Natural History

Interview With the Series Producer

posted: 04/25/13
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North America: A World In One Continent by Huw Cordey, Series Producer for North America

HUW CORDEY is the series producer for North America and author of the companion book, North America: A World in One Continent.

What is one fact about North America that amazes you?

It's difficult to stick to one thing, so here are a few.

1. Dogs, camels and horses all evolved in North America — would be hard to imagine human development without these groups of animals.

2. North America is the only continent without an east-west mountain range. This one geological fact has a huge impact on the natural history story of the continent because it means there's nothing to stop the cold air from the arctic mixing with the warm air of the Gulf. It's why 90% of the world's tornadoes occur in North America; why Florida, which is on the same latitude as Libya, occasionally freezes; and why the continent sees such massive migrations of animals — for example, pretty much every turkey vulture, broad-winged hawk and Swainson's hawk leaves the continent in September/October.

3. The Americas were the last continents to be inhabited by people (leaving aside the unlivable Antarctic of course!)

4. North America was a separate continent until 3 or so million years ago — a blink in the eye in geological time.

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An iguana snatches up an olive ridley sea turtle during an arribada on the beaches of Costa Rica.

What was your very favorite day of shooting the North America series?

My favorite day would have to be one where everything worked out as planned — or, even better, when things exceeded expectations! Naturally, there's a lot of waiting around in this game — lots of patience needed — and plenty of occasions when things don't go as planned. Animals, sadly, rarely read scripts.

Filming in Santa Rosa National Park in Costa Rica, our aim was to film the arribada, the mass synchronous nesting of olive ridley sea turtles. This duly happened but on the second day of the shoot — before the adults came on shore — we had a mass hatching of baby turtles from an arribada two months previously.

We had expected an emergence but the scale of the hatching was just amazing. Over three days we estimated over a million hatchling turtles emerged. Most of the hatchlings emerge at night, when they're safer from predators, but a good hour after sunrise there were still tens of thousands of hatchlings making their way across the sand to the sea.

On the first morning, low tide happened at sunrise so they had further to go. Everywhere you looked there were little turtles moving in waves across the flat sands. This was a memorable sight on its own, but what made it even more of a spectacle were the predators that suddenly appeared to make the most of them.

There were frigate birds swooping down and snatching them both off the sand and in the water, iguanas taking them, vultures, crabs — we even filmed a large (3 meter) American crocodile snatching hatchlings as they tried to swim out to sea (this could have been a first in terms of filming — at least I haven't seen any footage of this before).

It was like a scene from Saving Private Ryan. It was also a poignant scene (you can't help wanting the hatchlings to make it to the sea safely) — but definitely nature at its most powerful and impressive.

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The paw prints of a nighttime visitor: a polar bear that nearly wrecked the crew's helicopter.

Were you or your crew ever in danger during filming?

People often ask this question and expect us to talk about dangerous encounters with wild animals, but this is rare. The animals we film are quite often dangerous, but our work involves reading animals — not putting oneself in a situation that could be hazardous. People who are killed or injured by animals end up that way because they don't know what they're doing. They walk up to a bull bison, for example. They wear inappropriate clothing around venomous animals. Etc., etc. This, of course, is not always the case, but more often that not.

However, having said that, I did have what could have been a very dangerous — and potentially fatal — encounter with a polar bear in Labrador!

During the first night of the shoot in a very remote part of Labrador, a polar bear tried to break into our cabin. At the time, we didn't know it was a polar bear as no one had sighted one in this region for 20 years but, during the night, it launched itself at the door twice when we were all in the cabin.

The door held firm but it could have been very different if one of our team hadn't fixed up the bolts on the door of the cabin on arrival. After it gave up with the cabin, it broke into the helicopter we'd arrived in, popped out two of the windows, broke the pilot's seat, pulled some of the cushions out and leaned heavily against the back prop, breaking the chock holding it in place.

We also had some potentially dangerous encounters filming North America's extreme weather. A team filmed in the middle of hurricane Irene, one of the largest hurricanes to hit the eastern seaboard in a decade.

And we had some interesting — and mildly terrifying! — experiences filming tornadoes in the Midwest. During the filming we lost two windshields to hail and, twice, were caught in such heavy rain that we could barely see the front of our vehicle while we were driving. One super-cell we filmed killed several people and destroyed many buildings.

Another team filming glow worms — the least threatening animals around! — were almost caught up in a massive tornado that pretty much wiped out two small towns on either side of where they were staying.

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A male Calliope hummingbird with throat feathers that resemble a flower when spread.
Barrie Britton

What animal or animal behavior do you think will surprise viewers the most?

Hard to pick out one thing in particular — as I hope they'll be surprised by quite a lot. But, I think perhaps the migration of the spinner sharks along the Florida coastline. This blew me away — not just in terms of numbers (thousands of sharks make this journey each year) but in the proximity of the migration to the beach, where lots of people are swimming.

Which animal from the North America series are you most impressed by and why?

Again, it's difficult to pick just one out, but it's hard not to be impressed with the little Calliope hummingbird, which, every year, flies 2,500 miles from Mexico to Montana/Wyoming.

At three inches long, it's one of the smallest migrating birds on the planet. When it arrives, it has to defend its patch of flowers from other hummingbirds, which it does in high-speed dog fights. Then, it needs to attract a mate and it does this by spreading out its brightly colored throat feathers. The throat feathers, or gorget, look like a flower and the females appear to try and drink nectar from it. Very impressive stuff when shot in super slow motion!

What is one North American location or landscape that everyone must see?

One location... that's just too hard! I can think of loads. However, if I beat it down to a few I would say:

Badlands National Park in South Dakota. An other worldly place of eroded sandstone and table lands of prairies. There isn't much of the Great Plains left intact, but here you can see a glimpse of the past along with its wildlife &mdah; prairie dogs, bison, bobcats, coyotes, golden eagles, etc. Brilliant place!

I also love the deserts of Utah; the Grand Canyon is hard to beat; and the Sonoran Desert with its stands of saguaro cactus is beautiful. Oh and Labrador... what a wild and unspoilt place!

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Bobcats have elegant pointed ears, like their relative, the lynx. They are fierce hunters and can kill prey bigger than themselves, pouncing up to 10 feet (3 m).
Nick Lyon/Wild Horizons

Describe what it was like working on this project, including writing the companion book.

Getting to know a region of the world is always a privilege and North America was no exception. Working in this genre of wildlife television means you really get time to be ambitious — to record new behavior and tell unfamiliar stories.

North America is a wonderfully diverse and varied continent, and, when it comes to the United States of America, with probably the best national park system on the planet. It's too big for any one person to see it all in the time we had to film, but as a team we covered every corner of this exciting continent. The aim was to produce a "definitive" natural history series on North America and I'd like to think that all those involved with the series achieved just that. The book is one important element in that body of work.

What's in store for people who purchase the North America book?

Natural history books can often read a little dry so I was keen that this one had more of our stories from the filming. There are plenty of facts and popular science but I'm hoping the team's personal accounts will really bring it to life and make it a more interesting read.

Obviously, there's only so much information you can get across in a television series so the book will give the reader just more detail. Finally — and this is hopefully be what will attract people thinking of buying the book in the first place — the publication has loads of great photos! Pictures of the continent's iconic wildlife and wild places and behind-the-scenes pictures of the team in action.

What do the North America book and series ultimately say about our continent?

Phew — the first straightforward question! What the series and book says about North America is that the continent has staggering variety and diversity. I don't think there's another continent that's quite as blessed in its range of habitats — it has them all from deserts to rainforests, dramatic coastlines to towering mountains.

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