The PBS Nature series Spy in the Wild is capturing some amazing closeups of wildlife as you’ve never seen it before. For an upcoming episode, it used a drone disguised as a hummingbird to film a 500-million butterfly swarm in Mexico.
At the beginning of the clip, posted on the PBS YouTube channel, the butterflies are all huddled together to keep warm. This is the southernmost point of a migration from as far north as Canada. They will stay here throughout the winter, feeding on sap and barely moving to conserve energy. The butterflies, with their yellow and orange wings, blanket the trees so densely that the wings themselves appear to be the leaves in some autumnal forest landscape.
The filmmakers chose a hummingbird as their drone “spy” because it feeds in these groves and would not appear as a harmful intruder to the butterflies. To keep it harmless, the film crew fixed mesh over the propellers embedded in the phony bird’s wings. Footage even shows butterflies landing safely on the wings—something they couldn’t do with a real hummingbird. Much of this is shot with a secondary camera to show both the butterflies and the drone flying among them.
But something amazing happens later in the video. As the temperature warms up to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the butterflies spring to life. Wings start moving, slowly at first, then gradually speeding up. The butterflies then take flight—first in small bunches and then soon in torrents of millions. It looks at first as if autumn trees are shedding all their leaves at once, but then the leaves begin to fly.
Here’s where the drone comes in. It provides a birds-eye view from within the maelstrom, with a torrent of flapping wings all around it. The drone cam also captures amazing close-ups that clearly show the individuals in flight. A slow-motion clip illustrates the complex wing flapping that hurls the butterfly’s body up and down with each stroke.
It’s some of the most stunning and unexpected drone video you will see. I’m pretty excited for this episode of Spy in the Wild after just this three-minute clip. The episode will air in its entirety on May 6.