The dynamic between the flamingos and fish eagles is similar to that between the snow geese and bald eagles in the first episode, and after this episode I wondered whether such a storyline would be a recurring thing for this show, but that turned out not to be the case. Unlike the snow geese, however, the flamingos are also beset by baboons and hyenas on their journey. Dawnemperor remarked that the flamingos appeared to be the Butt Monkeys of the episode. (I first watched this episode with several members* of the paleontology forum Hell Creek on the Hell Creek chatbox, where we did live commentary on the show. It was great fun.) Eventually though, the flamingos do settle down at a lake where they get to perform their courtship displays to one another.

*Cheers to DawnEmperor125, Kazanlak, Pilsator, Sharkosaurus, Stewmorg, and Tomozaurus.

Besides hunting flamingos, the fish eagles get some other very cool footage in this episode, from fishing to fight scenes with other birds, including a marabou stork and some steppe eagles. It's hard to deny that a primarily fish-eating animal can be quite badass after those sequences.

The episode also covers the wildebeest migration, which we've probably all seen a hundred times. I don't know about the rest of you, but as spectacular as the migration is, it gets a little stale when you turn on the TV and find that every other wildlife documentary is covering it. Fortunately Earthflight puts a fresh spin on the event, covering things from the vultures' point of view. I think I like the vulture sequences best of all in this episode, because they showcased some rarely-shown occasions, such as a vulture being preyed on by a lion. And, appropriately, later on we see a mass gathering of vultures trick another lion into leaving its kill unguarded. This is, after all, a documentary about birds, and stinking synapsids can continue stinking.

A few seabirds get some airtime as well, and we get to see gannets plunge diving en masse and kelp gulls feeding on the remains of great white shark kills. Surprisingly, the episode ends on a cliffhanger as the white storks and barn swallows the episode had been following intermittently cross the Mediterranean Sea on their way to Europe, with the note that the next episode will cover the birds of Europe as well as the fates of these travelers. That also makes this the only episode to draw an actual connection with the episode that follows it. (Okay, the second to last episode does draw a connection with the last, but as I will explain later the last episode is thematically vastly different from the others.) I think they should've drawn these connections more often if only for the sake of consistency, but I understand that this may not have been applicable in all instances.

I really liked the effect of the background music in this episode. (I don't think it's actually all that different from the other episodes, but I found it particularly noticeable.) At some points you could even tell what species of bird the show was transitioning back to even before they showed up on the screen, as though they all had distinctive leitmotifs. My only gripe with this one has nothing to do with maniraptors, but with the fact that spotted hyenas are implied by the narrator to be mostly scavengers, when we've long known that this is generally not the case. (Some populations of spotted hyenas do indeed subsist primarily on scavenging, but this could've been made more clear.)