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Adventures in Photographing England’s Urban Wildlife | Nat Geo Live

January 7, 2020


I’m always trying to
look for flagship species, talismans to represent
whole ecosystems. If you wanna
photograph the Arctic, you photograph polar bears. If you wanna photograph
Africa, you photograph lions. Well, you can have a wildlife
experience in a city, in the urban jungle that is
just as wild, just as crazy as anywhere else. (applause) So my job is basically
to dress up like this. I guess some of you are
sitting there wondering why on earth National
Geographic has got some young whippersnapper who
can barely grow facial hair to come give you a talk. And that is a perfectly
valid question. The state of my facial hair, is, quite frankly, embarrassing. So I guess I’ll start from
the beginning to kind of set things into context. This is me when I was two
with my older brother Tom, and as you can see, I wasn’t
always interested in wildlife. Tom is holding an
alligator in his hand and I wasn’t that fussed. My mum used to make me
and my three brothers wear matching
outfits on days out. The outfits didn’t
get much better. (audience laughs) 10 years after this
picture was taken, I was still up to no good,
the only difference was, now I had a camera in my hand. And everyone at high school
thought I was a total freak because in any moment of
spare time, I’d run down away from class or sports
practice or whatever to jump in the little river
that ran past my school and take pictures of
the friendly swans or the not so friendly pike. Now they’re awesome
animals and this whole time I was teaching myself
by trial and error how to get close
to these animals. Once I thought I’d mastered
getting close to one animal, I’d apply that to a new one. I was just totally obsessed. Now I got my first
break when I was 17. I was selected to be
part of this project, the 2020 vision project. Now put simply, this
project brought together the UK’s top 20
wildlife photographers, and 20 young photographers. I was lucky enough
to get selected as
one of those young guys, and our job was basically
to go around the UK and prove that British
wildlife is not (bleep). That was our job. Now, I thought I’d drawn
the short straw because while some of my colleagues,
they were getting to dive with seals off
the coast of Devon, this is Alex Mustard. He was actually my
mentor on the project. While Andy Rouse was getting
to sneak up on wild boar in the forest of Dean. Pete Cairns was getting to
photograph ospreys diving into the lochs of the
highlands of Scotland, while I was tasked
with urban wildlife, so I thought I was stuck
with pigeons and rats. But I was wrong. I found out that you can
have a wildlife experience in a city in the urban
jungle that is just as wild, just as crazy as anywhere else. And I found that the closer
you look, the more you see. So everything down
to the small stuff, this is a great tit. You can see that green
thing in its mouth, that’s a caterpillar. Well in that little
hole it has three chicks inside a nest. You know the closer you
look, the more you find. And, you know,
I’m always trying to look
for flagship species, talismans to represent
whole ecosystems. If you wanna photograph
the Arctic, well, you photograph polar bears. If you wanna photograph
Africa, represent Africa, you photograph lions. Well in the city, you just have to
look a little closer. If you get close enough
to the grey squirrel, you find out its got
buckets full of charisma. But it’s not just the small
stuff, it’s the big stuff too. Now these are two rutting
red deer, similar to your North American elk, and
every year in October during the annual rut, they
basically fight each other for breeding rights. It’s this crazy, wild thing. And you might think that red
deer, you only see them fight in the wildest corner of the
UK or in the wilder parts of Europe. Well these two are
rutting three miles from the very center of London. It’s pretty crazy. So where are we? Okay, we’re gonna zoom in. This is London. Now I was in Richmond Park
for that rutting episode down at the bottom left. And just like I
would with a wilder place, I built up a map of all
the different places that I could find and
photograph wildlife, and there’s just wildlife
absolutely everywhere. It was really, really cool. Now I’m particularly
grateful for this project because I discovered
what is now my favorite animal. The peregrine falcon. Now, there’s a few
reasons why peregrines are my favorite animal. Firstly, they’re the
fastest animal on earth. That’s pretty cool. They can dive at speeds of
up to 180 miles per hour. But that’s nothing. What really gets
me is that they are a pigeon killing machine.
(audience laughs) it’s just epic to watch. So here you can see an
adult female with a pigeon that is just nailed, and the
browner bird is a juvenile. They start off brown and then
get the adult plumage after a year or so. Peregrines are a real
good news story in the UK, because when I was born in
1993, seeing a peregrine was a really rare event. A fleeting glimpse at an
estuary in Devon or something was about as good as it got. Whereas now they’re doing
really well all across the UK, particularly in cities. Now the reason they do well
in cities is because firstly, there’s lots of food,
as you all know. Cities are packed
full of pigeons. So this is a female having a
stretch of her tail feathers before she goes off and
smashes another pigeon. Just limbering up. Now the other reason that
they do really well in cities is because the ledges and
knobbles, particularly of the older buildings are
very similar to their natural cliff homes. So these two chicks are
in a nest 25 stories up. A really ominous looking
concrete tower block. Again, right in the
center of London. These aren’t migrants, they’re
not temporary visitors, they are resident. They are urban birds. Now Cannon saw some of the
pictures that I was taking on this project and very
kindly lent me some gear, so I was getting to play
with some big boys’ toys. Now it’s amazing the amount
of trouble you can get in walking around a city
with a lens like that. I had one episode, that
wasn’t my finest moment. I had this position, this
location where I’d stand on a main road on the
pavement on the sidewalk to photograph this
nest, peregrine nest. And miles in the distance,
in the background, was this huge tower block. It was an apartment block. And one day, this woman in
a car came screeching up, stopped next to me, got out of
her car, marched over to me, and said, “Can you please
stop taking pictures of me “getting changed through
my bedroom window?” (audience laughs) Now how do you react to that? Back then, I wasn’t very
good at dealing with these awkward situations. So I said, “Don’t
flatter yourself.” (audience laughs) Just a teenage kid trying to
photograph some peregrines, leave me alone. As you can imagine, that didn’t
go down particularly well. So I followed one particular
pair of peregrines that live in Bristol,
which is a city in the southwest of England. And I’m not normally
one to name wild animals but when something
like this happens, it’s quite difficult not to. (audience laughs) So this is the
chick on the right. The browner bird,
he’s called Sam. And this is the
female on the left, and you can see the female is
about a third bigger than Sam. And that’s not because she’s
an adult and he’s a chick, it’s because she’s a
female and he’s a male. Female peregrines are about a
third bigger than the males. Now things were looking
really good for Sam, because his parents
were awesome hunters. They were catching pigeons
like there’s no tomorrow. They’d bring ’em in,
he’d then wolf it down and screech at them to
go and get another one. He was also exercising
and stretching his wings, ready for his maiden
voyage, his first flight. His voyage into the sky. Now this is where things went
a little bit pear-shaped. This is where the fairy
tale ends, I’m afraid. So Sam took his first flight,
he jumped off that building, and some gulls saw him and
they mobbed him down into the river which ran
below the nest building. Now this was a city. If it had been in a normal
river in a wilder place, peregrines are actually
quite good swimmers. They can kinda flap their wings and get them over to the edge. But this was a city so
either bank was a six foot high vertical concrete bank, so
there was absolutely no way he was gonna get
out of the river. He’d also, being a wild
animal, chosen the one day in an entire month when
I wasn’t standing on the main road, on the
bridge there to see him. Fortunately though, spending
all that time on the bridge had attracted quite
a lot of attention, particularly from two builders
who worked on a building site next door to the nest
building, and they saw Sam get mobbed down into the river
and they grabbed an umbrella and they ran over to help. And they climbed down
on the ladder on the concrete river bank and
leaned off the ladder into the river and
tried to scoop Sam up out the river with an umbrella. Unfortunately, Sam was a
little bit too far away. So one of the builders had
the idea of taking bricks. You know, it’s a building
site, lots of bricks. And they threw them over
the top of Sam’s head to create a wave, a
splash that would wash Sam back towards him. Now when they told me
this story afterwards, I was like, “Guys, I don’t know
if this is genius or crazy.” “You threw bricks over
a protected species.” But it worked, they got Sam out. Yeah, but no. By the time they got Sam
out, it wasn’t looking good, he was pretty much
dead, he wasn’t moving, and the Bristol peregrine
expert Ed Drewitt was called to the scene,
and he decided the best plan of action would be to dry
Sam off, take him home, and see what happened. Both Ed and I thought Sam
wasn’t gonna survive the night. But Sam is no
ordinary peregrine. Oh no. Oh no. In the morning, he
was fighting fit. And we decided to release him. Now on that month I had on
that road had also attracted attention from a
couple of lawyers. They had an office
building really close to the nest building and they
said that we could release Sam on their roof. So walking into an
office, lawyer’s office, full of suited and booted
lawyers with a bird of prey in a towel in your hands does
get you some funny looks, but it had to be done. We got Sam up onto the roof,
and you can see that blue band and the metal silver
band on his ankle. We put them on so that we
can track his movements. What scientists are finding
is that these urban peregrines aren’t tied to the city. The chicks disperse
all over the place. And vice versa. If a chick is born in a wilder
place like on the coast, they can come back
into the city. Shows how adaptable they are. It’s not genetic, it’s
a behavioral thing, which is really
cool they can adapt. Three minutes later,
he took flight. And bearing in mind how
his first flight had gone, our hearts were in our mouths. What was gonna happen? But he made it back to the
nest building, woo hoo. And just two days after this
near drowning experience, I saw him flying high
alongside here the adult female who again has got a pigeon. Now this is how the adults
teach the youngsters to hunt. They’ll kill or disable a pigeon
and then let the youngster come up from underneath,
take it off of him so they can practice
flying with weight. Only problem was,
Sam was just rubbish at flying with pigeons. It’s like, come on,
dude, up your game. Now just after I took this
picture, Sam dropped the pigeon, of course he did. He’s an idiot. (audience laughs) Now the problem with
dropping a pigeon in a city is that it tends to
land on someone’s head. And of all the places he could
have dropped that pigeon, he dropped it in
between two tables in the outside restaurant
of the Marriott Hotel. So you can imagine the look
on these people’s faces when they’re halfway
through their main course, and this blood covered beheaded
pigeon lands next to them. This was a really cool
wildlife experience, but the thing that
I love most about it was how it brought
together so many people from so many
different backgrounds. We had the builders, the
suited and booted lawyers, and all these passers by that
would walk on this main road that showed such a keen
interest in these peregrines. Perhaps most promising was that
parents who they themselves admitted to having little
interest in nature were bringing their
kids down to watch Sam and his mom and dad in action, and I think that’s the
power of urban wildlife. Most of us will never
see a polar bear, will never see a lion. Modern day society is so
disconnected from nature. Urban wildlife provides a
bit of a bridge to that gap, so please get out and see
what wildlife you can find if you live in a city.

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