DVD REVIEW: WATCHING WARBLERS WEST
By Judy Fieth and Michael Male
Produced by birdfilms.com 2009
For ordering details, click here
Click here for a review on Watching Sparrows DVD
Review by Susan Wider
I’ve never seen a warbler, unless it was an accident. But after watching Judy Fieth and Michael Male’s film, WATCHING WARBLERS WEST, I can’t wait for my first real sighting.
When the DVD arrives in the mail, I chuckle at the way the word West, in the title, is printed in stylized saloon lettering. I look inside for a descriptive insert and find none, but the back cover gives me a good idea of what to expect. I will be learning about “24 species that breed west of the Great Plains and in Texas.” Well, that’s my part of the world. Why aren’t they at my feeders?
Judy Fieth begins the narration, and she welcomes me to the “music and color of warblers.” No kidding. From the opening images, I’m hooked. The photography is gorgeous. Fieth and Male give us habitat shots with excellent ambient sound for context. Then they zero in on some of the most intimate bird photography I’ve ever seen.
Fieth and Male alternate narrating, each taking one to two birds at a time, which offers nice variety. Both of their voices are easy to listen to and their articulation never sounds affected. Nothing feels rushed. The narration is well-written and concise, leaving plenty of time between phrases for a long look and a long listen with each featured bird. Cleverly, both Fieth and Male insert song samples right into their text. Describing the Yellow-breasted Chat, Fieth says, “Its large size, strange song [we hear chee-ee], and eccentric behavior, set it apart from other warblers.”
Each profile lasts several minutes and is captioned with the bird’s name. There are amazing close-ups, where details of each bird jump right out at me. I could even identify the trees or other vegetation the bird is flitting around in if I was botanist enough. Then we move to motion maps, made from NASA satellite imagery, that track each bird’s migration route, and show their breeding, resident, and winter territories.
As a musician, I’m terribly picky about sound quality, especially with something as detailed and ornamental as birdsong. The sound quality here does not disappoint. If I wanted to, I could musically notate each song based on this recording quality. And I get lots of time to listen. Each song or call segment is a lengthy sequence, not just an isolated phrase, and they are filmed so that I can even match the beak movements to the actual notes. I’m loving this. Can’t wait to see which bird comes next.
Throughout the film I learn about habitat, territory defense, which species are endangered, feeding preferences, and distinguishing markings and features. Sometimes the photography shifts to show two comparative still photos, side by side, while arrows move along each bird to highlight their differences. Unfortunately, I also learn that the warblers we do get here in New Mexico won’t be at my feeders any time soon. We’re not wooded enough at my house…
The Menu gives me plenty of useful options. I can watch the film with narration. I can also watch it with natural sound only. I try this next and it’s lovely. The birdsong is layered over an unobtrusive musical score that is very much in the background. There is also an Alphabetical Index that takes me directly to a selected bird segment. Next there’s a Chorus section that shows me close-up images of each bird singing. And at the end, in a segment called Fun With Songs, I can listen to each song at normal tempo, then slowed by half (and half again for the more complex songs), then back to normal speed. I find this feature clever, but a little frustrating. When the song is slowed down, it also drops in pitch. I’d like to hear the bird sing slowly, but in his normal register. This would make it easier to notate the songs, or to mimic them, for those birders who can imitate birdsong by singing or whistling.
Between birds 16 and 17, I take a quick detour to www.birdfilms.com, Fieth and Male’s website. I learn that the intended audience for the film is birders like me, people who love birds, and want to meet new ones all the time. The $35 price for the film puts it solidly within the range for high-quality birding DVDs.
Fieth and Male have a splendid track record in making films for National Geographic, NATURE, and the BBC, among their many other credits. But what touches me the most, is their goal of filming all the birds of the United States and Canada (and maybe even Mexico…). WATCHING WARBLERS WEST is their fourth DVD in the articulation of that goal. May they give us many more.
Susan Wider is a writer and violinist based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her magazine articles and stories have appeared in TennisView, Crow Toes Quarterly, Lighthouse Digest, and Six7*8th, among others. She is currently at work on a novel for young adults. She can be reached at SusanWider@msn.com