Monday, 26 May 2008

Freeze Dried Food in the Arctic

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Sunday, 25 May 2008

Filming Horseshoe Crabs, Delaware Bay

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I'm currently in Delaware Bay filming for the the 10 part BBC series "Life". We are filming a sequence based on the thousands of red knots which stop here to refuel on their annual mammoth migration to the breeding grounds of the Arctic. The shear number of red knots, dunlin, sand pipers and other shorebirds that flock here is nothing less than mind-blowing and as we sit on the beach with thousands of them swishing and gliding around our heads, it is simply exhilarating. A sight made even more glorious in the red glow of the dawn sun. It's certainly a wonder that ranks high on my list of animal encounters but I must admit that it's something far less energetic and busy that has grabbed my attention. An annual event which has captivated me since a child and which out-dates even the dinosaurs.

On a few nights every year, when the moon is full and the tide is at its highest, ancient horseshoe crabs come ashore in their tens of thousands to spawn and lay their eggs in the sand. It's these eggs that the birds are feasting on, giving us two spectacles for the price of one. This mass arrival of Horseshoe crabs is a sight that goes back 450 million years, right back to the Ordovician period when we first find them in the fossil record.

As a paleontologist I have always been fascinated by the trilobites, a group which saw their last 250 million years ago. Peering into their petrified eyes I've often wondered how amazing it would be to go back and see the huge numbers and diversity of these creatures which once scuttled and swam in the ancient seas. This is my opportunity to fulfill this dream, at least in part for Horseshoe crabs are the closest living relative to the Trilobites, and this is the only place in the world where these can be observed in such large numbers. In the few days I have been in Delaware Bay I've seen more and more of these enchanting Arthropods come ashore and crawl around my feet. The scientists assure us that this is just the vanguard and if we're lucky we should see Horseshoe crabs up to our knees in one giant mass spawning frenzy. In all this activity (relatively sedate compared with the ravenous birds which eagerly gather) many of the males often get left upside down, or partially buried under the sand, stranded as the females wonder off back to sea. So as I walk along the beach I take every opportunity to rescue these abandoned males, flipping each one back over as a personal homage to the intricate fossils I have sitting in my cabinets at home.

We have over a week left to finish the sequence and things are shaping up wonderfully.

- Paul Williams, Delaware.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Wild China: Heart of the Dragon

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Wild China, BBC Two, Sun, 8.05pm
Sunday 11 May, 8.05pm rpt Saturday 17 May, 7.00pm

The improbable egg-carton hills of Southern China seem to float in a sea of glistening rice paddies. This is a landscape full of surprises. Next to peasants ploughing with buffaloes are rivers concealing dwarf alligators and giant salamanders, trained cormorants that catch fish for their masters, bats with unusual tastes and monkeys that hide in caves.

But this isn't a nature park. Almost 300 million people live here, with a tradition of eating wildlife. So what forces have shaped this remarkable landscape and how do farmers and wild creatures manage to coexist among the rocks and the rice fields?

Wild China, the BBC's new nature series, captures a vanishing world
Given the global meanderings of Attenborough and his ilk, you would imagine that there can be few parts of the planet that haven't heard the gentle footfalls of a BBC Natural History Unit camera crew. BBC Bristol, where the production arm is based, must be awash with indecipherable expenses claims picked up everywhere from the Atacama desert to the Tora Bora caves.

But there is one significant area that remains, if not entirely unvisited, then under-explored: rural China, with its remarkably diverse habitats, wildlife and lifestyles. As the BBC's stunningly shot new six-part series Wild China demonstrates, there's much about a life working in, say, the rice paddies of the Yangtze River flood plain, that hasn't changed for hundreds of years. In the wake of China's extraordinary economic expansion, however, these are landscapes likely to change rapidly over the next generation. Experts forecast that, across the next two decades, some 300 million rural Chinese will migrate to the cities in search of better-paid jobs. And all this will have a huge impact, not just on already endangered species such as the South China tiger, but also on many of the rural traditions (such as hunting with golden eagles) that Wild China features.

The attraction of capturing what may well be a fast-disappearing world certainly helped to carry the series producer, Phil Chapman, though the inevitable problems associated with shooting in an environment traditionally suspicious of foreign film crews. “China isn't yet as accessible as many other countries, so it was difficult. The local politics of filming on location there can be very complicated. But by collaborating with China Central Television, an officially sanctioned production company, we got privileged access to many of the country's most remote areas.”

Each programme looks at a different geographical area, and the Wild China team wasn't always sure what they'd find on their travels. “The sub-tropical south is a poor, and poorly researched, area, so getting precise information about what could be filmed, where and when, wasn't easy,” Chapman says. Eventually they fetched up in a remote area of Guizhou Province. “We were taken to Zhongdong cave, where it transpired we were to be lodged. Arriving as dusk fell, we were led under a wide arch beneath a huge cliff to find an entire village of 18 families housed inside the cave, including a school with six classes, plus a menagerie of cows, goats, pigs and chickens.”

Some of Chapman's most vivid memories are of the “remarkable” people he met - not the powerbrokers encountered at the many formal banquets he attended to ease the wheels of the series' production, but the characters encountered out in the provinces. People such as the rice-farming Song family, “who welcomed us into their wooden home, where swallows are encouraged to build nests in the living room”, and three cormorant fishermen on the Li River: “Mr Huang, Mr Huang, and Mr Huang.”

But it's the animals that are the show-stoppers. “Some sequences, such as images of Chiru antelopes filmed in temperatures of -30C in Tibet's Chang Tang Reserve, and male pandas scrapping over a fertile female in the Qinling Mountains, are probably genuine ‘firsts',” Chapman suggests. Other footage required specialist equipment, such as the infra-red cameras that captured a colony of bumblebee-sized bats living inside a hollow bamboo stem.

Sometimes, of course, Chapman and his team had to rely solely on that vital weapon in the armoury of the natural history film-maker - infinite patience. “Red pandas are shy, rare creatures which live in dense mountain forests and spend a lot of time in the treetops. A key to our success in filming them were the Chinese scientists, who suggested we try an area, at a more accessible altitude, where they'd been spotted during the winter. But, even so, we were able to observe them only fleetingly.”

There's a hint of regret in Chapman's voice here, and maybe even a sense of a little bit of unfinished business. Whether he will ever return to China, he is unsure. And with the Chinese economy set to become the world's largest in a couple of years, quite what the Chapmans of the future will find out in the wilds of this vast, beautiful, complex and challenging country is anyone's guess.

CBBC Orders New Natural History Series: Steve's Deadly 60

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CBBC has commissioned the BBC’s Natural History Unit to produce Steve's Deadly 60, a new wildlife series that sees presenter Steve Backshall travel to six continents to uncover some of the world’s most dangerous creatures.

Premiering in spring 2009, the 20x30-minute series will see Backshall delve into the habitats of scorpions, hunting dogs, stingrays, tiger snakes, red back spiders, kookaburras, sloth bears and giant centipedes, on a journey that will take him to South Africa, Australia, Malaysia, India, Europe and North and South America.

Wendy Darke, NHU executive producer, said: "Steve's Deadly 60 combines the best of the natural history and children's expertise to give the CBBC audience a real life, around the world, adventure and close encounters with 60 of the most deadly animals on the planet.

"Filmed in a way that makes the viewer feel a part of Steve's gang, this is true warts-and-all television, right down to an encounter with a Great White Shark with a very excited Steve and a cameraman who was seasick throughout the whole piece."

Backshall added: "I feel very passionate about wildlife and Steve's Deadly 60 gives me the chance to bring this wonderful world of animals to life for children. In the series we learn that we have nothing to fear from the majority of animals featured but in their world, even the smallest and most bizarre creature can be deadly."

1. 2.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Don't miss tonight's: NATURAL WORLD - SUPERFISH

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The billfish are the biggest, fastest, and most dangerous gamefish in the sea. All have captured Man's imagination like few other creatures, whether it's the graceful sailfish, the menacing swordfish or queen of them all, the marlin, immortalized by Hemingway in The Old Man and the Sea. Marine biologist and filmmaker Rick Rosenthal has travelled three oceans in his attempt to capture them all on film, and in doing so has become a passionate champion for these endangered yet little known ocean giants.

Filmed and Directed by Rick Rosenthal
Produced by Katya Shirokow
Series Editor Tim Martin

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Natural World “Spectacled Bears - Shadows of the Forest”

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Wednesday May 6 2008
BBC 2, 20:00–20:50
Audience: 1.6 Million, 8.2% Audience Share

Paddington Bear celebrates his 50th birthday this year, but behind the children's story is a very real creature that still lives in Deepest Darkest Peru - the Spectacled Bear. Little is known about the habits of this elusive creature, and as narrator Stephen Fry reveals, many of our assumptions were wrong.

Sam Wollaston The Guardian,
Small bears with spectacles, enormous children, miniature god-botherers: that's what's on offer today. The bears in Natural World (BBC2) are charming. Well, to begin with anyway. The spectacled bear, so called because of the markings on its face, is the only surviving bear in South America. So Paddington was one, being from darkest Peru. Now there aren't many of these elusive creatures left. They mooch about in the forests, climbing trees in search of marmalade. And when they venture up on to the high Andean plains, they put on duffle coats and Wellington boots.

What's this, though? It seems they may not eat marmalade sandwiches at all, but dead cows instead! Here's one, turning over a rotting carcass in the river, and gorging on the dead animal's belly. Eurgh. And it gets worse - it seems the lovely spectacled bear, which was always thought to be a docile vegetarian (by naturalists as well as children), doesn't just eat the cows, it kills them too. It jumps on their backs, then clumsily rips the skin from the poor animals' shoulders before dragging them off for a slow and horrible death. And it's not just cows they eat, but tapirs, too - funny snuffly things. Murderers. There goes another dream, well and truly shattered.

Actually, I think the programme's whole Paddington connection is being slightly overdone. Michael Bond, his creator, originally had his bear coming from Africa, until his editor pointed out there weren't any bears in Africa, so it was changed to Peru. But I don't think Paddington was especially modelled on spectacled bears - he didn't have the facial marking for a start, and he certainly didn't rip cows to shreds. Still, it seems to be amusing Stephen Fry, who's doing the commentary, and who seems to think he is narrating Paddington. Either that or he thinks that everyone who watches Natural World is seven years old.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Aerial Cinematography: a useful website to help you get off the ground

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In natural history television we make ample use of aerial cinematography to open up the landscapes and place the subject of our films into the context of their habitat. With a huge variety of specialist gadgets and technical bits (including mounts of all shapes and sizes, gyro-stabalisation systems and remote controlled gizmos) there are as many ways to film from the skies as there are to film on good old solid ground. With so many things to consider, and above all safety, preparing for an aerial shoot can be a bit of a headache. is a useful website covering everything from camera mounts and aircraft to crew personnel.

Video: Stephen Fry discusses the Future of Public Service Broadcasting

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Stephen Fry has delivered the second of the BBC's creative lectures on the future of public service broadcasting in the UK.

"Before I can even think to presume to dare to begin to expatiate on what sort of an organism I think the British Broadcasting Corporation should be, where I think the BBC should be going, how I think it and other British networks should be funded, what sort of programmes it should make, develop and screen and what range of pastries should be made available in its cafés and how much to the last penny it should pay its talent, before any of that, I ought I think in justice to run around the games field a couple of times puffing out a kind of “The BBC and Me” mini-biography, for like many of my age, weight and shoe size, the BBC is deeply stitched into my being and it is important for me as well as for you, to understand just how much. Only then can we judge the sense, value or otherwise of my thoughts."

Video: David Attenborough discusses the Future of Public Service Broadcasting

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Sir David Attenborough has given the first in a short series of creative lectures by leading figures from the world of broadcasting. Recorded in London on 30 April, Sir David gave his views on the future role of public service broadcasting in the UK.

Watch the video

"This lecture is about the future of public service broadcasting or, to give it today's fashionable acronym, PSB. I am saved the need to define PSB because OFCOM, in the person of its Chief Executive, Ed Richards, has defined it for us. He says it is broadcasting that aims to do four things: to increase our understanding of the world; to stimulate knowledge and learning; to reflect the cultural identity of the United Kingdom; and to ensure diversity and alternative viewpoints..."

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

WOOT: R2D2 Home Theatre, and Webcam

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Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Sir David Attenborough enters political jungle

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One of the our best-loved naturalists has taken up arms to defend the public service broadcasting ethos at the corporation, which he fears is under its greatest threat from Westminster... (Iron Ammonite digg)

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