In 1980, BBC director John Downer set out to film the world from a bird's perspective for his documentary In-Flight Movie. His plan was to have a green-winged teal imprint on a willing cameraman as soon as it hatched. But as Downer was driving to deliver the egg to the cameraman, the duck hatched prematurely in his lap. By the time he reached the cameraman’s house, the duckling had firmly imprinted on Downer, and for the next six months, the director was the bird’s surrogate mother. “Wherever I went and whatever I did, the duck kept me company,” he writes in his new book, Earthflight. “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 telephone calls. In the evening, as I relaxed in front of the television, she would snuggle up to my feet. We would even go out to dinner parties together.”
Downer was not qualified to fly an ultralight, so he used a “parascender.” “The basic idea was simple but utterly terrifying,” he writes. “A parachute would be strapped to my back and I would be towed into the air by a vehicle travelling along the ground at high speed.” On the pair’s maiden flight, Downer placed the duck in a shoebox and held on as the car accelerated. When he was 200 feet in the air, Downer released the duck, and captured her first flight on film, just inches away. He was hooked.
Twenty-five years later, Downer began working on Earthflight, a six-part BBC series (see a clip below). In the photograph above, taken from the companion volume published by Firefly Books, northern gannets (Bass Rock in Scotland) return from the open sea in January to nest on the rocks. In October, young birds may fly as far away as West Africa for the winter.
See the gallery below for more photos from Downer's book.
For Earthflight, meteorologist Christian Moullec worked with birds that are not usually imprinted—common cranes, white storks, and various species of geese. To get the hatchlings comfortable enough to follow his microlight, Moullec introduced the aircraft's wing into their pen. The birds soon became used to the wing, even hiding under it for security. To get them accustomed to engine noise, Moullec “turned to the best substitute he knew of: a chainsaw. He would walk around his farm followed by a bunch of chicks, all the while revving a chainsaw.”
Here cranes fly over the Château de Chenonceau in the Loire region during their spring migration.