Monday, June 29, 2015

Audubon's The Sketch: Monk Parakeet

Hi Friends-

The first of a few pieces I am doing for Audubon's new The Sketch series is up, this one about the Monk Parakeet. They're little features about quirky birds, accompanied by a drawing from artist Jason Polan.  A piece on House Sparrows is coming soon, and I'm working on a couple more. Stay tuned, and enjoy!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Interview with Justin Hoffman, Wildlife Videographer Behind the Teaser Trailer for FX's Fargo

Everything about this is great.

The first season of Fargo on the FX network was a great watch, and a big hit (it won the Emmy for Best Miniseries, doncha know). Last week the network gave us its first glimpse of the show's second season, in the form of a twenty-second teaser trailer. Check it out:

Not only a great show and a creative trailer, but the star is a black-backed woodpecker! 

Exciting for a couple reasons. First, black-backed woodpeckers don't get a lot of love. Lots of birders have never seen one, and they've got virtually no name-recognition among the general public. I bet it was temping for the producers to go with a pileated or hairy woodpecker (the populist woodpeckers!), so it's nice to see the black-backed get some screen time.

Second, this is what I'm talking about when I talk about movie and tv producers doing a little bit of work to get something right. The folks who put this together didn't just choose some random bird, they picked a black-backed woodpecker, a perfect choice for the forests of northern Minnesota. It's an indicator of quality: if they made a thoughtful decision on this aspect, it leads me to believe that the rest of the show was crafted with similar care. Reading too much into it? Probably, but it's nice for someone to get it right for once.

Anyway, I saw the trailer and wondered where they got the footage. Easily enough, the first result found when typing "black-backed woodpecker" into YouTube's search engine is this video, shot in Ontario by Justin Hoffman.

Clearly, it's footage the Fargo folks used to make their teaser. Very cool. Seeing that Justin has his own website, Justin Hoffman Outdoors, I reached out to see if he wanted to talk about shooting the video and how it got into the hands of FX.  Turns out Justin is a great guy, and has experienced something that every wildlife photographer must dream about.  Here's what he had to say:

How'd you get the BBWP footage? Were you after those birds specifically?

Being a wildlife photographer and nature nut, I spend a great deal of time exploring the outdoors. Of course, my camera gear is always with me on these adventures. Earlier this past winter, I had found three separate black-backed woodpeckers in the Ottawa area. Although not a rare bird, they can be quite elusive to find. My only other spotting of a black-backed was in Algonquin Park a few years earlier. All birds to this point had been females. 

On the particular day I filmed the male black-backed footage (December 20) I was bush-whacking off a of a popular hiking trail on public NCC land; only ten minutes from my house in Ottawa. I wasn't necessarily looking for birds this day, but wildlife in general, as we had had fresh snow the previous evening. Approximately 1.5km's in, I heard the faint 'pecking' sound of a woodpecker some 30 feet from me and instantly recognized it to be a male black-backed woodpecker. This bird was very comfortable with my presence and I set up my tripod less than 15 feet away from it. 

I photographed the willing model before deciding to capture some video footage. I shoot a variety of wildlife and nature clips for my YouTube channel and the clip was posted there later that day.

How were you contacted by the Fargo people? Did they let you know what they wanted to use the footage for?

I received an email in late February from a promotional person that works for the FX US Network. He mentioned that he had found my black-backed woodpecker footage online and that it was the best they had come across to that point. They were interested in licensing the footage in order to use for a promotional teaser clip for Season 2 of the television show, Fargo. He went on to mention that they had a very short deadline on this and for me to give him a call.

I called later that day. The promotional person took my call in the middle of the California desert, as they were on a film shoot. He explained the concept of the promotional piece to me at this point, which revolved around a woodpecker in the woods and mysterious gunshots. Of course, I was intrigued and excited with the thought of my footage being used.

A fee was negotiated and within a day I had uploaded my footage to the FX/FOX Network servers. Three days later the crew traveled to Winnipeg to shoot the other footage to complete the project.

Were they looking specifically for a black-backed woodpecker?

I am unsure if they were specifically looking for a black-backed woodpecker. I believe it fit the criteria of what they wanted, in so far as being a close up clip, shot in HD, with a winter and 'cold' background. I was also told that the 'pause' that the woodpecker makes mid-pecking is exactly what they wanted to go with their concept. It should be noted that the black-backed woodpecker is found in Fargo, North Dakota - where the show takes place. The show is actually filmed in Calgary.


Were you able to see the teaser as it was being put together (I notice the color is a lot colder in the teaser than in your footage)

I was not able to see any of the teaser until early last week, when it was shown for the first time on FX US during the premiere of the show, Tyrant. At the time of negotiations, non-disclosure contracts were also signed, so I was not legally allowed to discuss any part of the deal, nor the concept or the fact that they had purchased my footage.

The colour is colder in the teaser clip than my original footage. I believe this was done to match the secondary clip and also to go with 'dark' theme of the show.

Anything else about the process you'd like to say?

It has definitely been a fun and exciting moment for me. When I originally filmed this footage, it was to add to my YouTube channel and share on social media. Never did I think Hollywood would be calling. It goes to show you that you never know who will see your work or when that phone call will come.

It was definitely hard to keep this secret for four months, but was great to finally be able to share it last week - and the response and exposure has been very positive and exciting so far!


Congratulations, Justin, and let's all watch Fargo when it returns to FX in September.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Top Fives of Texas

I don't like doing trip reports on this blog, but I do like doing whatever the hell I want to. So here's a trip report.

I went with two friends, Jason and Zach, to South Texas for a few days in early June. We saw a crap-ton of birds, ate a crap-stone of great food, and had a crap-kip of good times. Here are some highlights, recounted in a Top 5 format, for some reason.

Best Meals
3243. Pepe's in Harlingen
3242. being hit by a car
4. Ultimo Taco in Brownsville

3. Ribs at Cowpokes BBQ in Pearsall, TX.

2. Every single meal at Laredo Taco Company in Stripes Gas Stations throughout south Texas. Fresh tortillas made for you in a gas station!
1. Barbacoa tacos with bright red hot chili sauce at Roadside Inn Meat Market, Hidalgo Texas. We were hot and tired and driving around looking for some food. We pulled into the first place we saw that had a sign for Tacos out front (but, like, 90% of stores in Mission have tacos, even muffler repair stores, it seemed). It was about 2pm, though, and the kitchen in Roadside Inn was closed. After looking around for a few minutes to try to piece together a meal, some guy came out from the kitchen holding a styrofoam container saying something to the effect (in Spanish) of: "Oh well we have this barbacoa, you want this?" Yes, we did. Standing out front of the restaurant scooping up the juicy meat with fresh tortillas and dousing it with spicy red sauce ... it was just the kind of surprise moment I love about birding.

Best Dogs
5. The dog that kept barking at us while we were looking for Ringed Kingfishers.
4. The skinny Chihuahua that almost ran in front of our car that time.
3. The yappy white dog in the purse in Leakey.
2. The puppy that Jason pet next to the breakfast taco stand in Sabinal.
1. Tulip, the rescue dog that we met waiting for Red-crowned Parrots in Harlingen.

Weirdest Ladies
3. The butterfly lady who yelled at me at the NBC for walking too fast when she was looking for a Gray Cracker
2. Stripes worker who really wanted to give Zach a fork
1. Paranoid waitress/conspiracy theorist in Leakey, Texas

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Google Street View Birding: Antarctica Part II: South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands

The adventure continues!

We are a third of the way though our epic, vicarious journey to Antarctica, stowing away with the crew of Google Street View.  We've just left the Falkland Islands, which dazzled us with winged splendor, introducing us to hordes of penguins, weird geese, and even a tiny, endangered wren. A great first stop, indeed.

But we must move on. Our next stop across that cold southern ocean is the wild South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

There isn't much human history on the South Sandwich Islands, save for a handful of whale-butchering operations operated on the largest island, South Georgia, in the early 20th century. This was messy business, according to my intensive research (cough cough Wikipedia cough wait why am I typing all this out), and occasionally involved some downright frigging disgusting things: "A rotting whale could fill with gas to bursting, ejecting a fetus the size of a motor vehicle with sufficient force to kill a man." Great!

Well, lucky for us, the whale carcasses are gone but the birds remain. Let's check it out.

The first stop in the South Sandwiches is a small island off the coast of South Georgia, and it's a doozy. It's called Prion Island (good start), and it's heavily protected by the small South Georgia government because of all the cool creatures that live there, like South Georgia pipits and burrowing petrels. And like these penguins:

Gentoos are the ones with the white dots on their heads (most of them) and up in the top right are some Kings.  

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