Magnificent photography fuels a campaign to save the Earth’s rarest eagle

by Anders Gyllenhaal
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Toward the end of the full-length documentary “Bird of Prey” about the quest to save the Great Philippine Eagle, a chick followed from birth to adulthood takes off for its first flight and slowly soars high above the jungle.

A Philippine Eagle soars over the jungle. Photo by Neil Rettig. The display photo above is also by Neil Rettig.

It’s a breathtaking scene that is the crescendo of Cornell Lab of Ornithology”s first feature film. To capture that shot took six months of trudging through the jungle, fighting off swarms of insects, avoiding poisonous snakes, shimmying up giant trees and waiting days on end for the key moments to unfold.

A close-up look at the feathers that frame the Eagle’s face. Photo by Neil Rettig.

This is a remarkable creature, and its first flight drives that point home. It’s one of the largest Eagles on Earth, with a mop of feathers that frames its face and a wingspan of seven feet. But today just 400 pairs of the Great Philippine Eagle remain due to years of logging, poaching, careless development, and public indifference.  

Here’s a trailer for the documentary:

Last week Cornell released “Bird of Prey,” which is available on iTunes, Amazon and Vimeo for rent ($4.99) and purchase ($12.99) in hopes of helping save the Eagle. A portion of the proceeds from the movie, which is funded by Cornell and the Philippine Eagle Foundation, will go toward conservation efforts. 

This Eagle chick is the star of the show. Photo by Neil Rettig.

The film follows parallel campaigns on behalf of the Great Philippine Eagle. They include efforts to grow chicks in captivity, build protected areas, teach youngsters the value of conservation and deal with poaching. The central narrative follows a group of veteran documentary filmmakers who return to the Philippines four decades after an earlier film for an update on the Eagle.

The weakness in the documentary is the awkward way the stories are woven together, at times leaving the viewer confused about which track we’re watching. In its later scenes, the film delves so deeply into the legacy of corruption and destruction of forests that the narrative loses momentum.

The Great Philippine Eagle stands guard. Photo by Eric Liner.

The strength of the film, which compensates for the choppy storytelling, is the intimate footage of a pair of these magnificent Eagles raising their lone chick. As the documentary’s crew builds new platforms that get steadily nearer to the 100-foot high nest, the views grows ever-sharper until you can see the fabric of the feathers and feel as if you’re right there in the nest.

Cinematographer Neil Rettig hoists himself to the shooting platform. Photo by Eric Liner.

“Bird of Prey” is a testament to the enormous power of documentary filmmaking to provide an understanding of what endangered species are up against — and what the Earth will lose if we can’t find a way to preserve nature’s most spectacular specimens.

Click here for a lengthy report on the eagle and the documentary project, including videos and photos.  Click here to visit the film’s Facebook page, 

 

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