Life: Birds - Episode Five Synopsis

From the equator to the poles, birds have found the most ingenious ways to overcome the many challenges of life. Everything revolves around their unique attribute – feathers.

Few go to greater extremes than the male marvelous spatule-tail hummingbird. His tail feathers are so long that he can barely lift off. But still he performs the most extraordinary aerial displays, using fast-beating wings and super-long tail feathers, adorned with iridescent discs.

Lammergeyers soar across the Ethiopian highlands on their nine-foot wingspan, searching for carrion. They use precision flying to find, and then smash, bones into a size they can comfortably swallow.

Red-billed tropicbirds depend on extreme speed and manoeuvrability to escape from piratical frigate birds.

And red knots use extreme endurance to migrate 10,000 miles every spring from their wintering grounds in Argentina to their nesting sites in Canada. But they can only achieve this by making a crucial fuel stop on the east coast of America, to feed on the eggs of spawning horseshoe crabs. Timing is everything.

During the nesting season, birds are grounded for extended periods. It’s the toughest time of their lives.

Lesser flamingos must build their nests in highly-caustic soda lakes, which can become a lethal quagmire for their chicks.

Chinstrap penguins, which fish far offshore in the icy waters of Antarctica, have to make an exhausting climb up the steep flanks of a volcano to get food back to their chicks.

When it comes to power parenting, few birds beat the great white pelicans. These fish-eaters have learned how to supplement their natural catch by plundering live gannet chicks.

Birds also use their feathers, together with colour, song and ingenuity to win the hearts of their mates.

Clarke’s grebes perform a mesmeric courtship dance which climaxes with the pair running on water in perfect synchrony.

Male sage grouse advertise their virility by rubbing their wings against their chest feathers, making bizarre popping sounds.

And the male Vogelkop bowerbird crafts a giant bower around a central sapling which he decorates with flowers, beetles, fungus and even deer dung to try and impress a female. Should it catch her interest, he backs off into the darkness of his bower and calls to her with an impressive repertoire of song.

But perhaps the most dazzling courtship spectacle is of that of the lesser flamingo on Kenya’s Lake Bogoria. In a sea of pink, up to a thousand birds promenade side by side with neck feathers ruffled and heads held high.

Hide And Seek

The very last filming trip for the Birds episode for Life was perhaps the most challenging for cameraman Barrie Britton and assistant producer Stephen Lyle.

Their aim was not only to film the male Vogelkop bowerbird weaving and decorating his extraordinary bower, but to also capture his courtship behaviour and the mating ritual itself – an event which has never been filmed before.

To do this Barrie, Stephen and their field assistants spent a month camped deep in the forests of West Papua. Though there were many bowers to choose from, picking the right one to film was always going to be a gamble.

Day in, day out, Barrie returned to his trusty hide and, after several weeks of concerted effort, his patience was wearing thin. Though he had managed to film some wonderful bower construction and decoration, the actual courtship event still eluded him.

It wasn’t until the last few days of the shoot that Barrie was able to capture this extraordinary piece of behaviour. It only lasted a matter of seconds, but it was well worth the wait!

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