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Making a nature film

Spree's wildlife writer stars in a series of birding films

Mike Noonan

WATCH the entire Birds of the Niagara Frontier series here.


I’ve known Mike Noonan for many years. We served together on the Friends of Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge board and got to know one another better when we both attended a national wildlife conference in West Virginia. Over those years, I came to realize that Noonan is a quite remarkable person. Before retiring, he was an outstanding classroom teacher at Canisius College and led groups of students to distant places—sites in Alaska, Africa, and India—to observe and film wildlife. The educational films he produced with his students from those trips can be accessed on the conservenature.org website. They are about such diverse topics as clean water, elephants, forests, and chimpanzees.


Knowing that Mike was planning to retire, I suggested that we work together on another wildlife project. Earlier, we had developed a series of posters that illustrated wildlife along the refuge trails for the Iroquois Friends group. I was thinking of a journal article about some aspect of nature, but Mike had a different idea. “I know what we can do,” he said. “Most of my filming has been about exotic places. Let’s work together on a film about the birds of this area. We’ll do a series of brief monthly films to provide a survey of the birding year. In doing so, we can not only film birds but also interview local birders.” And then he added: “And you will be the host of the series. You’ll be the David Attenborough of Buffalo.”


My reaction was, at best, mixed. In no way did I see myself able to fulfill this role. It was completely foreign to me. My one appearance on a local newscast was a bad omen. Interviewed about the appearance of mayflies on the Buffalo waterfront, the resulting brief episode was titled, “Bug Man.” On the other hand, I liked Mike’s idea.


We set out what would turn out to be eighteen months of close association: Mike as producer-director, me as what he kept referring to as “the talent.” It was like deep involvement in Filmmaking 101; I learned many of the complex elements film production entails.


A week after our first meeting in March of 2018, I found myself on the Buffalo waterfront being instructed about how to introduce our first film. Mike wired me with a microphone and had me stand with my back to the Niagara River waiting for the camera to be set up. This is when stage fright kicked in. I had written out some remarks about winter waterfowl along the river, but now they disappeared into the wind and snow blowing around me. I was speechless.


Mike was ready and he give me my instructions: “Walk slowly toward the camera as you say your piece.” Back he went to the camera and waved his hand for me to start. I had to say something, so I just started talking, and it seemed to go OK. But only for a few steps. “Hold it,” Mike called. He approached me, explaining that, when you walk slowly, you teeter from side to side and that produced what he termed my “gorilla walk.” That lesson led to take two. An hour later, after about take twenty, Mike assured me that what we had was wonderful. (Later, we dumped that entire episode and started over.)


We persisted, however, and had some interesting experiences. At the Hamburg hawk watch site, a long interview was going quite well when Mike suddenly interrupted with, “Hold it. You can’t say that.” He had mistaken something I said for one of those unacceptable words. This so amused the group that after every few words, one of us would start giggling. We never were able to complete that interview.

The microphones that recorded my voice during the filming—I usually wore two—were clipped to my collar and had wires that ran inside my clothing to the batteries in my back pockets. A battery fell once and, of course, it was when we were filming at the end of a dock at Oak Orchard pond. It plopped into the water and, although Mike spent the better part of an hour trying to fish it out, it was never found.


Even clothing presented problems. We had to redo parts of one episode because on different mornings, I’d failed to wear the same outfit.


I would soon learn that the initial filming was only the first step in production. Computer programs make film editing a reasonable process; no longer do you have to cut and splice, but much else must be done. Transitions present a serious problem; you cannot simply jump from one shot to another. Sound needs to be modified. Even differences in brightness need to be controlled. I did not learn how to do these things, but I watched as Mike did them. I estimate that ten times as much time goes into postproduction as actual filming.


It was with a great sense of accomplishment that we completed the project and posted the films and much more at birdsontheniagarafrontier.org, where you can watch them. We ended up with a number of interesting episodes, mostly because the birdwatchers who contributed were excellent. Also, as soon as we started the project, we realized that we would not be able to record many of the bird species we mentioned and such film is hard to find. To solve that problem, we invited local photographers to contribute still pictures, and their excellent images appear when the species are mentioned.


What next? Mike has moved for a year to San Juan Island in Washington; despite that, we are considering filming another series, this one on the remarkable geology and geography of Western New York.


See Birds of the Niagara Frontier.


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