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onomatopoeic phrases for the wildlife cameraman

onomatopoeic phrases for the wildlife cameraman

Onomatopoeic phrases for the wildlife cameraman – I had to look this up just to be sure that I had the right spelling – onomatopoeic. It’s a word that you only hear once in a while and hardly ever write down. But it does have some relevance to the wildlife cameraman in the field.

Imagine that you’re out in the countryside, it’s spring in the UK, and all of the migrant birds are arriving to breed. You haven’t heard some of these birds singing for at least a year so your identification skills are a bit rusty. This is where onomatopoeic phrases for the wildlife cameraman can come in handy. Lets take a really obvious one – “cuckoo” – a sound to lift the spirits and delight the heart. To be honest, if you can’t identify that one you’re probably in the wrong business. I’d suggest going to buy a clock or something just to get your ear in. That said, “cuckoo” is a good example of what I’m talking about.

Another well known example is, “a little bit of bread and no cheese.” The yellowhammer’s song can be heard over great distances, and those words do, sort of, represent the song of this beautiful little bird. There’s a clip below that I filmed in Somerset a few years ago, and beautifully described by Iolo Williams.

I was out with my wife and mum the other day when a wood pigeon started to call in a nearby tree. This is my mum speaking: “Oh, my Dad always said that it was calling – two cows for taffy, two cows for taffy.” Well that was a new one on me. I had never heard that description before, and I’d never previously heard any kind of onomatopoeic phrase for the wood pigeon call. Note though, that a wood pigeon usually starts with a 4 syllable phrase and ends with a single note – it’s not always 5 syllables.

Just a few weeks later I was working with Pete Hill, who is a reptile and amphibian expert. Again, a wood pigeon started to call in a nearby tree. “Ah!” said Pete, “Do you remember Harry Corbett and Sooty.” I must admit that I do, being the age to remember them. Harry was a puppeteer with a silent glove puppet called Sooty. They seemed to have the most extraordinary conversations. Pete continued, “Harry used to listen to Sooty with consternation on his face and declare – you’re joking sooty.”

So, “You’re joking sooty,” and, “Two cows for taffy” are indispensable onomatopoeic phrases for the wildlife cameraman. Take your pick. I think the ‘sooty’ phrase is the most unforgettable and will ultimately drive you nuts every time you hear a wood pigeon from now on. ‘Two cows for taffy’ is more personal to me, and I like to think of my grandfather out on the farm having that thought.

Just as an aside: wood pigeons come in two colours – the bold ones in your garden and the nervous ones out in the countryside. The one I filmed here was a nervous one. At the time I was filming a woodpecker from underneath camouflage netting, and the pigeon had no idea I was there. There’s a bit about the woodpecker filming here. I’ll have some updates about that soon.

When you flick through a bird identification handbook you’ll see many attempts by the authors to transform bird calls in to words. How that works in languages other than English I cannot imagine, though ‘Oui monsieur,’ would be acceptable for the collared dove. ‘Achtung‘ for a pheasant? OK, maybe not. Sometimes you’ll see, ‘silent at sea’, in the handbooks, and this is simply stating that the bird, whatever it is, doesn’t call while at sea. It doesn’t make a call that sounds like ‘silent at sea.’

  • A good place to start swotting up your bird calls
wildlife cameraman Graham Horder filming harvest mice on location
Filming harvest mice on location

Coming soon – the trials and tribulations but mostly the trials, of filming small mammals in a set on location. And a test of the Samyang 100mm macro lens.

wildlife cameraman and beyond

wildlife cameraman and beyond

Wildlife cameraman and beyond: it sounds like a bad title for a low budget movie. One day you’ll find it at the bottom of the £1 bin at Asda. You’ll be tempted to buy it for your friend, who just loves ‘those David Attenborough films’, but your friend will be so disappointed that they’ll give it to a charity shop. Then it will stay on the shelves next to a Bewitched CD until the manager finally throws it away. OK, I’m being insincere, and yet serious at the same time. Soon after starting to write this I realised that it could end up being a very negative post. On the other hand, if you’re a budding wildlife cameraman you might actually find encouragement here.

A couple of weeks ago I was having a very interesting chat with Doug Allan about new wildlife camera people coming into the business. I’ve had similar conversations with other will established camera people. There never was a true traditional path to being a wildlife cameraman; and there probably never will be. Right now there are many talented individuals graduating from wildlife film making courses, and I say good luck to them all. Is there room for the industry to accommodate all of these people? Not a chance, but with some luck, hard work, talent and persistence you might be one of the successful ones. Contacts in the industry will help you too. If you don’t have contacts, make them; you have no choice. For those of you still trying to break in I think this article on the IAWF website is still very useful.

wildlife cameraman and beyond filming in Argentina
A beach on the coast of Argentina – filming a colony of 20000 burrowing parrots

Looking ahead – wildlife cameraman and beyond. What if you do become a wildlife cameraman? What does life have in store for you? A relationship and mortgage? A solid oak mantelpiece stacked with BAFTAs, but children who hardly recognise you because you’re away so much? A book deal and an unlikely transition into the world of media celebrity? A shed full of redundant kit that you could not bear to part with and is now worth nothing. Nobody knows what life will bring, but I can guarantee that once you have a taste for being a wildlife cameraman you won’t want to do anything else.

And therein lies the problem – it’s like a drug, and getting your next fix is all that matters. You find yourself calling people you don’t know, and shuffling into conversations with strangers at media events. You’ll rewrite your CV until the person it represents is unrecognisable as you, and the 25th edit version of your show reel is still not quite right, but you ignore all advice to remove at least 25 minutes of it.

Finally, a miracle happens – you’re offered a proper job as a data wrangler, and you’re off. Of course, you’re not on a proper rate of pay, and in the excitement it’s easy to ignore the fact that low overheads and living in the UK don’t sit together comfortably in a sentence.  It’s a good job that your parents still love you otherwise you’d be homeless. But you’re going to be in South America for the next six weeks anyway so what the hell. The phone rings and the trip’s been cut to 3 weeks, and one of those weeks now clashes with another potentially amazing job. You opt for the second job, which falls through, but with a bit of tact and humble pie you climb back on board the first job, which is now just 2 weeks.

The pressure is on to succeed, to actually do something that your CV says you can. The truth is you are very good, fun to be around and willing to muck in. The trip is great, and you would have had a chance to do some operating, but the breeding season for the species that is the whole point of the shoot ends on the day that you land in South America, rendering the whole trip pointless. It’s not your fault, but it feels like it. You have no fresh material for your show reel, which remains at 30 minutes and 20 seconds.

As time passes by you come to appreciate the value of the £30k debt you accrued in doing your course. You’re qualified as a Shooting AP; you have all the skills. Again, the pay rate isn’t that good, what with budgetary cuts and all that, but the contracts are longer. You’re mum and dad still wonder when you’re going to get a proper job, and get out of the spare room, but things are looking up. All you have to do is make a brilliant job with hardly any money, which of course you do. Pigeon holes are, naturally, rife in the wildlife programme making world, and even though there are no pigeons in your series you find yourself in one. Everyone thinks you’re a shooting AP who can make diamonds from grit.

All you wanted to do as a shooting AP was play with the cameras and be out in the field. You wanted material for a classy, tight show reel and a chance of being a proper wildlife cameraman. You didn’t want all that office crap to deal with: talking to people and being nice on the phone; making coffee for colleagues that drive you nuts. You can’t decide now whether to broaden your skills base or become more specialised. You really want to be a long lens specialist, but there’s lots of competition out there and not enough work to go around.

You’re determined and you’re a survivor, and you make that leap because some of the footage you’ve shot as an AP is excellent. Getting enough work becomes even more of a challenge, but now you have a partner in life and growing responsibilities. Together you have a reasonable income and great hopes for the future, including a family. But as the work you so love becomes ever harder to come by you start to wonder whether you should have studied to be a lawyer and then you could afford to film wildlife purely as a hobby.

I’ll leave it there with my thoughts on ‘wildlife cameraman and beyond’. This rambling post represents represents some of the challenges that a wildlife cameraman will face on his or her journey. Whatever happens, it will be fun and interesting. It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle.

Another cameraman once said to me, ‘It’s not easy surviving in this bloody mad business.’ It is and it isn’t; it all depends on you. If you’re canny you might make good money, but if money is your motivation you’re probably looking at the wrong career. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t thinking about money when the photograph above was taken.


Watching Wild Life

Watching Wild Life

‘Watching Wild Life’. It’s a small point, perhaps, but you don’t see those words written quite like that any more. You’re more likely to see ‘watching wildlife.’ Wildlife cameraman, the job title, is a label, but equally, Wild Life Cameraman could be too. Is there a difference? I think there is.

A lot of what wildlife cameramen film is not actually wild at all. But ask any wildlife cameraman what they would prefer to film and it would be wild life, for sure. I’m on about the type of filming where you conceal yourself for hours, maybe days, on end. It’s the type of filming where the subject is shy, rarely seen by anyone unless they’re either very lucky or have made a huge effort. I’m not for one moment criticising the filming of subject matter that is relatively tame, because almost all wildlife filming comes with huge challenges. I’m just saying that wildlife filming as a career, becoming a wildlife cameraman, attracts a certain sort of person, there’s something feral about it. There’s some sort of connection with wild creatures deep in your spirit. Sadly, I don’t think there is so much of this filming to be had any more, unless you go out and do it for the hell of it. Sometimes it can be hell, I suppose, but it’s what we do.

watching wild life by David Stephen
Watching wild life by David Stephen

It was the title of the book above that made me ponder about wildlife versus wild life. The book was written by David Stephen, a Scottish naturalist. The link tells a little about David’s many achievements over the years.

To me this isn’t just any old book. This is the book that I picked up in Chepstow Bookshop when I was 12 or 13 years old. The shop owner must have wondered whether I would ever buy it. Every Friday, after school, I’d go in, procrastinating about spending my hard earned lawn mowing money on a small paperback. I knew that I’d get it eventually. What a little gem this book is. It’s written by someone who had been out there watching badgers, foxes, otters and whole range of wild life. I found it to be absolutely inspirational, and it’s the book that had me walking across the fields in the dark looking for badgers and goodness knows what else.


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… Continue Reading

The Spirit of the Kite

The Spirit of the Kite ‘The Spirit of the Kite’ is the first novel in a series called, ‘The Life and Times of Tudor Morgan’. Tudor Morgan is a wildlife cameraman that I created from  my wildlife filming experiences over the years.  The idea started out as a screenplay for a film.  To be honest,… Continue Reading

Iolo Williams – M4 relief road will plough across Gwent Levels

Iolo Williams – M4 relief road will plough across Gwent Levels Iolo Williams – M4 relief road will plough across Gwent Levels.  For several years the Welsh Government has threatened to drive a new motorway through the Gwent Levels.  It’s the sort of thing that governments do.  Perhaps they think that they will leave a… Continue Reading

Being a wildlife cameraman doesn’t make me sick

Being a wildlife cameraman doesn’t make me sick Being a wildlife cameraman doesn’t make me sick. It’s official.  At least, so far it hasn’t made me sick. I’m not talking about medical sickness caused by gastroenteritis or other afflictions.  I’m talking about sickness caused by motion.  It is an interesting subject and you can read… Continue Reading