Birding & Boating in the Klamath Basin

Oregon grebes featured on new Life series
By Larry Bingham, The Oregonian
April 03, 2010, 11:00AM

Photograph Barrie Britton, BBC Worldwide Ltd

To capture the amazing courting dance of grebes, a BBC director and bird photographer spent two weeks in southern Oregon, where they were floored by easy access to phenomenal animal behavior. Before arriving in Klamath, director Chadden Hunter had spent weeks deep in the Amazon. "Klamath was a real breath of fresh air for us," he says. "Staying in a friendly little town where we had so much help and such a welcome. It's not a typical wildlife shoot. These people took us in and we could film some of the behavior from their wooden deck overlooking the lake. It was a very relaxing and fun shoot in that regard, not like some of the more hard-core adventures, but the flipside was it was really nice to bond with a town and make friends and share the wildlife filming with a community." After he arrived in Klamath Falls in May 2007, director Chadden Hunter knew the Oregon shoot would be like none of the others.

For one thing, filming in the small southern Oregon town was a far more comfortable locale than many of the remote jungle outposts where other segments of the Discovery Channel series "Life" were scheduled to be filmed.

The series, which premiered March 21 and will prominently feature Oregon tonight, includes scenes of animal behavior -- some never before captured on film -- from all seven continents but only nine U.S. states.

Producers picked Klamath Falls over locations in Idaho and British Columbia as the ideal place to capture the elaborate mating dance of migrating grebes. By the time producers settled on Oregon, they had done their homework and knew exactly what they wanted, says Jim Carpenter, a bird enthusiast and professional tour guide in Klamath Falls.

Another reason BBC director Hunter found the Oregon shoot so accommodating: Carpenter and his wife, Stephanie, owners of, put Hunter and bird photographer Barrie Britton up in the couple's bed-and-breakfast on Klamath Lake for two weeks. From the house, Britton could watch grebes from the deck.

"It blows me away that you can go right up to the lakeshore at Klamath with a picnic lunch and watch this absolutely spectacular animal behavior," Hunter says. "Given the distances we travel, it really blew me away that you could sit there on the lakeshore and see this every day through the spring and into the summer."

The ballet-like mating dance has been filmed before but not in high definition, Hunter says. Producers wanted to film the dance for the new series because they knew it would leaven the sometimes grisly predation segments and because viewers are drawn to the romance of the behavior.

"If you can go back to classic stories that really appeal to viewers and deliver them in a very stylish and classy way, there's always going to be an appetite for that," Hunter says.

Though the filmmakers were not far from the action in Oregon, the ritual was tricky to capture because a pair of mating grebes can be sitting on the lake as still as ducks one minute, then bolt onto their toes and start the ballet in a split second. You can't know which way they'll go until the birds move.

To nail the moment, the Carpenters and filmmakers woke at 5 a.m. daily and were on patrol by sunrise. Britton holed up in a small blind by the lakeshore as Hunter alerted him via two-way radio when grebes approached. It took two weeks of 10-hour days to get the 10 to 15 hours of suitable footage, which was whittled down to four minutes of screen time.

But the sequence was so spectacular that it became part of the premier opening segment -- a kind of "biggest hits" that previews the series, Hunter says -- in addition to earning its keep in tonight's segment.

Carpenter says grebes are an underappreciated aspect of Oregon birdlife and often are overshadowed by the hundreds of eagles that sometimes gather in the area.

If you want to see the grebes in person, they arrived from California last week and will be around the Klamath area through October. Spring is an ideal time to witness their mating dance. The one part producers didn't capture comes after the young are born, when the parents ferry them around the lake on their backs, Carpenter says.

"They have the most bizarre and touching parenting behavior you ever saw," he says. "It's just a real happy thing. The grebes are a lot of fun to watch."

Don't believe him? See for yourself. The "Birds" segment of "Life" airs at 8 p.m.

Larry Bingham: 503-221-8262