Rick Zemanek of Lacombe County has spent hundreds of hours last year shooting June and Ward for the documentary The Beaver Whisperers

Videographers capturing secret beaver behaviour

Two Central Alberta videographers played roles in making a CBC documentary featuring the Ellis Bird Farm’s pair of beavers.

Two Central Alberta videographers played roles in making a CBC documentary featuring the Ellis Bird Farm’s pair of beavers.

Rick Zemanek of Lacombe County and Phil French of Lousana each spent hundreds of hours last year shooting June and Ward for the documentary The Beaver Whisperers, which airs at 8 p.m. on Thursday on The Nature of Things.

Toronto filmmaker Jari Osborne chronicles many North American beaver experts who say the rodents counter global warming and water shortages through dam building. Osborne said Zemanek and French were “pivotal in taking us into a world that’s secret.

“There were a lot of technical challenges. These creatures are so shy, nocturnal and underwater a lot, the film needed stealth. The challenge was to find ways to capture something up close and personal.”

French, the Red Deer River Naturalists president and an office products technician, is a veteran videographer, producing documentaries on cavity nesting birds and a Red Deer River solo trip.

He said watching the pair of beavers from atop their dam and beside their feeding site was “a really great experience.

“When you really get watching — and videography forces you to watch something for hours and hours — you really appreciate the creatures a lot more. They do a lot of good things, like preserving water supplies.”

He’d already spent time shooting Ward and June for the Ellis Bird Farm located east of Lacombe before Osborne’s call.

Zemanek, a retired Red Deer Advocate editor, volunteers feeding the beavers aspen so they don’t down the farm’s mature trees. At first he used the fresh-cut aspen to build a blind, but “I’d come back the next day and they’d eaten it.”

Filming from brush proved better, although still with its surprises.

“I was so well disguised one time, a mouse ran into the back of me.”

Eventually, the beavers accepted the men’s presence and carried on with their lives.

“Ward was always suspicious, but June really bonded with me. I’d sit in full view on the dam to film and she showed no apprehensions at all. They knew who I was and came out without fear,” said Zemanek.

Ward and June’s “unconditional love” demonstrated through nuzzling and play was “awe-inspiring.

“It was a very moving experience and I frequently thought us human beings could learn a very profound lesson from Mom Nature.”

Osborne praised French and Zemanek for their remarkable footage.

“I have a lot of gratitude for people like Rick and Phil, who deployed themselves for the project. They displayed such tenacity.”

Myrna Pearman, the Ellis Bird Farm’s biologist and manager, said the beavers arrived in 2010 and by feeding them, wiring off mature trees and regulating their pond’s flow to avoid flooding, they’ve been able to keep them.

She thanked Zemanek for feeding the pair because “our site’s so small, we couldn’t feed them without them taking our trees. His efforts are critical to keeping June and Ward here year round.”

Pearman was disappointed that the farm’s four web cams, which show June and Ward in their two lodges, weren’t used on The Nature of Things website as the program opted to show a Quebec beaver named Pollux. The web cam views can be seen at www.ellisbirdfarm.ca.

Both men look forward to seeing the film on Thursday.

“Some of it will appear in the final cut,” said French, “that’s pretty exciting for me, being an amateur.”

Zemanek is “extremely thrilled.

“The whole idea was to portray beaver not as a nuisance or a dam builder or a tree cutter, but with an incredible role to play in the natural scheme of things.”

More information about the documentary, including a behind-the-scenes look at its making, is available online at www.cbc.ca/natureofthings/beaverwhisperer.


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