26/12/2009
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Filming in Yemen for BWPi: Part One

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See also Part II and Part III.

The message on the Foreign Office website was fairly explicit: "There is a high threat from terrorism in Yemen including against Western, and British, interests. We advise all nationals in Yemen to remain extra vigilant." The American site was even more cautionary: "The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the high security threat level in Yemen due to terrorist activities. The Department recommends that American citizens defer non-essential travel to Yemen."

Being half-British and half-American, I was probably on every terrorist's hit-list, but my experiences as a resident in this country over the past 18 years left me with a slightly different and much more complacent perspective. I raised both of my children in Yemen and always felt that they were safer here than in either Britain or the States. I've visited every governorate many times, often on my own, and the worst experience I ever had was a slightly surly soldier at a checkpoint who was quickly chastised by his colleagues for his rudeness. Definitely, there are places in Yemen where I wouldn't go without an armed escort, but in general I've lived the most worry-free third of my life here. I was therefore somewhat surprised when Max Whitby of BirdGuides informed me that his insurance company had made it very clear that if he travelled to Yemen to fill in a few gaps in the video coverage for BWPi Version 3.0 it would be at his own risk. I offered my services as cameraman and, though my prior experience was limited to 'handycam' home movies of my kids, Max tentatively accepted.

During a nine-hour layover at Heathrow on our return to Sana'a my wife and I took the tube to Acton Town where I visited the BirdGuides office for some quick training in the proper use of the Canon HDV 50i. My training consisted of assembling and disassembling the equipment a couple of times, focusing on an enamelled dragonfly brooch, and being given a long list of things not to do. I passed the course and Max handed over approximately £7,000's worth of video equipment and a list of some 40 target species.

Ten hours later I looked expectantly around the 'arrivals hall' at Sana'a International Airport for Mohamed, the 'fixer' from the Yemen Ministry for Water and the Environment who was supposed to smooth Max's camera through customs. Mohamed was nowhere to be found and the hard plastic camera case slid onto the baggage carousel smothered in chalked crosses, a signal that means "Search this bag!" I tried scrubbing the Xs off with a damp hankie, but the rough plastic surface retained heavy traces of chalk so I fruitlessly tried to finesse my way through customs with flattering chat. Given the sophistication of the equipment, I was informed that I needed a letter from the Ministry of Information, even though I carried a letter of support from Yemen's Minister for Water and the Environment, His Excellency Abdulrahman al Eryani. Bracing myself for a long wait I phoned Minister Al Eryani, who picked up and within minutes the camera and I were cleared.


Getting to grips with filming at Hammam Jaref. (Photo: Yousuf)

Filming was to begin on the morning of 29th August, starting with Hammam Jaref, a good site for several of Max's targets including Arabian Waxbill, Golden-winged Grosbeak and White-throated Bee-eater. I'd birded Jaref many times and the average trip-list runs to about 40 species, which is a good half-day for Yemen's mid-altitudes.

Filming birds was easy, I had been told. From the car, all one needed to do was place a camouflaged beanbag on the windowsill and nest the camera on top of it. Once the bird was in the viewfinder, then all I had to do was press 'record' and the image stabilizer would do the rest. Unfortunately, Yousuf's windows didn't go all the way down and there was a partition 1/3 of the way across the window that left me about a square foot to shoot through. The difficulty of the task was compounded by the fact that correlating the scene in the viewfinder with what I aimed the camera at was next to impossible, especially when the scene contained jumbles of rocks punctuated by nondescript scrub as it inevitably did.


More filming practice at Hammam Jaref. (Photo: Yousuf)

Out of the car, the procedure was even simpler. You simply expanded and locked the tripod, slipped the camera on the head, and plugged in the remote. Then you had to look for birds, which really was quite easy, especially at Hammam Jaref, a thermal spring at around 1500m. Once I singled out a bird to film all I had to do was approach it, level the tripod, turn on the camera, remove the lens cap, point the camera in the bird's direction, and then try to find it in the viewfinder, a process that usually took longer than the bird was willing to stay put. My initial experience as a wildlife cameraman therefore consisted of wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into. Nevertheless, I felt obligated to try to get as much usable footage as I could. That first day was punctuated by equal measures of elation and frustration. A pair of Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse foraged leisurely nearby until I had filmed them from every angle. The Rufous Bush Chat was so co-operative that stepping on it was a distinct possibility. On the other hand, the Waxbills and Grosbeaks never showed and when a pair of Amethyst Starlings perched in the sun about 20 metres away it took me so long to prepare for filming that they eventually said, "Let's go find a more competent cameraman" and flew off.


Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse (Grab: David Stanton)

The route from Hammam Jaref to Shibam/Kawkaban offers many opportunities to see, and film, Botta's (Red-breasted) Wheatears. Unfortunately, Yousuf was a bit preoccupied with a furniture deal that he had recently made and wasn't listening to my instructions: "There's another wheatear Yousuf, stop, dammit!" Though I knew we'd have plenty of other opportunities, my strategy was to try and nail as many of the targets as possible as quickly as we could. That way we'd have extra time filling in the gaps in the gaps that we were filling for BirdGuides. It seems that virtually every pile of rocks en route to Shibam was crowned with a wheatear, but between my jet lag, Yousuf's preoccupation, and the wheatears' flightiness we just couldn't co-ordinate.


View from Ahjour. (Photo: Yousuf)

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Shibam/Kawkaban is a good location for several southwest Arabian endemics, but our search was focused on Philby's Partridge, Blanford's Lark and Arabian Accentor, the latter of which is mainland Yemen's only true endemic. The strategy for Philby's is to set up near one of the many cemeteries on the Kawkaban Plateau and listen for their chuckling sounds. Partridge calls carry a long distance and can be difficult to place, so hearing one doesn't necessarily mean that you'll see it. While scanning the surrounding hills and terraces I noticed a Squacco Heron squatting next to a tombstone, and saw several Crested Larks and Botta's Wheatears, but my attention was tuned to partridge. Eventually, I heard what I was listening for and spent the next 15 minutes trying to locate the bird. In fact there were two, and I started lugging the camera in a wide arc around them. All partridges in Yemen are actively hunted so these are very wary birds, and before I got within 200 metres they flew off. One called its alarm from a high rock in the distance so I focused the camera and grabbed my 'safety shot.' The bird looked like a microbe in the viewfinder, but at least I had it. Two hours of stalking and second-guessing yielded some better shots so it was time to look for larks.


Philby's Partridge (Grab: David Stanton)

Blanford's Larks are easy to find, but difficult to film. They inhabit the sparsely vegetated stony plateau at Kawkaban and are quite difficult to spot until they engage in their courtship flights, which in typical lark fashion have them flying straight up, even in the stiffest gales, and staying there for long minutes before returning to earth where one quickly loses the bird amongst the stones. With luck, they land not far from the cameraman, but luck was not with me this morning so I spent additional hours combing the bleak landscape for larks. The strategy of filming birds involves aiming the camera set at wide angle and then zooming in on the bird. This works brilliantly for large species perched on isolated poles, but when the bird is a Blanford's Lark foraging in an endless landscape of similarly sized stones, the strategy can be frustrating beyond belief. Luck and perseverance resulted in some footage, but I vowed to come back and try again if time allowed.

A steep path drops 400 metres from Kawkaban to Shibam. Halfway down the path is intersected by a ravine where 50% of the time one can find an Arabian Accentor. An hour spent there yielded nothing so I continued down the trail to a grove of acacias where several targets — Little Rock Thrush, White-breasted White-eye, Yemen Thrush, etc. — can generally be found. African Rock Martins, another target species, nest in the pre-Islamic tombs that surround the grove but I had all but given up on this species since I had already tried filming Fan-tailed Ravens and Yellow-billed Kites in flight and failed miserably. The instructions are simple enough: "When filming birds in flight, switch autofocus off. Then find something at a similar distance to the flying birds and focus on that. Move to shoot the birds (usually starting wide and zooming in). Very carefully, try adjusting focus manually with your subject in flight, using the 'between-the-blurs technique.'" It sounds good in theory, but in practice it requires the dexterity of a musician and Olympic marksmanship. If I couldn't manage with slow, large birds such as ravens and kites, what hope did I have with a martin? This is where luck enters the story and not for the last time: I spotted a pair of martins hawking insects consistently near a small promontory. Watching the birds I noticed that they occasionally swooped down to a small ledge, where they even more occasionally perched. Investigating further, I discovered a pair of African Rock Martin fledglings waiting for their long-suffering parents to deliver a few insect morsels to their expectant gapes. Filming birds was beginning to be fun.


African Rock Martin (Grab: David Stanton)

I expanded the target list by looking for gaps in the BWPi coverage. My goal was to hit as many targets as possible with shots of both sexes, different ages, and showing a variety of behaviours. My itinerary was planned to maximize opportunities of finding the targets so our next stop was Sirhat Mahal en route to Mahwit. This dense acacia woodland with abundant figs is a favourite site for Arabian Woodpecker and routinely produces Yemen Warbler, Golden-winged Grosbeak, and a host of other interesting species. Seconds after we exited Yousuf's Land Cruiser, a woodpecker mocked us with its call. We knew that woodpeckers were reasonably common at Sirhat Mahal, but we also knew that filming them in this dense tangle of vegetation wouldn't necessarily be easy. The hunt gave us clips of Yemen Warbler, Brown Woodland Warbler, our first Arabian Waxbills, and the first of many frustrating glimpses of what was to become one of several 'bogey birds', the African Paradise Flycatcher.

Entering a grove of large acacias with at least one woodpecker nest-hole, I staked the place out while Yousuf went for his afternoon prayers in the village mosque. By the time he returned I was bored silly so I decided to pack up and return to the car. I hadn't gone 10 metres before a female woodpecker landed briefly on the tree that I had staked out. This gave me a good opportunity to fill in Yousuf on the finer points of Sod's Law.


David on the outskirts of Mahwit. (Photo: Yousuf)

Continuing to Mahwit we settled into the Mahwit Hotel, which was to serve as our base for the next three nights. Mahwit is perched on the edge of Yemen's western escarpment, which gives one access to habitats ranging from lush semi-tropical valleys to high alpine meadows. We'd identified several locations for filming with a variety of targets in mind. Wadi Qaradh below the escarpment could produce a number of interesting doves including Olive Pigeon, Bruce's Green Pigeon, Dusky Turtle Dove and Red-eyed Dove in addition to Shikra, African Grey Hornbill, and our number one bogey bird, African Paradise Flycatcher. Adh Dhabrah might produce as many as half of our targets, with Ar Rayadhi being favoured by South Arabian Wheatears, Long-billed Pipits, and Yemen Serins. We did well over the next three days, getting a couple of hours of good tape, but it wasn't without some frustrations. It took several hours to capture half a dozen clips of the Flycatcher with a combined run-time of perhaps two to three seconds.

To the west of Mahwit lies a small wood at Al Gharbi. The wood can't be more than a couple of hectares in extent and sits on a promontory above a 1000-metre drop. Yousuf thought I might like to get some flight shots of Griffon Vulture, but further frustration filming flying birds didn't tempt me (until we got there). At Al Gharbi you can hear the wind rushing through the Griffons' wings as they hurtle back to their roosts, so I changed my mind and wasted several minutes of tape trying to capture the action. When a Didric's Cuckoo made a brief appearance I changed my tack, but the bird left before I could say "Didric." A number of interesting species appeared and I was soon immersed in the little rectangular world of the viewfinder. A samamisicus Redstart was the first to grab my attention, but I found target after target. The cuckoo reappeared and as I was filming, Yousuf shouted, "David, there's a Golden-winged Grosbeak," so I shouted back, "Yousuf, I'm filming a Didric's Cuckoo, keep your eye on it!" The Cuckoo flew off so I stalked the Grosbeak, which sat for my 'safety shot' but didn't allow close approach.

A common Yemeni bird that had eluded us up to that point was Long-billed Pipit so I was chuffed when one practically stepped on my toes as I scanned the surroundings. I was quite pleased with myself for using the pan and tilt bar smoothly for a full five minutes of tight shots as the bird foraged when it finally dawned on me that the flashing red "ND" in the viewfinder was a warning. The neutral density filter was in the wrong position so the Didric's Cuckoo, Golden-winged Grosbeak, a Redstart, and the pipit had all been improperly exposed. Damn, how stupid could I be? I was eager to ferret more birds from the wood when a heavy mist rolled in and a few drops of rain fell, and the thought of $12,000 worth of borrowed video equipment short-circuiting in my hands put an end to the day's filming.


Shining Sunbird (Grab: David Stanton)

The next morning we descended about 1500 metres into the swelter of Wadi Sara. Stopping at a promising stand of Zizyphus I affixed the camera to the tripod and went for a walk. Two White-throated Bee-eaters posed elegantly on a branch about 10 metres above my head. After filming them for a couple of minutes they flew off and a Black Bush Chat took their place, cocking its tail and showing the white spots underneath to good effect. As I watched the chat flew off and a male Shining Sunbird positioned itself perfectly on the branch. Zooming in closer I was able to fill the frame with this little gem, its diagnostic crimson breast band showing brilliantly in the morning sun. A co-operative little fellow, it then did a 180 and I filmed its back. With luck like this I was beginning to think of myself as a seasoned wildlife film-maker, an arrogance that was humbled repeatedly throughout the remainder of the trip.

See also Part II and Part III.

Written by: David Stanton