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Winged Migration

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In Jacques Perrin's new documentary Winged Migration, we find out just how vast flyover country is. The staggering images in this film must be seen in order to be believed. Not only do we see the birds billing, cooing, squawking and fighting, but Perrin's crew managed to insinuate themselves into the migrating flocks, resulting in stunning, you-are-there flying footage.

The film was achieved by exposing hatchlings to the sounds of the motorized equipment that would track their progress later in life. Then several camera crews fanned out across the globe over a period of four years. Cameras were mounted on tripods, helicopters, gliders, balloons, ultra-light planes and remote-controlled models. Perrin and his editors then culled 85 minutes from 450 hours of avian footage and the results are breathtaking.

Several dozen species are here, from the sturdy geese to the flashy, hurtling great northern divers to the wacked-out sage grouse. The sequences are arranged rather loosely--there's not much structure except that of birds flying north for the summer and flying south for the winter. Narration is used sparingly, usually in the form of stentorian pronouncements like "flying south is a matter of life or death." Elsewhere, we're given terse intertitles like, "The red crane flies 600 miles from the Far East to the Siberian taiga."

And fly these birds do, just the way we would if we had wings. In this film, they make sure to swing by crumbling Alaskan glaciers, erupting geysers and a ghostly supertanker plying the vast dark ocean. The once-threatened Canada geese are now as ubiquitous as tourists in Times Square. We see them wandering along a roadside in Monument Valley, and we see them flying down the Hudson River into New York City where the late Twin Towers stand as sentinels and guideposts.

The presence of the Twin Towers is appropriate, for Winged Migration does not sentimentalize nature or cheat death. Death indeed comes knocking for these birds--whether from shotgun, harvesting combine or fishing lines. But these reminders of their mortality enhance our awe of these ancient creatures that navigate by the stars and travel on the wing. This Friday, July 18, John Gerwin, bird curator for the N.C. Museum of Natural Science, will appear at a Q&A session following the 7 p.m. screening at Cary's Madstone Theater.

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