Business, Economics and Jobs

Bird steals a BBC camera, films incredible aerials of a penguin colony


The emperor penguin named "Happy Feet" stands in his container aboard NIWA's research vessel Tangaroa, at Burnham Wharf on August 29, 2011 in Wellington, New Zealand.


Hagen Hopkins

Wildlife filmmaker John Downer and his crew spent 8 months infiltrating penguin colonies for the 2013 BBC documentary mini-series, “Penguins — Spy in the Huddle.” How did they accomplish this, you ask? By deploying 50 spycams cleverly disguised as rocks, snowballs, eggs and yes — animatronic, lifesize penguins.

The film crew recorded 1,000 hours of penguin behavior spanning Emperor Penguins in the Antarctic, Rockhopper Penguins in the Falkland Islands and small, shy Humboldt Penguins in Peru's Atacama Desert. (Let's see: squee times three, times 1,000 hours. Squee thousand? Check my math).

First, you haven't really lived until you've seen a Cyborg Penguin glide up to a colony like it's no big deal — "Hey, you know how I'm always on my belly, not really doing or saying much? Ignore that and let's go waddle to our distant breeding grounds."

Second — and here’s the insane part — some of the best footage was actually captured by a striated caracara, also known as a "Johnny Rook" in the Falkland Islands. This falcon species really likes to eat penguin eggs. The caracara saw a delicious egg just lying there, for crying out loud, and decided to fly away with it.

Only it turned out to be a BBC eggcam, producing “the first aerial of a penguin colony shot by a live bird.” It's as glorious as it sounds.

Over time the spycams were eventually accepted into the penguin colonies, as the following incidents suggest:

  • Rockhopper courting penguincam, and jealous mate beating it up.
  • Adopting an eggcam – this happened several times with both emperors and rockhoppers adults who had lost their chicks
  • Rockhoppers taking a ride on rockcam. Also rockcam helping the rockhoppers return to the sea.

But the work also carried some significant risks to the equipment:

  • Penguincam beaten up by a rockhopper and has its head taken off.
  • Penguincam also had legs broken twice when knocked off cliff by rockhoppers.
  • Flipper ripped off by an albatross.
  • Underwater penguincam attacked by sea lions – took off another flipper.
  • 3 eggcams lost in blizzard.
  • 2 eggcams taken by caracaras who flew off with them, never to return.

To learn more about the documentary, visit the BBC, the BBC's YouTube channel (if you're in the UK), or John Downer Productions. And don’t forget to watch this blooper clip: