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Birding as Birders See It

A review by Nick Minor

The Birders: A Melodic Journey through Northern Colombia by Gregg Bleakney

WhereNext, 2019

https://tinyurl.com/y2gwr5dq

As a birder, a communicator, and more simply, a person who just loves a good story, I’m always elated to find media that succeeds at what should be a simple task: depicting birding as birders see it. This past February, a film titled The Birders: A Melodic Journey through Northern Colombia came out that beautifully demonstrates this sort of success.

But before we dive deeper into The Birders, let’s agree on some terms. After all, we could mean many things by, “birding as birders see it.” What we need is some description of the experience of birding—some boxes to check—that we could use to “test” a piece of media. Let’s give it a go: birding is an entryway to learning deeply about the natural world and our place in it. It’s a means of scratching our innate, biophilic itches. It’s an opportunity to experience new places and new cultures and to grow. It’s even a form of competition, one that’s as varied as it is intellectually stimulating. Any piece of media that depicts most if not all these qualities, at least in my book, successfully depicts birding as birders see it.

Tied together, all these qualities of birding have a profound impact on those who do it, making it a much richer, more deeply human experience than is often depicted. Just think: how often do you see media that portrays how birding helps us find ourselves through constant rediscovery of the wild world? Or how birding tethers us back into the rich community of life on earth, often connecting us with each other in the process? In these times when the living world is increasingly imperiled, it seems such an activity is a potent and necessary antidote. This is especially the case when it comes to inspiring the next generation of naturalists and conservationists. And yet, the potential for broadly impactful, naturalist-driven storytelling on any platform still seems conspicuously untapped.

Luckily, times are definitely a-changin’. And though you might not expect it, YouTube, Google’s burgeoning video content platform, might just be the key to this change.

You read that right. YouTube, once best known for cat and prank videos, has recently become a booming platform for high-quality content. With more than a billion hours of video watched per day, it is rapidly approaching the reach once only possible on TV. To match this growth, the average production value of YouTube content has exponentially skyrocketed within the past few years. Full shows and feature-length movies are now regularly debuted on YouTube, so much so that talk of YouTube shows alongside TV shows is getting more common by the day.

YouTube’s success naturally results from its volatile alchemy of a low barrier-of-entry and an immense viewership. This alchemy, which has empowered many thousands of creatives around the world, presents an unprecedented opportunity to transform perceptions of birding. In recognition of this opportunity, there have been numerous attempts to seize it even since the start of 2019. Two in particular have been subject to widespread acclaim. One is the weekly show Birds of North America, hosted by Jason Ward (check out Nate Swick’s conversation with Jason on the American Birding Podcast here). The other, of course, is The Birders, an hourlong documentary with an ambitiously high production value to boot. The latter is why we’re here, so let’s dig in.

Thanks to funding from the Colombian government (Procolombia), The Birders was borne of a partnership between Sancho BBDO world wide and the Global Creative Agency & Production Company, WhereNext. WhereNext founder and Director of The Birders, Gregg Bleakney, tapped National Geographic filmmaker Keith Ladzinski and Diego Calderón of COLOMBIA Birding as the film’s leading protagonists. Its storyline is simple: Calderón shares Colombian birds and culture with Ladzinski as they travel through sections of the Northern Colombia Birding Trail. They start in the arid habitats of South America’s northernmost peninsula, the Guajira, and then ascend into Colombia’s highest range, the Santa Marta Mountains. After two stops there, they descend into the low, coastal rainforest of Tayrona National Natural Park, and then close out the trip in the cloud forests of the Perijá mountains, the northernmost extension of the Andes.

Front and center, of course, are the birds. The film contains cleverly shot and edited footage of more than 60 species, including endemics like the Santa Marta Parakeet, Santa Marta Woodstar, and the Perijá Tapaculo. They don’t hold back on classic objectives either, like the Lance-tailed Manakin or a speciose mixed flock in a shade-grown coffee plantation. Often, footage of these birds is paired with suspenseful storytelling that aims to show viewers how difficult it was to attain. This “meta” kind of framing, where a film is about filmmakers filming the film (try saying that three times out loud), finds a natural home here. Ultimately, birding becomes the rich experience that it is through the journey more than the destination. Euphoric moments of luck and success are made that much sweeter by all the anticipation, by hours in muggy, mosquito-filled jungle, by waiting and watching with no guarantees that nature will cooperate. The meta storytelling in The Birders, illustrating the painstaking effort behind some of its footage, does an excellent job in getting this point across. It turns out that the suspense that can make birding so exciting also happens to make a good story. Who would’ve thought (read: sarcasm)?

Throughout their journey, the film also makes a point of digressing into how local, indigenous music has long been inspired by birds. This included the creation of bird-inspired original music by five Colombian artists. Almost recalling the formulaic style of Travel Channel shows, the pacing of shots in these digressions can be admittedly dizzying or even jarring compared to the pacing of the rest of the film. That said, these digressions play an important role: they add a welcome cultural flavor to their journey, and they emphasize that just looking for birds, of course, does not require that you ignore everything else. Indeed, you should celebrate whatever new experiences you can.

Early in the film, Calderón is up front about the fact that his journey with Ladzinski is unlike his work with most clients. Instead, their journey had a grand objective: to share Colombian birding with the world through professional-grade, cinematic footage. This means indulgent slow-motion close-ups, spectacular time lapses, dramatic drone shots…you name it and The Birders probably has it. And though The Birders is certainly a promotional project, it tactfully avoids being too obvious an advertisement. Rather, it simply showcases the wonders of Colombian bio- and ethnodiversity, leaving the viewer to decide whether it’s somewhere they’d like to go.

A promotional film like this comes in an important time of rebirth for Colombian ecotourism, one that the characters don’t shy away from addressing explicitly. As the duo endeavors to shoot the first ever professional footage of a Perijá Tapaculo toward the end of the film, we learn that Calderón was captured by guerrillas in the very same place fifteen years earlier. These guerrillas kept Calderón imprisoned for months, and yet, Calderón himself explains that he wanted to bring Keith there to prove something: Colombia has moved on. These bird-rich places, once shrouded in conflict, are not what they once were. Though Colombia was once famously dangerous for tourists, places like Perijá are safe once again. Ladzinski and Calderón’s success at filming the tapaculo, then, symbolizes the success of Colombia in leaving behind the harsh conflicts it was once known for.

While The Birders doesn’t hold back with lavish close-ups of exciting birdlife, I don’t think we could peg it as a traditional nature documentary. As the title indicates, this film is about people—a birding film rather than a bird film. Though certain parts—like their exploration of the Vermilion Cardinal with the Wayúu people or their deep-dive into the Lance-tailed Manakin’s courtship ritual—are informative, The Birders does not seek to instruct you about the natural world. And it’s probably not unfair to say that many experienced birders of Colombia may find its information somewhat rudimentary.

But to judge it negatively on this basis would be to misunderstand what the film sets out to do. The Birders portrays a rich, fast-paced human experience in a beautiful way. Put another way, it is an adventure film. To those aware of the vibrant world of independent adventure documentaries—including prominent standouts like recent Oscar-winner Free SoloThe Birders’s style will be familiar. It’s an approach that comes as no surprise from Keith Ladzinski. His curriculum vitae is dripping with adventuresome projects with National Geographic, a long list of outdoor gear companies, as well as his own Boulder, Colorado-based production company, 3Strings. Case in point: one of his most recent filmmaking efforts was a series largely filmed on Mt. Everest (see Episode 1 here).

Plus, if we look back at our description of birding as birders see it, it turns out that The Birders checks almost every box. In it, we watch as Ladzinski learns deeply about the natural world through a birder’s perspective. He becomes enamored with the diversity of life in Colombia, enjoys some particularly exciting species, and broadens his thinking about how biodiversity can bring us to exciting new places. We experience the scratching of biophilic itches with Calderón and with Colombian locals, and through some impressive footage of Colombian birds themselves. We experience new cultures through musical digressions, and through interviews with local townspeople who are included as an integral part of the birding experience. The only box it fails to check, understandably, is the competition box. Seeing as it’s aimed at broader audiences, the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of birding competition is likely too nitty-gritty anyway.

Overall, perhaps it’s safe to say that The Birders is not really about birds, or even really about nature. It is about experiencing birds, experiencing biodiversity, and experiencing different cultures. Though some birders may prefer less people-focused nature filmmaking, the adventure film style may be the key ingredient to The Birders’ charm for broader audiences. Even more importantly, it succeeds in depicting birding as birders see it: an adventure. What more need we ask of birding films?

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Nick Minor is an ornithologist, evolutionary ecologist, science communicator, and thinker about all things birds. After getting his start in the Chicago birding scene, Nick recently completed a Bachelor’s degree in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the University of Minnesota. There, he worked on various projects exploring the avian tree of life with Dr. Keith Barker, with whom Nick tackled questions like, “What is a species?” and “How do they originate and coexist?”. Now, Nick’s home base is Laramie, Wyoming, where, as a graduate student in Dr. Matthew Carling’s lab at the University of Wyoming, he will continue exploring these questions though studying the Lazuli x Indigo Bunting hybrid zone. Ultimately, Nick’s foremost passions are figuring out why life on earth (specifically birdlife) is so diverse, and sharing how the naturalist lifestyle is a timely antidote to 21st-century disconnection with nature.

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Birding Book and Media Reviews

Birding magazine publishes full-length versions of all its reviews on its blog. Books and media of all kinds are evaluated for potential interest level to the ABA membership and then assigned for review and edited by Frank Izaguirre. Contact him at [email protected]
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