Bill Oddie: Creative camera work

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In the good old days, you had to be much more inventive when filming wildlife...

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Illustration by Eric Smith

In the good old days, you had to be much more inventive when filming wildlife...

Picture a small, suburban lawn. In the middle stands the trunk of a once-grand tree that has had all of its branches removed on the grounds that it is beyond saving. Its remains are riddled with cracks, crevices and holes.

One hole, only a couple of metres above the ground, is particularly conspicuous. If it were higher up, in a bigger tree, it would belong to a woodpecker. But not this one, surely?

At which point, we hear the impatient ‘tchek tchek’ of an adult great spotted heralding his return to the hole, greeted by the frantic squeaking of the fledglings inside. What a set-up – a filming opportunity if ever there was one.

Just a tiny problem – how do you get pictures from inside the tree?

First, find a man with a steady hand and an electric saw. Slice a sliver of wood off the back of the trunk, thus exposing the nest chamber and the fledglings. Replace the sliver with a pane of clear glass and erect a canvas hide at the back of the tree for the cameraman to work in.

Finally, retire to the kitchen and enjoy a cup of tea with Enid, the lady of the house, while waiting for ‘Woody’ and ‘Winnie’ to return.

Innovative thinking

You might have thought that all this activity would have unsettled the birds, but nothing was going to stop them from tending three chicks that were so young they were neither ‘great’ nor ‘spotted’ – nor, indeed, even slightly feathered.

As the days passed, they grew bigger and their plumage changed from baby grey to adult black and white. The only colour in the scene was the yellowish glow of the cameraman’s lamp through the glass, towards which the chicks duly directed their rumps.

Birds that nest in the dark defecate towards the nearest light, which is usually the entrance. But in this case the cameraman had to do a lot of wiping. Nevertheless, he got some fabulous, arguably historic, footage.

Bird in the Nest

If you don’t remember, Woody and Winnie Woodpecker featured on a series called Bird in the Nest, which was broadcast live in 1994 and 1995. The presenters were Peter Holden (from the RSPB) and myself, and among the cameramen were Charlie Hamilton James and Simon King.

Modern-day equivalents of Bird in the Nest use minuscule cameras that can be inserted into holes and burrows, and are bound by strict rules of non-interference. Back in the mid-1990s, however, filming nesting birds was achieved by whatever disconcertingly ingenious means were necessary.

A nestbox containing a great tit family, for example, was removed from a tree, transported across the garden and relocated to the side of a shed that had been erected for the purpose.

Simon King managed to get some extraordinary footage of a kingfisher brood by digging into their bank-side nest. However, as related in a previous issue of BBC Wildlife (‘Flights, camera, action’, May), through no fault of the film crew, the chicks sadly died.

Woeful Woody

Misfortune also befell Woody. His regular circuit involved crossing a busy road nearby, and his undulating woodpecker flight meant that he was in danger of becoming roadkill.

One day, the inevitable happened. A lorry driver came to see us and confessed, “I’ve just run over your woodpecker.” We tried to console him by saying that it might not be Woody. But the bird was never seen again.

Peter and I wondered on camera whether we should provide extra food for Winnie and her brood. These days the question would have been more literal: “Shall we save them by putting out mealworms? Or let nature take its course? You decide!”

A bowl was duly placed below the nesthole, the family survived and the viewers rejoiced, just as they had wept for the kingfishers.

Bird in the Nest was dubbed “an avian soap opera” and accolades were bestowed on the BBC by the national press. But I can’t help thinking: it’s a good job they didn’t find out how some of it was done.

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Former Goodie Bill Oddie, OBE has presented natural-history programmes for the BBC for well over 10 years, some of them serious and some of them silly. This column is a bit of both.