By Scott Ford
You can see the film, ‘Bird of Prey,’ at local charity showings, streaming through Amazon Prime, or buy your own DVD. See birdofpreymovie.com/ for more details.
You have probably seen Neil’s work without knowing it. Amazing flying shots of rare birds in their natural habitat and intimate close-ups of birds and other animals from all over the world. He takes you so deep into the world of those animals that you forget there’s even a camera there. He’s been a heavy contributor to the world of wildlife cinematography for going on five decades. His work has been featured on many networks and nature documentaries. But unless you look at the fine print or have an avid interest in wildlife photography, you might have missed knowing his name.
Such is the case with me. I learned of Neil after being consulted about a sick harpy eagle being seen by colleagues at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine a few years back. As it turned out, the eagle was one of Neil’s birds and I was soon in contact with Laura Johnson, Neil’s wife. She welcomed my husband, Colin, and I out to their farm one cold and snowy February. We had a lovely visit, getting to see the magnificent bird up close as well as their many other trained birds of prey. Laura was the perfect host since she is also a veterinarian and we were able to trade information about the medical aspects of the birds.
I had hoped to meet Neil also but he wasn’t there. Why? He was off in the Philippines finishing up his latest movie “Bird of Prey.” Actually, Laura had spent a lot of time there helping also but, lucky for us, she happened to be home. After a chilly tour around the farm we sipped tea indoors around a roaring fire and Laura showed us a trailer for “Bird of Prey.”
I was immediately touched by what I saw. If you ever seen old film footage of Philippine eagles, they’re probably Neil’s images. He was the first, and only, person to ever capture details of their nest life. The rarity of these images are due first to the rarity of the eagles. It’s estimated that there may be as few as 150 of them left in the wild. Also, as they soon learned, the birds only nest every two years and lay a single egg so finding a nest that was active was even more of a feat. Secondly, it’s extremely difficult to film them, particularly if you are trying your best not to disrupt them. Even this most recent film, with the latest technology and the assistance of local conservation groups, took years of careful work to complete. It came down to sheer determination– a passion to share this bird with the world before they disappear forever. It grew from a palpable need to tap into the overwhelmed, often apathetic, social consciousness and turn things around before these amazing birds disappear forever.
Now those grainy, but beautiful, older images were being supplemented by crystal clear digital imagery and he was piecing together a story with old and new footage that added another dimension to the story. I knew that the film was going to be a great inspiration to many. But it takes more than just feeling the need for action. At some point people need to actually take action. That trailer was contagious. I was inspired and I felt the need to act.
After our visit, Colin and I went on to photograph bald eagles wintering on the Mississippi. And all the way home, I dreamed up ways to get involved with helping Philippine eagles. Art fundraisers maybe? Or offering my medical expertise? Gathering and donating medical supplies and equipment? Or maybe financial contributions? Colin and I discussed it all the way home.
It turns out that I didn’t have to wait long to discover my most useful means of contribution. Laura contacted me a couple of weeks later and put me in touch with the Philippine Eagle Foundation, a locally-based group that has been working since the 1980s to conserve the rare bird. Their approach has included educating the public, advocating politically for the Philippine eagles and their ecosystem, treating the injured, and breeding more of them in captivity. I was consulted regarding several medical cases but one in particular stands out for reasons you will see later. The bird had survived gunshot injuries, a startlingly common problem despite the fact that the birds pose little danger to humans or livestock. I reviewed x-ray images and provided my input for medical care. I do a lot of online consulting for many different veterinarians around the world and it feels good to share my experience to help birds in far-flung places. It felt particularly amazing in this case since there are so few of these birds left in the world.
Two years later, I was pleased to see the film completed. It would still be another couple of years before the movie was released on Amazon (May of this year) and I was able to see the whole thing. Yeah, being the bird sap that I am, I pretty much cried through the whole movie. But who can’t be moved by such an awesome creature? Neil doesn’t just tell you about the Philippine eagle, he connects you to them.
The film starts by telling the story of Neil’s passion, beginning in the 1970s, to share Philippine eagles with the world. Then we’re taken to present day to show that same spark in the eye of the same man, decades later, preparing to go and film the birds again. As the story unfolds, we follow the trials of finding a nest and getting close enough to film the birds. Then we see follow the life of two pairs of Philippine eagles from two different times, building their nest and raising their chicks. Although the scenes flip back and forth between the 1970s and the 2010s, you see the same story unfolding: A man struggling to tell the story of devoted eagle parents doing the same things they’ve done for millions of years in world that, unbeknownst to them, is rapidly closing around them. Both man and bird are up against time pressures, monumental difficulties, but they only see forward. There’s no pause to get depressed or give up despite heartbreaking setbacks. They keep going despite the odds.
The movie explains that some 80% of the forest is gone from the Philippines, most of it harvested during the 70s and 80s. The pressure for this harvesting came from the worldwide market demanding tropical hardwoods for veneers and furniture. So, you see, we all share the blame. The pockets of forest that remain are under constant pressure of expanding human population and little of the harvested areas are replanted and nurtured back into forest. I posed the question as to whether there were signs that the forest can recover. Thankfully, Laura responded that, yes, indeed there are areas recovering but it could take up to a century for the forests to begin to resemble their former ecological diversity. Neil added that biological diversity and interconnectivity of the forest “islands” that are left is key for supporting strong and renewing population of eagles.
Neil, being optimistic but also pragmatic and very modest, says that his efforts at raising public awareness are only a stopgap. When he exposed the world to Philippine eagles in the 80s, he was pleased to see things gradually change for the better. That change has “bought time” and given the birds a little more room to breathe. He hopes that likewise this current movie will provide space for others to do the direct work that changes laws, heals the land, and preserves the eagles that are left. He hopes it eventually leads to lasting change so that the eagles will be around hundreds of years from now.
On a recent Saturday evening, Colin and I met up with a couple of friends near Chicago. Like us, they love birds. We had a pleasant dinner together and then went to a local screening of Bird of Prey, hosted by the Wildlife Discovery Center of Lake Forest, Illinois. Colin and I had already watched the movie but we wanted to share it with others and have someone else to discuss it with. Also, it was a fundraising opportunity with all proceeds going directly back to the Philippine Eagle Foundation. Of course, our friends loved the movie. More than that, they too looked for ways that they could help, even if it was just financial contributions to support the work already underway.
At the end of the film I found myself crying at a moment that I will never forget. Sorry, this is a mild spoiler, but it’s important to tell this story. Towards the end, Matatag (the eagle I was consulted about) is shown being cared for. I sometimes hear back from the myriads of doctors that consult with me but I almost never see images of the results. But in the film, there’s that beautiful bird, its massive brown wings and flared mop of head feathers, its wildness flashing in its stunning sapphire eyes. They capture it from its care enclosure, put a hood over its head to keep it calm, and take it on a long trip up into the mountain forest in the arms of a caretaker. At last they gather with other people on the rim of a forested canyon. The hood is removed and the bird launches into space, flapping out over massive sun-splashed trees.
The message to me was clear and made my heart soar like the freed eagle: There is hope. We all have a part to play. My contribution was simple– I sat in my cushy office and handed out advice via the Internet. But that modest contribution helped made a difference. It’s easy to become apathetic in our daily lives as we are barraged by news of the deteriorating condition of our planet and the failure of our leadership to act. But don’t forget that only 40 years ago bald eagles, California condors, and peregrine falcons balanced on the edge of oblivion. Thousands of scientists and concerned citizens brought two of those three species back and condors are slowly getting there. Habitat recovery on the scale of the Philippines will take a long, long time. And Philippine eagles have a slow reproductive cycle. And there are serious socioeconomic challenges to navigate in this rapidly developing country. So the problem is more complex and will take longer to resolve than the species conservation efforts I mentioned above. But we cannot lose hope. We can save this bird. We have to save the Philippine eagle.
If you would like to help, there are several options: