HOVERING at 1500 feet above the rooftops of Edinburgh, Richard Cook battled with the weight of his camera while the feathers of barnacle geese brushed his face and goose guano splattered his head and lens.
The cameraman was desperately trying to film the migration of the massive birds as they flew across the city towards the Arctic, with just a few hours available to capture their impressive flight.
However, while he might have been concerned about weather and light, there was never any need to fear the 12 geese would soar into the distance and leave him behind – after all, the microlight he was travelling in was being piloted by the birds’ “mum”, Frenchman Christian Moullec.
This Thursday, viewers of BBC One’s groundbreaking avian documentary Earthflight will see Edinburgh, the ruins of Tantallon Castle and the Firth of Forth from a bird’s eye view – the final result of Richard’s skill with a handheld camera and Christian’s empathy with the flock of birds he hand reared from the moment they hatched from their eggs.
“The birds were imprinted on Christian and so used to him that they flew so close to us as if we were part of the flock,” recalls Richard. “I could touch their wings as they were flying, they were so close to us. Although the pooing . . . well, that wasn’t so great.
“The biggest problem was manoeuvring the kit because it’s incredibly heavy at altitude and we were between 1000 feet and 1500 feet, and the engine also interfered with the camera. However, it worked really well and I think what we captured will leave people feeling amazed.”
Certainly the public response to Earthflight has been overwhelming, as the series, which took three-and-a-half years to put together, charts the flights of birds across six continents – from cape gannets in South Africa to eagles, condors and vultures in the United States, and pelicans in Mexico – and has given a whole new way of looking at the world.
But it was flying over Edinburgh last year which series producer John Downer says proved the biggest headache.
“One of the biggest challenges for us was to try to fly over Edinburgh and do the trip around Scotland,” he says. “It’s a big feature in the programme. We fly barnacle geese past the Bass Rock, over Edinburgh, Stirling Castle and down Loch Ness as well. They spend the winter in Scotland before heading off to the Arctic north and Svalbard.
“It’s quite an extraordinary journey and took three weeks of filming, taking the birds to various locations. The biggest problem was we did not have permission to fly over any city at that point because of flying regulations. Edinburgh was a real ambition for us and proved the breakthrough because that is where they said we could.
“They gave us a window in the morning and late afternoon and we could take the birds over Edinburgh, past the Castle and the whole city.
“It is absolutely stunning stuff and opened the doors on where we could fly in different cities around the world, including Venice and London.”
Glasgow-based cameraman Richard adds: “We came up against a lot of bureaucracy in most countries, but in Scotland it was all quite straightforward. Because I’ve been flying here for so long, I just called Edinburgh Air Traffic Control and told them what we wanted to do.
“The response was a kind of amused ‘you want to fly a microlight with a lot of geese in a commercial zone?’. But they said ‘no problem’. They rerouted the commercial traffic so we had a little time slot to fly over Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood and Arthur’s Seat. It was fantastic.
“I learned to fly at East Fortune and have flown over Edinburgh many times, but to do it beside birds was really difficult and physically demanding. The birds look like they are flying smoothly and in slow motion but, believe me, they’re not, but ultimately it was incredibly satisfying.”
While the geese were filmed by microlight, much of the footage of gannets at the Bass Rock was captured by remote cameras for safety reasons. The gannets there had journeyed 3500 miles from Africa to feed, diving deeper into the sea than any other bird.
“The Bass Rock in my opinion is the greatest wildlife site in the British Isles,” says John. “But the gannets hit the water with quite a force – 40mph, I think. You could end up with a bill through your head. We try to use remote cameras rather than getting a person in the firing line.”
Another filming trick, for other parts of the series, was to get the birds to carry cameras themselves. Tiny, lightweight HD cameras were modified into “bird cams” attached to a carbon-fibre and foam mount, tailored to suit each bird’s anatomy – in particular, larger birds such as vultures and eagles – then strapped to its back.
With this John was able to use the remote control to work the camera, giving a wide view of what the bird was seeing, including watching birds flying alongside. They even captured the way in which the birds’ feathers work on take-off, during flight and on landing, things that have never been closely observed before.
But for all the technology used, the story, says John, is ultimately down to the birds.
John, who has been a wildlife documentary maker for 25 years, says: “The way it worked, we took several star birds which are characteristic of a continent and we had a very good idea of what we were setting out to do, but in the end the birds were taking us and telling the story.
“When we filmed the pelicans, for instance, even though we are flying wing tip to wing tip with them, we knew when the fish they ate – grunion – came ashore and roughly where, but over miles and miles of beach it could have happened anywhere and it only happens over a short period of time.
“In the end, the pelicans were streaming along the shore and we just had to follow them in a Land Rover. Eventually they took us to the right spot.
“So while we had a story to tell, we had to listen to the story the birds were telling us.”
He adds: “What is unique is that we are telling wildlife stories from the perspective of the birds and it reveals how they think as well.
“It is quite a different way of telling natural history stories. Over the series, you get a completely different view of the continents.
“The series became something that I could never have foreseen – with the technological capability to enter the birds’ world came the ability to see nature as they do. You have a dream of how images will turn out. I think we surpassed our own expectations.”
• The next episode of Earthflight is on BBC One this Thursday at 8pm. The book Earthflight, by John Downer, is out now priced £30.
From First sight to flight
THE magnificent bird’s eye view of Edinburgh and the east coast was only possible because the barnacle geese were so used to microlight pilot Christian Moullec, as he himself raised them from hatchlings.
A phenomenon called Imprinting means that as soon as a bird hatches from its egg, it regards the first moving thing it sees as its mother and follows it anywhere. Moullec became the family of geese’s “parent” nine months before filming began, so all he had to do was board a microlight for them to fly alongside.
John Downer himself once imprinted a duck after it hatched in his lap. “For six months I became her mother. In the car, she would sit beside me in the passenger seat. In the office, she would sit on my head while I tried to make phone calls. We would even go to dinner parties together.
“The process is very intensive. It takes about a year before you can fly the birds reliably in different places, so you get incredibly attached to it.
“A lot of people have used the technique in various ways and I’ve experimented with a lot of techniques over the years so, really, Earthflight brings it all up-to-date.”