Episode 10 Nature's Top 40


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Episode 10

Chris Packham reveals the UK's number one wildlife spectacle. Find out what's top of the wildlife pops.


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Welcome to Nature's Top 40,

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your guide to the UK's biggest, best and the most magical things

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that you can see here in the UK.

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and we've been counting down from 40 to number 1,

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but this is our final programme so hold on to your seats, because

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we're going to reveal to you the UK's greatest wildlife spectacle.

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I'm Chris Packham, and what a journey we've been on -

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getting up close and personal with lots of great wildlife,

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like these grey seal pups here on the east coast of England.

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But here are a few more of the great pieces of wildlife magic that have

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made it into our charts, every one of them a winner.

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It's been an epic countdown of the very best of British wildlife.

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We took your suggestions, threw in a few of our own,

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-and our panel of experts ranked them for their sheer brilliance...

-Woah!

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..and wow factor.

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Well, he's a bit of a cutey,

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but now we've reached our climax at number four.

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It's bizarre for sure, it's colourful,

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it's an extraordinary display,

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and the sound - once you've heard the sound

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you're never going to forget it.

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At number four it's the black grouse lek.

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I'm on my way to see some birds that are so sexy,

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they make super models look drab and boring

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and the magnificent display they put on beats the Moulin Rouge

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and the Bolshoi Ballet hands down.

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The male black grouse.

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Specialist bird of the northern uplands and a real looker to boot.

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You'll find them on moorland, like this spot at Llandegla near Wrexham.

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This is a lek site, where the males display to attract females,

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and I plan to be right in the thick of it.

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Ah, this must be it.

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Detached dwelling, it said in the brochure,

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with wonderful views over the Welsh Hills.

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Outside toilet, one careful owner, five not so careful owners, but this

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is going to let me get close up and personal to one of the best sites

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in the whole of the bird world.

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It's a bit of squeeze but worth it, because it'll get me close to

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the sight and sound of these special birds.

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And they really don't know I'm here.

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There we are, first one's arrived.

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Once you hear that schwe-oo-wee hiss, you kind of go...

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you know that they're here.

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That's just to advertise their presence and it's only after that

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they start bubbling like mad turkeys.

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The birds inflate an air sac in their neck to make that curious sound.

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It's a calling card that can can carry across the moors for up to 2km.

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They're called black grouse,

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but it really doesn't do them justice at all.

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They're not black, they're a green-ish purple-ish bluey sheeny

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colour, with this lovely red wattle, bit of red bare skin above the eye.

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But it's only when you see them close up displaying,

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that you see the lyre-shaped tail,

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and that's absolutely stunning,

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cos it surrounds a white bouquet of feathers.

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They're beautiful, stunning birds.

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BIRD HOOTS

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Two.

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The birds are easily disturbed when the lek is at its height in May,

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so that's why I'm here in mid-winter,

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a less intrusive time to see this amazing ritual.

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It may be freezing but the birds give it everything.

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It's mostly posturing and posing,

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but feathers can fly as dominance is established.

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It's all about getting the best spot.

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The closer you are to the centre of the lek,

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the more chance you have of mating in spring.

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This is just amazing.

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The more pumped up the males get,

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the more that red eyebrow or wattle becomes engorged with blood.

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It's a warning. Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough.

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Now, I really love black grouse, but Ron Plummer is an even bigger fan.

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-Hiya, Ron.

-Hello, all right?

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-How many males on this lek then?

-Oh, 15 at the moment.

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Now we've come to look at the lek in winter

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but the very best time is in spring, isn't it?

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It's got to be in spring -

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that's when all the males get together,

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jumping about, making loads and loads of noise, it's unbelievable.

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As soon as a female comes through,

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the display is absolutely stunning, it really is.

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Wings all over the place,

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the birds are jumping up in the air, juggling about.

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It's unbelievable, you know,

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it's one of the best sights I've ever seen in Wales.

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You want to see black grouse, this is the place to come.

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And this lekking now, this is all about sex, basically, isn't it?

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Yes, that's it.

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That's all it is - it's just showing off,

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get one over on your mates and get the best girl, that's it.

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But they are fantastic, I mean, you've got to come here early morning,

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you've got to make a lot of effort to come but when you see it, it's all worthwhile.

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You never forget it, you never forget the noise they make

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as you're walking through the forest before dawn.

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Makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, it really does.

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It's an absolutely wonderful sight.

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I reckon everybody should see it.

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Everybody should see a black grouse lek.

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So there you have it, one of Britain's rarest birds

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in stunning scenery,

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putting on a fantastic display just metres in front of the hide.

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So close in fact, I could have picked one up and taken it home with me.

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And all of that before breakfast.

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So come on - beat that if you can!

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Well, Iolo, you're right - it's a tough one to beat.

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But one thing's for sure, and that's that you

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have to get out there and see some of these things for yourself.

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There's some really good ideas of places to visit

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if you check out our website...

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OK, it's time for our top three now, and this one is really special -

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it's a species that migrates thousands of miles

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to put on a really spectacular show.

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At number three - it's migrating salmon.

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This is a spectacle that is simply one of finest to be seen anywhere,

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and I've got a front row seat.

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Just brilliant. I could and I'm going to

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sit here all day watching this - what a brilliant spectator sport!

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And it couldn't be more accessible either - this is the River Almond,

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just five miles from the centre of Perth in Scotland.

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This is one of the real log jam places.

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Apparently there could be as many as a couple of thousand salmon...wow!

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Look at that!

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HE LAUGHS

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Almost landed in my feet! That's amazing - bird watching? Nah.

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Plant spotting? Nah.

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Fish spotting has got to be the new religion.

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That almost knocked me over - it was wonderful!

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Whoa!

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Oh, look at that!

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Brilliant!

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Here it is, look at this!

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I'm tickling a salmon, everybody!

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That's absolutely amazing! It's just stuck here,

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I'm just pushing him off. There he goes!

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HE LAUGHS

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Driven by the urge to spawn, the salmon spent at least a year at sea,

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before using the earth's magnetic field and their sense of smell

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to guide them to the very same river in which they were hatched.

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Their return in the autumn brings out salmon watchers

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like fish expert, Dick Shelton.

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Dick, what a phenomenal spectacle - two, three, four at a time -

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we've got it spot on, haven't we?

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You've just caught the tail of the spate, and these fish

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are making their way up to spawn in the upper part of the River Almond.

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Oh, there we go, look!

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Oh, wonderful.

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Did you see the tail powering away?

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Superb.

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But it's the end for them of a very, very long journey, isn't it?

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-Yes, it is.

-Why are they going to sea?

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Why not spend their whole life in the fresh water river system?

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There's not enough food in fresh water.

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If you want to have lots of big eggs the best place to get it is in the ocean,

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particularly where the Arctic Ocean and the Atlantic mix - that's where all the food is.

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If you do that, you come home, out-compete

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the stay-at-home guys cos you've more fertile eggs than they have.

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I just heard a massive one splash behind us!

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-Absolutely.

-It's very distracting seeing a fish

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jump out into your right ear and then popping out of your left ear!

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HE LAUGHS

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-I didn't feel a thing!

-See, there's a few here.

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-Look, one, two, three, four, five, six...

-Yes, quite amazing.

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So, Dick - I know you're biased, but if you had to pick

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one of Britain's greatest wildlife spectacles, where would this figure?

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It would figure as number 1A in my book.

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HE LAUGHS

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Whilst many of the leaps seem to end in heroic failure,

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the vast majority will reach the spawning grounds.

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To really appreciate the Atlantic salmon, you have to get close up and personal.

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We've had this one caught for us, for restocking purposes,

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and it gives a wonderful chance to see its breeding condition.

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This is a male, and you can tell that cos

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look at the size of the hook

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on the front of its lower mandible, that's called a kype.

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And as he moves into freshwater, he develops that especially

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to keep other males at bay when he's mating with the females.

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If you look down the flanks as well, look at those wonderful colours.

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That's called his breeding tartan, and they develop a lovely reddish colour underneath.

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And with his hooked jaw, and his lovely breeding plumage, hopefully

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he'll impress a few females - isn't he a beauty?

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Although the leaping fish are spectacular,

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it's only part of the story, because salmon of course, being fish,

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spend 99.99% of their time under the water.

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So this is where our cameraman Graham comes in -

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he's got what looks like a rod.

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There's a special camera on the end, and if you put that into water

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we can see what's underneath - a plunging mass of fish, hopefully.

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There we go, through the bubbles, through the water, right down...

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and we have salmon!

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That is remarkable, mate. It's really interesting - they're all pointing the same way, aren't they?

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That's right. I think there's an undertow,

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isn't there, that comes back right on the river bed?

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Gives you wonderful views of them. Look at that!

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Is that three, four, five, six, seven in one shot?

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Yes, and there must be many more that we can't see,

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because the camera can only see a short distance through the murk.

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And some of them have injuries that you can see

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from a shark attack or a seal attack,

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when they've been out at sea -

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like that one.

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What a privileged view.

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If you want to watch salmon leap, come after a period of heavy autumn rain -

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it's your best bet for seeing these animals at their most dynamic.

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From the moment I arrived till now, when I've got to leave,

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I've been absolutely transfixed by these fish.

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It's addictive - you can't stop watching them.

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As a naturalist,

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like many of us, I was a bit sniffy about fish, really.

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I thought bird watching, plant spotting...

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Getting soaked! It's absolutely brilliant,

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it's one of the best natural history experiences

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you can possibly hope to experience in Britain.

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This should be number one!

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Well, Mike, that was pretty special but what about this?!

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What about this? Skeins of pink-footed geese

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flying inland off the Norfolk coast first thing in the morning.

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It's a bit chilly but just listen and look - brilliant!

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Justifiable, too, because we're nudging closer to our top spot - we're at number two.

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A smaller bird, not quite as noisy,

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but when they get together, they do produce something pretty special.

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At number two it's swarms of starlings.

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The masses of starlings that come together in winter

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is without doubt one of the UK's great spectacles.

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And one which many, many of you suggested for our Top 40.

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The aerial displays of vast flocks of starlings gathering together

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to roost are a winter spectacular.

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At some sites the numbers reach several million birds,

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turning the sky quite literally black.

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The fact is, wherever you live in the UK,

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there's almost certainly a starling show near you.

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As for me, my first great starling spectacle is here,

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on the south coast on Brighton Pier.

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These birds started coming in from the north and the east about 3.30.

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Eventually they'll go and roost on the metal structures under the pier.

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But for the moment, they're just swirling around

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the sky like confetti, with their numbers swelling.

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They seem to be gathering now at this end of the pier,

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and I'm starting to think that any minute now

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they're going to shoot in under here and start their roosting.

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There they go, they're going under now.

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Now most of them have gone into the roost,

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there's this huge cacophony of sound underneath me.

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There's this terrific noise going on under here now.

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LOUD CHATTERING

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The great thing about Brighton

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is you get two shows for the price of one.

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Because when the birds have filled up this pier

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they then start to go into roost on the remnants of the old pier.

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The starlings have remained loyal to West Pier,

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despite it being derelict.

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And every evening they put on some of the very best

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shape-shifting displays in the land.

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Beautiful.

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Now for somewhere very different.

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Here in rural West Wales, I've been promised a roost

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that for sheer numbers is even better than Brighton.

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It all happens in the back yard of farmer Roger Mathias,

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who believes that his starlings will be the stars of our countdown.

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When we asked people for ideas for Top 40 wildlife spectacles,

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you, Roger - along with loads of other people -

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got in touch with us to say that starlings had to be in there.

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What is it that you like about them so much?

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I think there are several things.

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They're a very complex bird.

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When you see them in a flock on the floor, they're quite cheeky,

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they can be aggressive to each other.

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But they can totally change when you get them in a flock situation.

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They can almost become fluid.

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Roger, you're doubly lucky, cos not only have you got starlings all over the farm,

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you've also got a brilliant roost right in your own backyard.

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Yes, we have. Very close by,

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we've got hundreds of thousands of birds coming in every evening.

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They fly into this wood on the edge of Roger's land,

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coming in from every direction from miles around.

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Well, you've brought me right up to the edge of the wood -

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is this where the birds are gonna come in?

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-It is, indeed, Janet - in massive flocks coming in.

-The moment of truth!

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Hundreds of thousands, you promised.

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Believe me, there will be.

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Some of them may come in high, but most of them will be coming in

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sort of at 100ft, 200ft, perhaps.

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Initially it could even be a few dozen and then as they approach

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they will gather up with other smaller flocks,

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and by the time they get here

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some of the flocks will be several thousand strong.

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Here we go - first flock coming in.

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Oh, there's another one, another flock there.

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-So it's started now?

-Yeah.

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There's some more.

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Coming in - they do come in quite low, don't they?

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Yes. They are tonight anyway.

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-Wow!

-Here we go, here we go.

-They just snuck up on us, didn't they?

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Yeah, they just check the wind and come in at the right angle.

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You really do have to kind of swivel around,

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there's another group coming in up there.

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Coming in in a long skein, look. It's like you said, you know,

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they have a really fluid sort of motion, haven't they?

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Yep, they do.

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For nearly half an hour, these birds just kept on coming.

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WHOOSHING SOUND

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-Can you hear that?

-Did you hear that? That is so like the sea.

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As the flock builds up, that's actually physically the wing beats.

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Look, there's just a constant stream coming in there.

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Pouring in now. Pouring in now.

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You don't get much better than this, do you?

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These birds are in Serengeti numbers, hundreds of thousands

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coming in here now.

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I can't believe the sheer volume, the numbers,

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-that's what's so staggering.

-Streaming.

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We estimate probably half a million.

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Probably half a million, we think.

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The sound is really starting to build now, isn't it?

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-It is.

-That's them on their perches.

-Yeah.

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They've settled down now, they've come in and they're having a chat.

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They're talking to each other.

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It's terrifically loud now.

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They'll murmur, they'll chat all night long - it's quite remarkable.

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LOUD CHATTERING

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The whole canopy is just alive with birds.

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I've never seen anything like that,

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and I've never heard anything like that.

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It's just absolutely awesome,

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and it definitely, definitely rates position number two.

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I'm sure it does, I'm certain it does.

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Good night, starlings.

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What can you say? Pretty amazing.

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And it's almost, almost time to reveal

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what's made it as the UK's greatest wildlife spectacle.

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But before we tell you what's the best of British,

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here's a recap of what made it into our top ten.

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Floating in at ten, hunting barn owls.

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At number nine, fish the size of a bus.

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There's two over there, there's a fin right here and there's one up ahead.

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I mean, we're surrounded by basking sharks!

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At eight, bizarre but brilliant -

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it's dancing adders.

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And at seven, the splendour of a British bluebell wood.

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Bluebell-tastic!

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Pumping up the volume to nearly 100 decibels,

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it's birdsong at six.

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A carpet of colour at five - hay meadows.

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At four,

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just bubbling under the top spot - black grouse.

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Top three now - leaping salmon, and what an experience!

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Here it is, look, look at this!

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I'm tickling the salmon, everybody!

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And at two, a super swarm of swirling starlings.

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OK, it's finally that time to reveal

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what is the UK's greatest wildlife spectacle, and I urge you to do

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everything within your power to see this for yourselves,

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because it is truly amazing.

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At number one, top of our wildlife pops,

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it's a feeding frenzy of gannets.

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Behind me is Bass Rock, a massive great lump of volcanic stone,

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covered with 100,000 of one of our favourite sea birds.

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Look at it - it's iced with gannets.

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GANNETS CAW

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That's 100,000 expert fishermen,

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only too happy to take advantage of a free meal.

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We're at the centre of a hurricane, a vortex of gannets,

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they're all swirling around here,

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all going in the same direction.

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You've got that cackle, you can smell the sea.

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And here, look at this.

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This has to be one of the most dynamic pieces

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of feeding behaviour that you can see anywhere in the world of any animal.

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And it's here on our British shores.

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These are large birds, chucking themselves

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into the sea at about 30mph.

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Now, gannets are really striking birds in terms of their coloration,

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and it's thought that's an adaptive advantage -

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they've evolved to be that way, obvious to other gannets.

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What happens is, they go out here into the North Sea,

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quartering hundreds of square miles

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looking for relatively localised shoals of fish.

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If one gannet spots them and dives down all of the other gannets

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can spot it easily.

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As the gannets attack, the shoal breaks up,

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so the birds can pick off the fish.

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Spectacle. Capital S. Filigree round the edges. This is fantastic.

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It's a truly mind-boggling experience -

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one enjoyed by marine biologist Ian Baird.

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Ian, it's phenomenal...

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It's incredible. I think awesome is just about the only word for it.

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-It is awesome.

-But a lot of people like puffins

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and sometimes when I'm looking at gannets, I just think, why?

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Of all the British seabirds these must be the most elegant,

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the most beautiful, and they do such cool stuff.

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What about the rock as a whole? It is internationally important as a colony, isn't it?

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It's the biggest single rock colony in the world and some other colonies,

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St Kilda over in the west coast - large, but spread over a few stacks.

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This thing's absolutely massive.

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This is quite unusual, in that they're feeding -

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it's a bonus for them we're providing food so close to their breeding colony.

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But they'll travel hundreds of miles to find food.

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It's like a cheat to stick the fish in the water here and get them so close.

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We could go to Denmark, but it takes all afternoon!

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Exactly. They can go huge journeys

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and fishing trips can last a very long time.

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So you know, 30-35 hours is not unheard of for gannets

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disappearing off into the North Sea.

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Not quite the Arctic tern for distance travel, you know,

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but still nevertheless a great ocean wanderer, as a species.

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Yeah. I find - I mean a lot of people I think find that

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it's one of these things about birds that always amazes people,

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being able to go on your own to a destination hundreds of miles away

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without anyone telling you to do it.

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We're beginning to understand the science behind it,

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but it doesn't take away from the fact a little fluffy thing on there

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turns into a chocolate brown thing that flies to Africa with no map.

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Getting so close to these gannets was so good,

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there was only one option - to come back the next day.

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So, armed with more bait,

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and attracting the interest of the locals,

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I headed out again to feast my eyes on what is definitely the UK's best,

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most visual, most exciting, most dynamic wildlife wonder.

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And within minutes, the birds were ready.

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It's like a boiling mass of gannets in there -

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you can see them all underwater in a great big

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white writhing cloud as they sort of wrestle for the fish.

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Now typically, they would swallow them beneath the surface,

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because as they get to the surface there's a chance someone else will steal your fish.

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But some are coming up with the fish still in their mouth,

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quickly gulping it down before they take off.

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Now and again they all clear like this, possibly because

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the density has got too much and the risk of accident could be too great.

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And they'll all go, even if there's fish left,

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before they all start piling back in again,

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which is what's happening now.

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And they're superbly adapted for throwing themselves into the water.

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They've got air bags in their body to cushion the impact on the water.

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So German car manufacturers were thousands - hundreds of thousands,

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if not millions of years - too late in the design of the air bag.

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Gannets had it first.

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So there you are - up there at number one,

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it's gannets plunge-diving off the Bass Rock.

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It was simply amazing,

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clearly one of my favourites and I hope one of yours too.

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Thank you all very much for nominating your choices.

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But you know, I think there is one thing that we can all agree on -

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and that is that British wildlife is quite simply brilliant.

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