Sir David Attenborough Comes to Wytham

On a sunny day in March 2017, we – myself and Ella Cole ­– met the wildlife documentary producer Mike Birkhead in the Wytham village pub to discuss the potential of filming some nests in Wytham Woods. Mike was himself once a member of the University of Oxford’s Edward Grey institute (EGI) and knows the woods very well, which is why he approached us. Mike’s brother Tim (also a former member the EGI, now Professor of Behavioural Ecology at the University of Sheffield) has written many books about birds, and Mike wanted to make a documentary based on his most recent one, The Most Perfect Thing, which is about bird eggs.

Mike was so enthusiastic and we pitched some ideas to him about what might be possible, which led to more enthusiasm, and eventually the development of an action plan. Mike sent a cameraman, the aptly named George Woodcock, to meet with us to scout locations and nests for the documentary, and discuss the kind of shots he’d like to film. It was during one of many walks with George and his camera, that he casually mentioned the possibility of David Attenborough visiting the woods. At the time, I didn’t think much of it. And it wouldn’t be confirmed for another few weeks.

George was particularly keen on filming inside a nestbox to shoot an incubating female, and it was hoped that the camera would catch footage of the eggs hatching. To do this, we put out a box specifically designed to hold a camera. However, to get high-quality footage, George needed to set up a decent (in layman’s terms: ‘big’) camera. We decided to have try modifying our nestboxes, although I was sceptical whether the fussy birds would accept the odd-looking nestboxes. But to my surprise both nestboxes that George modified became occupied; one by a blue tit pair and the other by a pair of great tits.

So we waited and waited for the expected hatch date to arrive, but alas the camera didn’t catch the magic moment - the chicks hatched early in the morning when there wasn’t much natural light, and the footage turned out blurry. We eventually got a nice shot from one of the last nests that hatched in 2017.

  One of the modified nest boxes, with a camera sitting in the carton box. We laughed at how inelegant the design was – but it worked.

One of the modified nest boxes, with a camera sitting in the carton box. We laughed at how inelegant the design was – but it worked.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and on a chilly morning in May, Sir David Attenborough came to Wytham Woods to film some pieces to camera. To say I was excited was an understatement. They say never meet your heroes after all. I was also wondering what he would be like. Even the camera crew were excited.

I needn’t have been worried; he couldn’t have been more down to earth and approachable. As you’d imagine, he was a consummate professional. He did all but one of the shots in one take (a scene with a caterpillar, which kept crawling off the end of his finger, had to be redone a few times). 

 Sir David Attenborough, on location in Wytham Woods, home of our long-term nestbox study, started in 1947 by David Lack, the EGI's first Director.

Sir David Attenborough, on location in Wytham Woods, home of our long-term nestbox study, started in 1947 by David Lack, the EGI's first Director.

Filming continued with George hanging out in the woods for another few weeks. I’m intrigued to see how it all turned out and you can watch it on Saturday 31st of March 2018 at 8p.m. on BBC 2, or on the iplayer if you missed it.

Keith.

  A special view inside the nest box shows the female sitting on her eggs. She laid twelve in total; all hatched. Unfortunately, the nest was found by a weasel when the chicks were about 6 days old. In 2017 we had a total of 33 nests predated by a weasel, all within a small area of the woods.

A special view inside the nest box shows the female sitting on her eggs. She laid twelve in total; all hatched. Unfortunately, the nest was found by a weasel when the chicks were about 6 days old. In 2017 we had a total of 33 nests predated by a weasel, all within a small area of the woods.

  Snapping a sneaky pic of the set.

Snapping a sneaky pic of the set.

  Me, teaching David Attenborough how to hold the bird .

Me, teaching David Attenborough how to hold the bird.

  George filming a close-up shot of David holding a female great tit we’d just caught. The bird was released within minutes, and went back to take care of her chicks.

George filming a close-up shot of David holding a female great tit we’d just caught. The bird was released within minutes, and went back to take care of her chicks.

  We had lunch together. David had a ham sandwich, and a Kit Kat for dessert.

We had lunch together. David had a ham sandwich, and a Kit Kat for dessert.

  Me, a great tit, Sir David Attenborough, and Ella. I was fine about not being hugged, honestly.

Me, a great tit, Sir David Attenborough, and Ella. I was fine about not being hugged, honestly.