Saturday, 30 June 2012

Close Encounters! Filming Grizzly Bears for #SecretsOfOurLivingPlanet

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'Secrets of Our Living Planet' continues on Sunday 7pm on BBC2.

This time Chris travels to North America to witness the annual miracle of the temperate forest: the destruction of its ecosystem in winter, followed by it rebuilding itself in spring. Chris marvels at the exquisite timing that is necessary in two particularly wonderful stories - the story of how the Canada lynx depends for its prey on a caterpillar high up in the canopy, and the story of why the giant trees of the north-west are dependent on bears and salmon. 

Here's my account of filming and getting close to grizzly bears in British Columbia.

On the west coast of Canada lies the Great Bear Rainforest, spreading for 70,000 square kilometres. Here, grizzly bears gather along waterways, as millions of salmon make their autumn migration upstream to spawn. This is the best time of year to see grizzly bears and certainly our best chance of filming them.

Cameraman Mark Payne-Gill and I about to fly out to the Great Bear Rainforest

The view from our 'Great Bear Nature Tours' floating lodge

Cameraman Mark Payne-Gill and I worked with local expert Tom Rivest to identify key spots for filming. We were looking for riffles, where the water was shallow enough for the salmon to spawn, and where the bears could easily catch fish.

Once we had a spot, we hid amongst the vegetation on the bank and waited. The rain poured heavily. Salmon splashed in their thousands, strenuously fighting the flow to head upstream. Some spawned amongst the riffles, whilst others, having spent their energy, simply rolled over and died. Bald eagles were making the most of the banquet, and much to our surprise - it didn’t take long for a bear to appear.

The feast arrives

A mother with three cubs cautiously approached the water’s edge, keeping a lookout for dominant male bears who would likely kill her cubs on sight.

With the coast clear, mum wasted no time and jumped straight into the river to catch fish, leaving her cubs on the bank to dig for salmon eggs. It was thrilling to be less than 40 metres away from her as she crashed powerfully through the water to chase salmon. She then greedily scoffed it right in front of us.

Bears prefer to eat the fattiest parts of the fish, the brain and the ovaries packed with eggs – giving them maximum calories per bite. This selective feeding helps them to quickly fatten up ready for hibernation. 

By consuming as much as 60,000 calories a day, the equivalent of 500 chocolate bars, grizzly bears can almost double their body weight in just a few weeks, and by my count that bear had eaten at least 20 salmon in just one session!

For every salmon she devoured, she would carry another back to the bank for her cubs. Occasionally she glanced in our direction and sniffed before taking another bite.

Mum keeps a watch out as her cubs feed on her latest catch

Bear cub takes a look up from digging for salmon eggs (there's one on his nose!)

Taking a break from fishing

It wasn’t long before an adult male approached to take over these prime fishing grounds. The danger posed by these males is a key factor in what makes bears and salmon so important to the health of the forest. The danger forces subordinate bears, and females with cubs, to leave the river and head for the safety of the trees - and as they do they take the salmon with them.

A mob of more mature bears can pose a threat to young cubs

Mum leads her cubs to the safety of the forest

After feasting on the fattiest parts of the fish, the bears dump the rest on the forest floor. So many bears feed here that an area the size of a football field can have as much as three tonnes of salmon, giving the place a distinctly fishy smell. This is when the magic happens because when the fish rots, it releases a huge amount of carbon and nitrogen into the soil, and these vital nutrients help the trees to grow.

Too close to film! We take a break as a grizzly snacks on a salmon below our hide

Over the next few days, the bears were as regular as clock-work and turned up for breakfast at around 8:30am and then again for dinner at 5pm. My guess is that they spent the middle of the day asleep, in the forest digesting.

Close encounter in the forest

During our explorations through the forest we discovered some fresh bear beds – padded down dig outs surrounded by lots of fish scraps. With the river level continuing to rise, the salmon were becoming more difficult to catch and Tom told me that the bears would start spending more time in the forest polishing off the scraps that they’d left behind.

This would be an ideal spot to get shots of bears amongst the trees but it would be dangerous to film here within the enclosed confines of the forest, and so we turned to technology.

While the bears were out fishing in the morning we snuck in and setup various motion triggered cameras. We had to act fast. Bears could be anywhere and there were around 40 in this one small valley!

Filming bears from the safety of a truck and using remote cameras

I was attaching a camera to a tree, when I heard a rustle. I thought it was Mark the cameraman until I heard a grunt. I turned around to see a large female bear less than 10 metres away and a cub close behind.

Her hungry eyes locked on me. Was I a healthy alternative to fish scraps or a threat to her cub? Either way, she was certainly surprised, and a surprised bear is a dangerous one. The hairs stuck up on the back of my neck, my heart sank. Instinct told me to run, but my training taught me that the best way to respond is to keep calm and talk to the bear. With Tom calmly standing by, I said ‘Hey bear... sorry for trespassing on your forest’.

Thankfully, the bear understood my British accent and headed back to the river. I switched the camera on and we got out of there.

The river rises

More than 15 inches of rain poured over the next few days, and the river rose by an incredible 10 metres – extreme even for the rain coast! With fresh salmon now out of reach, the bears were leaving the river’s edge and we were encountering them more and more along the forest trails.

The rising water level makes it a real challenge for bears to catch fish

We were filming a waterfall, when behind us a bear powered its way out of the undergrowth. Dripping with rain, she stood glaring amongst the damp mossy backdrop. She was less than 5 metres away and I could smell her fishy breath.

Tom did his usual calm talking, ‘Hey bear’, and Mark carried on getting the shot. By the time Mark turned around, Tom had worked his charms and all Mark saw was a big wobbling backside sauntering down the trail. Only later did I tell him just how close we had been.

The next day, we were trapped in our little floating house on the estuary. Even the access road through the forest was deep underwater. It poured with rain for seven days straight, and we barely left our cabins.

Getting Drenched in the Great Bear Rainforest

Why the forest needs the salmon

This huge volume of rain is what makes the salmon so crucial for the forest. All this water continually flushes nutrients out of the soil and into the rivers. This helps to nourish aquatic plants and salmons’ eggs but leaves the forest relatively impoverished.

Eventually the young salmon head out to sea, but when they return to spawn, the bears will be waiting. In turn, they will carry the salmon nutrients back into the forest which will help to keep the whole system in check.

Finally the rain stopped and the river level dropped, allowing the bears to continue their autumn feast and leaving us to get the footage we needed.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Rooney or Packham? Rhinos, Anteaters & Killer Moggys in #SecretsofOurLivingPlanet

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Tonight 8pm: BBC Two 'Secrets of Our Living Planet' Vs BBC One 'England vs Italy'

OK, so you'll probably be watching the football like 90% of the English population but on the other side you can discover the wonders that make the Savannah tick. Check out the clips below from tonights episode of our series 'Secrets of Our Living Planet' - and then watch the episode on iPlayer.

In this episode, Chris reveals how the world's most spectacular grasslands flourish, despite being short of one essential nutrient - nitrogen. As it turns out, the secret lies with the animals. There are the white rhinos of Kenya that create nitrogen hotspots by trimming and fertilising the grass. They are drawn to these particular points by communal toilets or 'fecal facebooks', where they meet and greet each other.

Then there are the fruit-eating maned wolves in Brazil that garden the cerrado grassland; there are the bandicoots and rat kangaroos in Australia that manage the outback and then, across the world, there are the termites. There is not much that has more protein per gram than a termite.

In the whistling acacia grasslands of Kenya, Chris reveals the amazing relationships between termites, geckos, ants, monkeys and giraffes that make these places so rich in wildlife. 

Chris Packham's Rhino Standoff

The Killer Moggy of Oz

The Giant Anteater and the Termites

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Free: Beautiful friezes of 'Secrets of Our Living Planet'

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The Open University have taken four of the extraordinary settings from 'Secrets of Our Living Planet' and illustrated some of the beautiful connections that make these ecosystems work. 

As Chris says in the show "Science is both beauty and truth" and understanding the connections is of obvious importance for the future, but there is a fascination in just looking at the natural world and marvelling at the way in which natural selection has shaped the interdependence of organisms.

Why does the gecko need the giraffe? Why does the lynx need the caterpillar and why does the giant otter need the snail? These wall friezes reveal the answer.
If you experience any problems ordering online, you can also call 0845 366 0254 (local rate) to order your booklet. You can access a PDF version here (23 MB download)

Don't forget to tune in on BBC2, Sunday 8pm for an insight into what makes the Savannah tick.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Finding and filming animals in the jungle for #SecretsofOurLivingPlanet

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It's a Jungle out there - filming in the rainforest

By Adam White, producer/ director
Originally published on the official BBC webpage

I'm proud to say that last nights episode of 'Secrets of Our Living Planet' has received incredibly positive reviews (I've posted a few at the end of this post). I just thought that you might like to read this from Adam White who produced the episode. Here's his take on filming in the jungle.

Producer Adam White
"Tell someone that you are going off to film in a rainforest and you will get envious comments of how lucky you are. They imagine all the amazing encounters with beautiful animals at every turn of the machete cleared footpath. The only people who aren’t jealous are the ones who think you are foolish and worry for you. They imagine all the horrible, dangerous animals that you will have even closer encounters with. The reality is somewhat different.

My first visit to a rainforest was over 20 years ago, and I have filmed in many of them all over the world since then. Rainforests ARE full of animals of both varieties: the amazing ones and the dangerous ones – but the truth is that neither are encountered frequently at all – certainly not in the way that frightens or fills your friends with envy. For many people, their first rainforest experience can be disappointing – where, they often ask, are all the animals? Well, they are there – but so dense is the vegetation, that it’s surprisingly difficult to see anything.

As filmmakers, this is an even bigger concern – we, after all, have to find the animals to film them! So how do we do it?

To start with you need one very particular creature – a scientist, or a researcher. These are people who spend years studying the rainforest, trying to work out how it all works. Without these people, my job would be nigh on impossible. In Panama we were helped by Bryson, a man who knows more about sloths, than sloths know about themselves. We were also joined by a bird guide so skilled that he could stop at any point on pipeline road and know exactly which of panama’s 978 species of bird held a territory in that very spot.

One of the undoubted highlights came in Malaysia where we had the privilege of joining a team of people studying Borneo’s Pygmy Elephants. Such is their dedication to their subjects that with them we were able to get within trunk swinging distance of these incredible animals. Not just that, they knew each of the animals by name and character. One especially mischievous animal had to be watched carefully while we were filming. She went by the name “Ford” – because she once crushed a car!

The other thing you need is patience. If the popular phrase Рthe patience of a saint - is to be believed then our film crews are indeed saints. With the access and the knowledge from people who study the forests we slowly started to see and film the creatures of the jungle. Slowly we came to understand how the rainforest works Рclich̩ as it may sound, it was wonderful.

After all the filming, my relationship with the rainforest changed. There was definitely less frustration, and more love for this incredible, complex and enigmatic ecosystem."


Episode one of 'Secrets of Our Living Planet' seems to have gone down really well!

The Guardian: 
Secrets of Our Living Planet (BBC2, Sunday) is a rare thing: intelligent natural history. I think people imagine they're watching serious television when they watch natural history because it's called natural history and probably has David Attenborough in it. Usually, though, it's just wallpaper, wildlife porn, cute polar bear cubs, phwoar. You rarely actually learn anything.

This time I did. I learned why there's such an amazing variety of life in the jungle. And I began to understand the complex web of connections, all dependent on each other, that makes up an ecosystem. Not bad for starters. So thank you, Chris Packham, who may just be edging ahead in the evolutionary battle to be the next Sir David.

It didn't even feel too much like homework, because there's cute stuff too – humming birds, a nice lady three-toed sloth. Plus, Chris climbs a big tall tree. He's allowed to, he's in the Amazon rainforest. It must make a nice change from Springwatch.

Packham is awfully clever, and awfully good at communicating his cleverness in a non-intimidating way... Following his success with Springwatch, he’s been allowed to go it alone and front this four-part series in which he delves through the world’s jungles, ostensibly to uncover many secrets, but really because he just loves cosying up to orang-utans.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Fast Hummingbirds, Weird Sloth & Cute Orangutan & Elephants - Secrets of Our Living Planet

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Secrets of Our Living Planet starts on Sunday at 8pm with The Emerald Band. This is the series that I made last year with producers Adam White and Gavin Maxwell. I've posted some of my favourite clips below - featuring the fast, the weird and the cute!

The Fast: Spectacular Hummingbirds

In this episode Chris travels around the emerald band that encircles our planet – the jungles. And he begins by tackling one of the biggest puzzles about the world’s rainforests: why do these places have such a bewildering variety of life, far greater than any other habitat on Earth? His quest begins Panama, where more varieties of bird have been recorded in a single day, than anywhere else on the planet - including a dazzling array of hummingbirds.

He reveals that the key to the biodiversity of the rainforests is an almost constant climate. This allows insects and everything else that gorges itself on plants, to flourish all year round. So rainforest plants are under constant attack. The result is an unrelenting arms race, in which only the weird survive. Plants with barbs and poisons for defence; mammals, like the three-toed sloth which has evolved a way to digest leaves that nothing else can digest – even if it means taking days to digest them and moving as slow as, well, as a sloth. 

The Weird: Strange Sloths

The Cute: Baby Pygmy Elephants & Orangutan

Chris travels to Borneo to see how some of the largest animals of the jungle, the orang-utan and the forest elephant are crucial in protecting this biodiversity, by spreading the precious seeds of jungle plants, far from their parent plants, to avoid attack by their predators. 

He then travels to the Amazon to witness one truly amazing web of relationships, centred around the Brazil nut tree. The ecosystem of this tree is too complex for it to be cultivated, so if you’ve ever eaten a Brazil nut, you too, are dependent on its ecosystem. It involves a small rodent, called an agouti, which the tree needs to disperse and plant its nuts, and a rare orchid which attracts a rare male bee, which in turn attracts a female, the only creature capable of pollinating the very fussy Brazil nut flower.

Chris Packham with an agouti and the seed of a brazil nut tree (BBC / Adam White)

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Flattered! Paintings of my Goshawk & Racoon photos. Anyone fancy painting a Jaguar?

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I'm flattered to have had two of my photographs on Flickr be used as the basis for paintings recently. I wanted to share these with you as I think they're wonderful.

Jaguar Challenge!

If anyone needs an image to work from then I would love to see one my Jaguar photographs be used. I think that they're one of the most beautiful animals in the world. (More Jaguar photo's here - take your pic!)

Jaguar relaxing in the shade

Goshawk in flight

Here's a beautiful watercolour of a Goshawk in flight by RColdBreath, based on a photograph that I took whilst filming 'Animals Guide to Britain'. Watch the clip and see more photo's here.

Racoon in a tree

Racoon in Acrylic by LittleArtist3, based on a photograph that I took whilst filming in Arizona.


Friday, 8 June 2012

Bizarre relationships - see How Life Works in 'Secrets of Our Living Planet'

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Bizarre relationships – New science
Ten million species live on Planet Earth
Each one is incredible
Yet none can live by itself

BBC Two,  8pm Sunday 17 June 2012

This is the series that I made last year with producers Adam White and Gavin Maxwell. Presented by Chris Packham it was originally called 'How Life Works', but it has now been bestowed with the grander title of 'Secrets of Our Living Planet'. 

Across four episodes, Chris reveals the hidden wonder of the creatures that we share the planet with. The intricate, clever and bizarre connections between the species, without which, life just could not survive. For years the BBC has brought you amazing spectacle and intimate animal behaviour but now we're tying it all together. At its heart this is a series about ecology, and (forgive the Sci-fi reference) the 'force' that unites all life on earth.

"Understanding nature is not about knowing why birds sing, why bees buzz or why fish swirl in silvery shoals . Its about being able to see the bigger picture, being able to see how all life is connected and by unravelling the stories that link species its also about developing a deeper more profound appreciation of life." - Chris Packham

This series reveals unexpected relationships, like why the giant otter needs a snail, why the tiger needs a crab or why a gecko needs a giraffe. Each week Chris visits one of our planet's most vital and spectacular habitats and dissects it, to reveal the secrets of how our living planet works.

Filmed for the first time a two week old wild baby lynx in its den. In episode 3, 'Seasonal Forests', Chris Packham visits the forests of Maine to understand why this baby lynx needs a caterpillar. (Paul Williams/BBC)

In episode 3 'Seasonal Forests', Chris visits British Columbia to explore how grizzly bears help a fish to save a forest. (Paul Williams/BBC)

In episode 4 'Waterworlds' Chris visits the Pantanal of Brazil to understand why the Giant Otter needs the snail. (Paul Williams/BBC) 

In episode 2, 'Secret of the Savanna' Chris gets up close to a giant anteater to uncover the importance of having a regular source of nitrogen. (Adam White/BBC)

"I think that some people may have their belief stretched by some of our stories. They are so, so remarkable that they may initially feel we have exaggerated them , even made them up. But they are all true and all remarkably beautiful."- Chris Packham

Episode 1: The Emerald Band

In the first episode, The Emerald Band, Chris weaves a spellbinding account of how the very special conditions that exist in the rainforest have allowed vast colourful communities of animals and plants to evolve. And he reveals one particularly extraordinary web of life centred on a tree, the Brazil nut tree. It is one of the mightiest trees in the Amazon but it can only survive thanks to a little rodent called an agouti, an orchid and a very unusual bee.

"'Really , No ! . . . Wow !' is how I'd like people to react to How Nature Works . Not only to each of the remarkable stories which wind through our series but to the revelations which together they unfold." 

Chris Packham with a three-toed sloth, Panama (Adam White/BBC)

Chris Packham with hummingbird. Panama (Adam White/BBC)