Wildlife Cameraman Blog

Category Archives: Wildlife Cameraman Diary

Working with Inspirational People

Working with Inspirational People

I think it’s true to say that I work with inspirational people almost all of the time. With regard to passion for nature conservation people don’t come more inspirational than Iolo Williams. I’ve worked with Iolo for more than 5 years now. From time to time I work with other well known people too.  Earlier this year that came about in an unforeseen way. Working with inspirational people is one of the perks of my job. By the way – this post has nothing at all to do with wildlife filming!

Mentoring Young People

Back at the start of the year I was asked to take part in a project in the Swansea area of South Wales. The idea was to help a group of teenagers to make a movie about the young life of Richard Burton. In the summer the film was shown as part of a premier evening. To see those youngsters taking applause on stage for their efforts was a delight to behold, it really was. My part in the project was tiny compared to some of the other people. The main objective was a good outcome for the young people, and in most cases the project achieved that. For myself, I learned a lot too, not just about Richard Burton, but about the lives of teenagers in the 2017! And myself.

There is a link to the premiere event here.

In the movies

Working with Inspirational People
Graham Horder and Michael Sheen on location

Richard Burton was born in Pontrhydyfen, a small mining village up the Afan Valley north of Port Talbot. He then grew up in Taibach, nearer Port Talbot. What a life he had, even as a boy. One day I was out filming wildlife somewhere and my phone went. I might have been in Snowdonia, can’t remember. It was Eirwen Hopkins, leader of the project, asking if I was available to film an interview with Michael Sheen sometime soon, with some of the students in attendance.

Suffice to say, that with an incredible amount of work on the part of Eirwen, (working with inspirational people – she is one) we met Michael on the set of a new, hush hush, Netflix movie. The filming was taking place not too far from Port Talbot in a woodland.

Life Advice

Michael was about to go on set when we arrived, and although under pressure from his PA, who was actually lovely, proceeded to talk and talk. Richard Burton was an inspiration to Michael, both of them being local lads, both of them having influential mentors who helped them in their careers. Beyond that though Mr. Sheen gave the most fantastic motivational life advice interview that I’ve had the privilege to witness, and he just carried on – despite being need on set.

As is often the case I can’t help myself saying something daft in these circumstances, and offered, ‘I’m more use to filming woodpeckers than film stars.’ Which his PA thought was hilarious, saying, ‘Michael the woodpecker’. I’ll never learn.

Wildlife cameraman filming cuckoos in upland Wales

Wildlife cameraman filming cuckoos

I’m a wildlife cameraman and I have been filming cuckoos in different parts of the UK for years now.  Cuckoos are remarkable birds.  Why not learn a little more about them here.  Much of my cuckoo filming has been nest based – in fact my all time favourite shot was filmed at a reed warbler nest in Oxfordshire.  Here’s a link to the shot.  Cuckoo egg predation.

wildlife cameraman filming cuckoos in the Welsh uplands
Cuckoo territory in the Welsh uplands

 

Filming cuckoos away from a nest is quite challenging.  In the right habitat you will hear cuckoos quite commonly in April and May.  When they have just arrived back from Africa they can be a little, shall we say, ‘tamer’.  Why is this?  We can only surmise, but it’s probably because they’re hungry and exhausted.  Possibly they are also determined to stake a claim on a territory and nothing else matters. Wildlife can sometimes become blind to potential threats when it is preoccupied with breeding strategy.  As the breeding season wears on, in my experience, they become more flighty and secretive.  But that is just my experience, which is probably relatively limited.

Filming cuckoos calling

It seems a shame to have to write this without having filmed this properly.  For sure, I have filmed male cuckoos calling many times, but never to my absolute satisfaction.  As far as I’m concerned there is only one way to go about this.  In the past I have filmed this behaviour from a long way away with a telephoto lens.  Doing it this way is unsatisfactory for a couple or reasons: clarity of image is one, as heat haze was usually an issue; closeness was a second, as the shots were never true close ups.  Sound recording at such range would also have any sound recordist tearing their hair out.

Filming cuckoos calling in reed bed habitat should be relatively straightforward.  If you’re in good cuckoo territory with strongly calling males start with basic field work.  Male cuckoos will have their favourite calling posts.  Around reed beds this will almost always be a tree without foliage, or a high branch of a tree without foliage.  Cuckoos are not shy when it comes to calling posts.  Place a really well camouflaged hide as close to it as is necessary.  Wait in the hide from before sunrise and hope for the best.  Unhappily I’ve never, in the course of filming for a TV programme, had the opportunity to to this.

Upland Wales

This year we were filming for a series based in Snowdonia.  The picture above shows the territory, and over a huge area we could hear 3 male cuckoos calling.  According to our reliable contact, and my own experience bears this out, when the cuckoos first arrived back in this territory they were relatively approachable.  When we were there they were not so confiding.  Rather than having just a few ‘ideal’ perches to call from they were choosing just about any pine or spruce top that took their fancy.  It was a needle in a haystack situation.

For an hour we sat it out in a hide near what appeared to be a favoured tree, and nothing came near the tree.  Well to be honest an hour wasn’t anywhere near enough – you’re hoping for a lucky break giving it just that amount of time.  Ask any wildlife cameraman about filming cuckoos and they’ll say the same.

A little bit of luck?

We moved to another area which was similar but in a valley bottom and again there were 3 cuckoos in the vicinity.  One of them was very active, calling from different song posts and feeding on the ground.  Given time me may have established favourite song perches, but we were only there for an hour or so.  We watched it charging around its territory for a while until it approached to within filming range.  Now this is the problem with uncharacteristically lovely days in the Welsh uplands.  There was a very bad heat haze.

This cuckoo perched on the electric wires above the lane quite close to our position.  Even though I could frame a close up of the bird the heat haze wrecked the shot.  It was impossible to establish a point of sharp focus with the ambient conditions.  My guess is that we were fifty metres or so from the bird.

Next year

Next year I’ll do being a wildlife cameraman in my own time, and to a point the pressure of actually filming cuckoos will be off.  Quite where I do that around my home I’m not sure.  Cuckoos are not as common as they once were around here. There was a time when you’d even have them on quite ordinary farmland.  Here’s to next year.

 

 

 

Filming great crested grebes

Filming great crested grebes

Last week our team went out filming great crested grebes. The great crested grebe is a beautiful bird, some would even say exotic.  From a wildlife cameraman viewpoint it is a fascinating bird.

wildlife cameraman filming great crested grebes on canal
great crested grebe on canal

 

Urban location

Filming great crested grebes doesn’t have to take you far from the city.  We have been working on a series about the wildlife of cities, and when you look closely it is surprising what you can find in the most urban of environments.  This great crested grebe nest is a traditional site.  Every year for the last few years these grebes have nested on a disused canal just a short walk from the beating heart of Cardiff.  Other birds nest nearby too: coot nests are scattered up and down the canal, one famously displaying a parking ticket which the bird must have gathered up after an angry car owner threw it away.

Danger everywhere

Wildlife cameraman filming great crested grebes in Cardiff
Great crested grebe with single egg

This nest had become quite well known over the years.  In fact when we went to the site to film I bumped into a couple of photographers I recently met at Magor Marsh, so the location is hardly one of those wildlife cameraman exclusive places. Grebes aren’t particularly shy when it comes to nesting.  Grebe eggs are big and white and very attractive to a number of predators.  Over the course of a few days two of the eggs vanished.  To me they didn’t seem particularly good at keeping the remaining egg covered.  Crows, magpies, gulls, rats, herons and other species pose a threat.  The adult grebes themselves have to beware, because large pike inhabit the canal and they are quite capable of killing them.

Wildlife cameraman filming great crested grebes
Great crested grebe responds to approach of mate

We waited around long enough for the male to return to the nest whereupon a little bit of interplay took place between the paired birds. This series doesn’t offer the days of filming per sequence beloved of a wildlife cameraman.  About an hour and that was our lot, but detailed behaviour was not the point of the sequence, it was just to demonstrate how this beautiful creature can breed right in the middle of a city.

Iolo Williams – M4 relief road will plough across Gwent Levels

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Great Welsh Parks Margam Park

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Wildlife cameraman funny business

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Great Welsh Parks Series Three

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Another Exotic Filming Location

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