The best way to…

The best way to capture birds in the air? Fly right among them. Here are the pictures to prove it…


These geese think he’s their mum – and eagles have worn his cameras to capture the most remarkable images. Simon Lewis reports on the wing-walking work of the Birdman of Bristol

Barnacle geese flying over Tantallon Castle on Scotland's east coast, en route to the Arctic

Barnacle geese flying over Tantallon Castle on Scotland’s east coast, en route to the Arctic

How do you film a gaggle of barnacle geese migrating from Scotland to the Arctic, at such close quarters that the camera can pick up the fluttering of individual feathers?

The secret lies in the phenomenon of ‘imprinting’, where certain species of bird regard the first moving thing they see upon hatching as their mother and follow it anywhere. The cameraman becomes the family of geese’s ‘parent’ nine months previously; all he has to do is board a microlight for them to fly alongside.

The technique was first employed over 25 years ago for an episode of David Attenborough’s Wildlife On One, by Bristol-based film-maker John Downer.

One of John Downer's team of cameramen, Christian Moullec, flying his microlight

One of John Downer’s team of cameramen, Christian Moullec, flying his microlight

‘I acquired a type of duck known as a green-winged teal,’ says Downer.

‘My plan was to have it reared by a willing cameraman, but the egg hatched prematurely in my lap and the duckling became imprinted on me. 

‘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 out to dinner parties together.


‘My dream was to film her from the air. I had no qualifications to fly, but I’d heard about a new invention called parascending, where you wear a parachute and are towed by a vehicle until you take off. I placed the teal in a shoebox fastened to my belt. When we were 200ft in the air, I released her.

A scarlet macaw at the Manu river in Peru

A scarlet macaw at the Manu river in Peru

‘To my horror, she plummeted like a stone. Then thankfully, at 50ft she remembered she had wings and began to flap. She drew alongside me and I captured the wonderful moment on film. The footage was priceless, all shot with a wide-angle lens just inches from the flying bird.’

Downer later met a Frenchman, Christian Moullec, who’d raised an entire family of cranes. With Moullec and similarly dedicated bird-fostering cameramen, he recently returned to his dream of filming birds in flight, this time in HD, for the new BBC series Earthflight.

One dream impossible for Downer to realise 25 years ago was for the birds themselves to carry a camera into the air. Fortunately, tiny, ultra-lightweight HD cameras have now been developed which can be modified into ‘bird-cams’. 

Cape gannets at Algoa Bay, South Africa

Cape gannets at Algoa Bay, South Africa

Large birds such as eagles, condors and vultures are able to carry a specially adapted 3oz camera about the size of a matchbox. This is attached to a carbon-fibre-and-foam mount, tailored specifically for each bird’s anatomy, and strapped to its back like a tiny rucksack.

Downer was even able to look around, using the camera’s remote-controlled tilt-and-pan mechanism. 


‘A conventional shot would be with the head in the centre of the frame, which is great for a pursuit by a bird of prey. But these cameras could also swivel, so you could watch other birds flying alongside, and when it pointed backwards we could witness eagles being mobbed by other birds.’ 

A bald eagle is fitted with a specially adapted 3oz 'bird-cam'

A bald eagle is fitted with a specially adapted 3oz ‘bird-cam’

The new tilt-and-pan cameras could even capture the different ways in which the birds’ feathers work on take-off, during flight and on landing, things that have never been closely observed before. 

‘We could see every feather on a Rüppell’s vulture in action,’ says Downer.

‘This bird has a wingspan of 8.5ft and can soar to 36,000ft. We saw that each feather is constantly adjusted to maximise the airflow over the bird’s body. Its tail is constantly moving, sometimes through 180 degrees, a combined elevator-and-rudder system that can also form an air brake.

‘On the wings, the primary feathers on the wing tip resemble fingers that seem to “feel” the air as the bird soars, while the secondary feathers along the trailing edge of the wing adjust lift and drag.

The view from the camera, looking over the bird's head

The view from the camera, looking over the bird’s head

‘When the bird came in to land, the bird-cam revealed how it slows to a stop: the secondaries drop, much like an aircraft’s flaps, but the big surprise was on the wing’s leading edge. 

‘All along this edge are what look like simple contour feathers, but as the bird slows down these flick up, much like the slats on an aircraft that increase lift at slow speeds. Scientists are now studying the pictures we obtained to improve aircraft wings.’


Another development that greatly benefited the film-makers was the availability of ultralight, remote-controlled planes with the ability to fly themselves like military drones. 

The remote-controlled 'vulture-cam' glider, which was flown with the birds

The remote-controlled ‘vulture-cam’ glider, which was flown with the birds

‘They’re just coming on to the market,’ says Downer. ‘They cost more than a car. They’re very small and make no noise because the props are so light. So they don’t frighten the birds. We were able to get right in among flocks of wild birds, filming them from closer than ever before.’ 

Malcolm Beard, a scale-model-building supremo, built ‘vulture-cam’, a vulture-shaped glider made from carbon fibre, to fly with the birds. Such was its sophistication that it even had a tail like a vulture and flew like the real thing. 


‘These specialist gliders take a lot of time, money and ingenuity to build,’ says Downer, ‘so we drafted in another camera wizard to create a glider to fly with storks through the Middle East. He was concerned by the prospect of it being blown out of the sky by a missile – an airborne camera is, after all, a difficult thing to explain to the authorities.’

Common cranes above the Chateau de Chenonceau in France's Loire Valley

Common cranes above the Chateau de Chenonceau in France’s Loire Valley

Earthflight’s production not only involved revolutionary methods of filming flying birds; remarkably, it also suggested a whole new way of finding wildlife footage. It became clear that the birds knew more about animal behaviour than any human expert. 

‘In Mexico, pelicans eat fish known as grunion, which during high spring tides deliberately strand themselves ashore to mate and lay their eggs at the high-water mark. 

‘The self-beaching spectacle is over in a flash and can take place in any spot along miles of featureless beach,’ says Downer.

An African fish eagle at Victoria Falls in southern Africa

An African fish eagle at Victoria Falls in southern Africa

‘A real nightmare to film. But it soon became apparent that the hundreds of pelicans streaming purposely along the shoreline knew exactly where the grunion were massing. We simply followed the birds.


‘Similarly, in South Africa, herons and egrets know where dolphins are going to chase fish onto the beach; kelp gulls follow seals out to sea knowing that great white sharks are waiting; and gannets follow the whales, dolphins and sharks that feed on the huge migration of sardines. 

‘As we started to discover these relationships, 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. All life is entwined and animals have to understand each other in order to survive. The birds had showed us a way of seeing nature with fresh eyes.’ 

Northern gannets feeding on shoals of fish by the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth

Northern gannets feeding on shoals of fish by the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth


And if flying birds in HD sounds good, wait till you hear what’s next for wildlife fans. 

‘Earthflight 3D will be going out a year later,’ says Downer. 

‘We’re going back to shoot some additional scenes. You won’t believe how great natural history looks in 3D. The first shots we got back, seeing the birds flying out of the screen, were mind-blowing. It’s the closest you could possibly get to being a bird. Once you look over a bird’s shoulder in 3D, there’s not much left to the imagination – you’re there.’ 

The book ‘Earthflight’ by John Downer is out now, priced at £30. 

‘Earthflight’ starts on BBC1 in late December

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