Magnificent obsession with birds. Documentary features rare footage by naturalist John Bax

The Man Who Loved Birds: The Story of John Bax PBS, tomorrow, 8-8:50 p.m., check local listings. Producer: Ralph C. Ellis of Keg Productions Ltd., and TV Ontario, in association with CFCN Television. Writer: Hugh Kemp. At the age of 40, John Bax left his factory job in Ontario to communicate with birds.

With a camera close at hand, he taught himself to feed birds, stroke birds, chirp like a bird. He even managed to entice a hummingbird into his trailer, where he could photograph it better.

Since then, winged friends all over the North and South American continents have learned to trust Mr. Bax and his cameras.

This is a documentary about Bax and his bird films. It reveals much about birds and much about Bax. But there is one major element missing: his life among his own species. Does he have any sort of family life? one wonders. Is it enough to live out his life in pursuit of a seeming one-track obsession with birds and the need for the world to see them in their natural habitats?

That question aside, it's indisputable that this documentary offers footage that could be obtained only by a totally dedicated and talented bird watcher. There are close-up shots of pelicans, loons, orioles, blue jays, warblers, goldfinches, cormorants, bitterns, cranes, woodpeckers, snow geese, terns, ducks, owls, and ospreys. There are spellbinding sequences of grebes doing their ritual walking on water. And most amazing are the many segments that deal with Bax's special concern for the 320 species of hummingbirds in the world.

This documentary permits him to recount, in his own voice, some facts about hummingbirds - that they can fly backward and hover in midair with their wings flapping at 80 beats per second, for instance. He also notes that, when not sleeping, they must feed every 10 minutes. Bax tracks them to Mile High Ranch in Tucson, Ariz., the ``hummingbird capital of America,'' then follows them to Mexico, and Central and South America. In Ecuador he discovers one of the most amazing species: the sword-billed hummingbird, whose beak is as long as the rest of its body.

Bax is aware of the drama of his obsession, and the documentary includes some shots of himself in the wild, wading through muddy rivers and canoeing through swamps. There is even a sequence in which he uses his bare hands to catch a fish to eat when he has run short of supplies. But after he finds she is a female, loaded down with eggs, he puts her back gently in the water and muses that he will just have to forget about supper.

The documentary trails Bax back to his birthplace in Belgium, where he is a celebrated naturalist who, though he has only an eighth-grade education, has educated himself in the natural world.

Next year, this ``folk artist with a film camera'' will be heading for the American West again, where he will pursue his latest obsession: the trumpeter swan.

John Bax is providing naturalists, bird watchers, and nature-film lovers with the kind of intimate bird footage never before available. We should be grateful for his modern-day ``magnificent obsession.''

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