Documentaries zoom in on birds, prize-winning photos

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Maybe it's because the warm weather turns our thoughts to nature, or maybe it's because there are so many reruns on TV during the summer, but 'tis the season for documentaries.

Two standout docs will capture the imagination, awe, and delight of viewers this week - Moment of Impact (TNT, July 18, 8-9:30 p.m.) features the stories of several Pulitzer Prize-winning news photographs and the photojournalists who took them.

Then, naturalist Sir David Attenborough ("The Private Life of Plants") brings his 10-part series, The Life of Birds, to television this summer (PBS, beginning July 20, 8-9 p.m.), and it promises to be worth every second of air time.

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This is nature documentary filmmaking at its best. Every idea grows out of the one before and leads smoothly to the next in what is the most comprehensive series on fowl in history - the first two installments are just dazzling.

These amazing creatures may be common sights in our daily lives, but their intelligence and natural splendor is often overlooked.

Imagine a bird who imitates the sound of a chain saw, a car engine, and other man-made high-tech noises - just to attract the female species. Imagine the dedication of a film crew hanging out in the Antarctic winter to capture Emperor penguins balancing their eggs on their feet to keep them from freezing.

In a recent interview, Mr. Attenborough explained how he put so complex a series together, traveling around the world to build his stories around the life cycle of birds.

"The main thing to do is to write the entire series before you shoot a foot," says Mr. Attenborough. "If it's going to be worldwide in scope, it's no good going to New Zealand and shooting for the first episode if you have to return for the fifth. So, you have to know exactly what you are going to do - the whole thing - before you go to New Zealand."

And then there is the ongoing investigation into birdie intelligence.

Some birds can solve complicated problems. Some can even count, he says.

While birds don't have language in the sense that people do, since grammar is essential to language, they can sing a song that says 'enemy on the ground,' or another that says, 'let's attack our enemy.'

Birds can do extraordinary things that humans have not yet been able to explain - even migratory flights have their mysteries, he says. Some birds find their way by the stars. Others follow chains of mountains.

Some birds, like geese, teach their chicks how to migrate. A young cuckoo, raised by foster parents, will take off when it's grown and fly across the Sahara to the country its real parents came from - and to say this ability is genetic is not to explain it, says Attenborough.

He hopes that people will come to look at birds with greater understanding and affection after viewing his series.

"I would like to think people will see birds in greater depth and detail than they ever managed before," he says. "Birds are very common.... But these days, the number of people who see them building their nests, raising their young, is very small, and to be able to follow them in flight is a privilege cameras can supply."

The results of a different kind of camera work is detailed in the TNT special.

"Moment of Impact" tells six gripping tales, presenting the photographers behind the prize winning pictures. "Returning POW," (taken in 1973) by Slava Veder, shows an Air Force colonel greeted by his family running to meet him, his older daughter's feet bound above the ground as she leaps to his arms. The joy of the greeting and the fabulous composition, embody the triumph of the human spirit.

"Tragedy is what we usually deal with," says Mr. Veder in a recent interview, "and to get a joyous moment is fantastic." He explains that he was out of position for the shot, and other photographers made room for him. But capturing the greatest photo of one's career is not just a matter of chance.

"You are trained to observe - you watch the movement and if something is happening, you react to it. It's practice. Time after time after time. A lot of my work has always been in sports where timing is everything. It trains the eye to react to moments of high point - the peak of the action. I was after the action of the family running toward [the colonel] and the embrace."

Other stories concern tragic events, but each of these real-life dramas is also about courage under fire.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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