Discovery Channel
Discovery Channel

Frederique Olivier, Camerawoman on Penguins: Waddle All the Way

Discovery Channel
Discovery Channel

Intrepid camerawoman Frederique Olivier has traveled the world capturing stunning images of wildlife in its natural habitat. For the Discovery Channel's new two-hour special, Penguins: Waddle All the Way, premiering tonight at 9 p.m., Olivier faced a very tough shoot indeed: Braving Antarctica's harsh elements for just short of a year. Olivier tells mental_floss how she prepared for the marathon shoot, the conditions she faced, and the footage she's most proud to have captured.

You spent more than 330 days in Antarctica for Penguins: Waddle All the Way. How did this particular shoot compare to some of the other shoots you’ve done? How challenging was it?

Amongst extreme environmental shoots, I have taken part in several other polar expedition shoots, amongst which was another Emperor penguin shoot in 2005 for BBC's Planet Earth and many shoots in the SubAntarctic, which is extremely wet. Australian desert shoots were also pretty difficult due to extreme heat, but that's probably because I spent too much time in Antarctica.

Antarctic shoots are especially challenging because of the extreme cold and winds, and really humans aren't supposed to be there. Because of this, conducting standard wildlife camera work becomes even more of a challenge. Being immobile for many hours waiting for a 10 second event to happen, not being able to move to warm up your extremities, was probably the biggest challenge in the winter months, and risky for the body. As soon as you pull out in order not to risk being frozen, what you intended to film happens, as per normal. It was physically and mentally demanding but very rewarding when the images were in the can.

Doing it for over 300 days without much of a break was an even bigger mental challenge. With the Spycams, the shoot relied on shooting as many hours of footage as possible in order to capture special events. Although some Spycams can be left operating on their own, the presence of a cameraperson is necessary at most times to at least monitor the colony.

Photo by Frederique Olivier. Courtesy of the Discovery Channel.

How do you prepare for a shoot like this one?

The best way to prepare is to gather the right gear for the tasks. One has to be fully self sufficient down there, so we prepared large quantities of sea ice safety gear to live on the frozen sea, and even larger quantities of down to survive in extremely low temperatures, which went down to -30 Celsius, without wind—i.e., -64 Celsius with the windchill factor of a 40 knot wind. The latter freezes your skin in a couple of minutes, so face masks were a must.

I was lucky to have done a lot of work in Antarctica and could rapidly re-adapt to working camera gear with thick gloves or wearing blizzard googles. Customizing personal equipment and preparing systems were key to the shoot.

This shoot was especially long so it was like a marathon. Living in an isolated place with limited contact to the outside world for so long away from friends and family is a social/mental challenge in itself. The very limited amount of daylight during winter rmonths does not help and we were happy to see the days get longer after midwinter

This shoot was special because it partly relied on a large number of Spycams to collect the footage, which made it an even bigger challenge.

Photo by Frederique Olivier. Courtesy of the Discovery Channel.

When did you go to Antarctica? What was the longest stretch of time you spent there?

We left Hobart for Antarctica on February 18, 2012 and returned on February 1, 2013, so yes, it was more than 330 days uninterrupted. Some of it was spent transiting on a small rolling ship—5 days either way—crossing the sea ice to reach Dumont D'Urville station.

Antarctica is one of the remotest places on Earth and can not be accessed with any ship or plane during the austral winter months, because of the darkness and the sea ice. Emperor penguins breed during winter and there is no way to conduct a shoot following them from their arrival on the sea ice to the departure of their chicks without spending nearly a year down there.

As mentioned above, the challenge was as much in the duration of this shoot as in the exposed conditions we worked in. Sometimes you come out of looking 10 years older!

An additional challenge is that the footage had to be sorted and logged on site and was compressed and uploaded via satellite on a regular basis. This added a tremendous number of hours of computer work at the end of already long and challenging days.

Photo by Frederique Olivier. Courtesy of the Discovery Channel.

Did you have a crew with you?

We were a film crew of two, myself as a camera and Martin Passingham as remote camera assistant. We were based either in a small hut a few kilometres from Dumont D'Urville station or at the station itself, where we shared life with 27 French people. We were the only Australians at the base, although I am French also.

What sort of shots were you trying to capture? Did you have a wish list, or was it just sort of “head out there and see what you can get”?

There wasn't really a wish list because one never knows what special events are going to be captured with the Spycams. The key for such a shoot was to have the cameras deployed for as many days and hours per days as possible.

However, Emperor key behavioural shots, such as Egg exchange and Chick exchange, were definitely on the list and I was lucky to have witnessed them years before so I knew what to target.

But we also, by chance, managed to capture some very special footage totally unexpectedly such as the laying of the precious egg by the female—a world premiere.

Which shot was the toughest to get, or which shot are you most proud of?

Shots that were extremely difficult to get were the chick departure shots. It was never obvious where and when they were going to decide to jump, some waiting up to 48 hours to make the big step. A patience testing game ... The chick or egg exchange shots of course are also very challenging ones to achieve as the birds do hesitate for hours prior to doing the business.

But the egg laying shot was probably my most special shot because it was never captured before. And my favorite would be the underwater chick departure shot, the combination of a challenge and a premiere.

Photo by Frederique Olivier. Courtesy of the Discovery Channel.

How did your previous experience filming birds, and filming in Antarctica, help you?

Having done an Emperor penguin shoot before certainly helped me a lot as I knew the birds, how sensitive they were to humans and what to look for in terms of behavior, which is a huge advantage. It was an incredible opportunity to get to winter with Emperor penguins a second time and to date, I believe I am the only person who has done two Emperor winter shoots—a bit mad! Having done a winter shoot before helped better prepare for this one, although this second shoot was completely different from the first one.

Did you see any penguin behavior that surprised you?

The behavior that mostly surprised us may have been the lack of defense reaction of the Emperors towards predators like giant petrels when their chicks get attacked. Although they are a very big bird and can be swift (enough) and threatening with their big beak, they are very pacific and few of them showed any aggressive behavior, even towards a nasty predator.

Photo by Frederique Olivier. Courtesy of the Discovery Channel.

When you’re shooting in Antarctica, what kind of equipment do you use? Did you have to modify it specifically to shoot penguins?

The equipment we used in Antarctica was partly standard camera equipment and a large proportion of Spycams, which are animatronics cameras; we totalled 16 of them.

The Spycams were of course disguised as Emperor penguins in various postures and used together with a large number of Egg cams. The main challenge for the development was to create Spycams that would be close enough to reality that the Emperor would be tricked to believe they were one of theirs or even show an interest as a potential mate or chick … and it worked! The mechanics and electronic behind those are complex and many had to be modified to bear the extreme cold and still function filled with snow.

15 Incredible Facts About Pigeons

Though they're often described as "rats with wings" (a phrase popularized by the movie Stardust Memories), pigeons are actually pretty cool. From homing instincts to misleading rump feathers, here are 15 things you might not know about these avian adventurers.


The common city pigeon (Columba livia), also known as the rock pigeon, might be the first bird humankind ever domesticated. You can see them in art dating back as far as 4500 BCE in modern Iraq, and they've been a valuable source of food for thousands of years.


Pigeon-breeding was a common hobby in Victorian England for everyone from well-off businessmen to average Joes, leading to some fantastically weird birds. Few hobbyists had more enthusiasm for the breeding process than Charles Darwin, who owned a diverse flock, joined London pigeon clubs, and hobnobbed with famous breeders. Darwin's passion for the birds influenced his 1868 book The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, which has not one but two chapters about pigeons (dogs and cats share a single chapter).

Nikola Tesla was another great mind who enjoyed pigeons. He used to care for injured wild pigeons in his New York City hotel room. Hands down, Tesla's favorite was a white female—about whom he once said, "I loved that pigeon, I loved her as a man loves a woman and she loved me. When she was ill, I knew and understood; she came to my room and I stayed beside her for days. I nursed her back to health. That pigeon was the joy of my life. If she needed me, nothing else mattered. As long as I had her, there was a purpose in my life." Reportedly, he was inconsolable after she died.


In a 2017 Current Biology study, researchers showed captive pigeons a series of digital lines on a computer screen for either two or eight seconds. Some lines were short, measuring about 2.3 inches across; others were four times longer. The pigeons were trained to evaluate either the length of the line or how long it was displayed. They found that the more time a line was displayed, the longer in length the pigeon judged it to be. The reverse was true too: If the pigeons encountered a longer line, they thought it existed in time for a greater duration. Pigeons, the scientists concluded, understand the concepts of both time and space; the researchers noted "similar results have been found with humans and other primates."

It's thought that humans process those concepts with a brain region called the parietal cortex; pigeon brains lack that cortex, so they must have a different way of judging space and time.


A pigeon flying in front of trees.

The birds can do this even if they've been transported in isolation—with no visual, olfactory, or magnetic clues—while scientists rotate their cages so they don't know what direction they're traveling in. How they do this is a mystery, but people have been exploiting the pigeon's navigational skills since at least 3000 BCE, when ancient peoples would set caged pigeons free and follow them to nearby land.

Their navigational skills also make pigeons great long-distance messengers. Sports fans in ancient Greece are said to have used trained pigeons to carry the results of the Ancient Olympics. Further east, Genghis Khan stayed in touch with his allies and enemies alike through a pigeon-based postal network.


Pigeons' homing talents continued to shape history during the 20th century. In both World Wars, rival nations had huge flocks of pigeon messengers. (America alone had 200,000 at its disposal in WWII.) By delivering critical updates, the avians saved thousands of human lives. One racing bird named Cher Ami completed a mission that led to the rescue of 194 stranded U.S. soldiers on October 4, 1918.


In 1964, scientists in Holmdel, New Jersey, heard hissing noises from their antenna that would later prove to be signals from the Big Bang. But when they first heard the sound, they thought it might be, among other things, the poop of two pigeons that were living in the antenna. "We took the pigeons, put them in a box, and mailed them as far away as we could in the company mail to a guy who fancied pigeons," one of the scientists later recalled. "He looked at them and said these are junk pigeons and let them go and before long they were right back." But the scientists were able to clean out the antenna and determine that they had not been the cause of the noise. The trap used to catch the birds (before they had to later be, uh, permanently removed) is on view at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.


Japanese psychologist Shigeru Watanabe and two colleagues earned an Ig Nobel Prize in 1995 for training pigeons, in a lab setting, to recognize the paintings of Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso and to distinguish between the painters. The pigeons were even able to use their knowledge of impressionism and cubism to identify paintings of other artists in those movements. Later, Watanabe taught other pigeons to distinguish watercolor images from pastels. And in a 2009 experiment, captive pigeons he'd borrowed were shown almost two dozen paintings made by students at a Tokyo elementary school, and were taught which ones were considered "good" and which ones were considered "bad." He then presented them with 10 new paintings and the avian critics managed to correctly guess which ones had earned bad grades from the school's teacher and a panel of adults. Watanabe's findings indicate that wild pigeons naturally categorize things on the basis of color, texture, and general appearance.


In a 2016 study, scientists showed that pigeons can differentiate between strings of letters and actual words. Four of the birds built up a vocabulary of between 26 and 58 written English words, and though the birds couldn't actually read them, they could identify visual patterns and therefore tell them apart. The birds could even identify words they hadn't seen before.


A white pigeon with curly feathers and fluffy feet.

A few pigeon breeds have fuzzy legs—which hobbyists call "muffs"—rather than scaly ones. According to a 2016 study, the DNA of these fluffy-footed pigeons leads their hind legs to take on some forelimb characteristics, making muffed pigeon legs look distinctly wing-like; they're also big-boned. Not only do they have feathers, but the hindlimbs are somewhat big-boned, too. According to biologist Mike Shapiro, who led the study, "pigeons' fancy feathered feet are partially wings."


In a life-or-death situation, a pigeon's survival could depend upon its color pattern: Research has shown that wild falcons rarely go after pigeons that have a white patch of feathers just above the tail, and when the predators do target these birds, the attacks are rarely successful.

To figure out why this is, Ph.D. student Alberto Palleroni and a team tagged 5235 pigeons in the vicinity of Davis, California. Then, they monitored 1485 falcon-on-pigeon attacks over a seven-year span. The researchers found that although white-rumped pigeons comprised 20 to 25 percent of the area's pigeon population, they represented less than 2 percent of all the observed pigeons that were killed by falcons; the vast majority of the victims had blue rumps. Palleroni and his team rounded up 756 white- and blue-rumped pigeons and swapped their rump feathers by clipping and pasting white feathers on blue rumps, and vice versa. The falcons had a much easier time spotting and catching the newly blue-rumped pigeons, while the pigeons that received the white feathers saw predation rates plummet.

Close observation revealed that the white patches distract birds of prey. In the wild, falcons dive-bomb other winged animals from above at high speeds. Some pigeons respond by rolling away in midair, and on a spiraling bird, white rump feathers can be eye-catching, which means that a patch of them may divert a hungry raptor's focus long enough to make the carnivore miscalculate and zip right past its intended victim.


Two blue and green Nicobar pigeons.

Though most of this list focuses on the rock pigeon, there are 308 living species of pigeons and doves. Together, they make up an order of birds known as the columbiformes. The extinct dodo belonged to this group as well.

Flightless and (somewhat) docile, dodos once inhabited Mauritius, an island near Madagascar. The species had no natural predators, but when human sailors arrived with rats, dogs, cats, and pigs, it began to die out, and before the 17th century came to a close, the dodo had vanished altogether. DNA testing has confirmed that pigeons are closely related to the dodo, and the vibrant Nicobar pigeon (above) is its nearest genetic relative. A multi-colored bird with iridescent feathers, this near-threatened creature is found on small islands in the South Pacific and off Asia. Unlike the dodo, it can fly.


Wild/feral rock pigeons reside in all 50 states, which makes it easy to forget that they're invasive birds. Originally native to Eurasia and northern Africa, the species was (most likely) introduced to North America by French settlers in 1606. At the time, a different kind of columbiform—this one indigenous—was already thriving there: the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). As many as 5 billion of them were living in America when England, Spain, and France first started colonizing, and they may have once represented anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of the total U.S. bird population. But by the early 20th century, they had become a rare sight, thanks to overhunting, habitat loss, and a possible genetic diversity issue. The last known passenger pigeon—a captive female named Martha—died on September 1, 1914.


According to one study, they're more efficient multitaskers than people are. Scientists at Ruhr-Universitat Bochum put together a test group of 15 humans and 12 pigeons and trained all of them to complete two simple jobs (like pressing a keyboard once a light bulb came on). They were also put in situations wherein they'd need to stop working on one job and switch over to another. In some trials, the participants had to make the change immediately. During these test runs, humans and pigeons switched between jobs at the same speed.

But in other trials, the test subjects were allowed to complete one assignment and then had to wait 300 milliseconds before moving on to the next job. Interestingly, in these runs, the pigeons were quicker to get started on that second task after the period ended. In the avian brain, nerve cells are more densely packed, which might enable our feathered friends to process information faster than we can under the right circumstances.


Only mammals produce genuine milk, but pigeons and doves (along with some other species of birds) feed their young with something similar—a whitish liquid filled with nutrients, fats, antioxidants, and healthy proteins called "crop milk." Both male and female pigeons create the milk in the crop, a section of the esophagus designed to store food temporarily. As is the case with mammal milk, the creation of crop milk is regulated by the hormone prolactin. Newly-hatched pigeons drink crop milk until they're weaned off it after four weeks or so. (And if you've ever asked yourself, "Where are all the baby pigeons?" we have the answer for you right here.)


We've already established that pigeons are excellent at differentiating between artists and words, but a 2015 study revealed they can also distinguish between malignant and benign growths in the right conditions. Researchers at University of California Davis Medical Center put 16 pigeons in a room with magnified biopsies of potential breast cancers. If the pigeons correctly identified them as either benign or malignant, they got a treat, According to Scientific American.

"Once trained, the pigeons' average diagnostic accuracy reached an impressive 85 percent. But when a "flock sourcing" approach was taken, in which the most common answer among all subjects was used, group accuracy climbed to a staggering 99 percent, or what would be expected from a pathologist. The pigeons were also able to apply their knowledge to novel images, showing the findings weren't simply a result of rote memorization."

Mammograms proved to be more of a challenge, however; the birds could memorize signs of cancer in the images they were trained on but could not identify the signs in new images.

No matter how impressive their results, "I don't anticipate that pigeons, no matter how good they become at pathology or radiology, will be playing a role in actual patient care—certainly for the foreseeable future," study co-author Richard M. Levenson told Scientific American. "There are just too many regulatory barriers—at least in the West."

'Angry Badger' Terrorizes Scottish Castle, Forcing Closures 

Portions of the 16th-century Craignethan Castle in Scotland were shut down last week after a less-than-friendly badger holed up there and refused to leave. Historic Environment Scotland, which manages the site in South Lanarkshire, sent out a tweet last Friday notifying visitors that the property's cellar tunnel would remain closed over the weekend “due to the presence of a very angry badger.” Staff tried to coax it out with cat food and honey, but the badger did what it wanted, and they were unable to move the mammal.

A spokesman for HES told the BBC, "The castle is surrounded by woodland and we believe the badger may have become lost. Staff first spotted some dug-out earth on Wednesday evening, and later spotted the badger on closer inspection."

On Saturday, staff used a GoPro camera to check out the tunnel from a safe distance and learned that the badger had left voluntarily, but not before making a mess. The critter dug through both soil and stonework, according to The Scotsman. The castle, an artillery fortification erected around 1530, is already partly in ruins.

Craignethan Castle in Scotland
Sandy Stevenson, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Badgers are not typically dangerous, but they can become aggressive if they feel cornered or threatened. They can be seen year-round in Scotland, especially during spring and summer. Earthworms, bird eggs, small mammals, fruit, and roots are among their favorite meals, and they can even be “tempted into your garden by leaving peanuts out—a tasty snack for our striped friends,” the Scottish Wildlife Trust says.


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