PRAIRIE DU CHIEN — Neil Rettig has captured images of giant eagles in the Philippines, carried cameras into the rain forest canopies of South America. Faced the threat of human guerrillas while tracking mountain gorillas in Rwanda.
He has a harpy eagle, the most powerful bird of prey in the world, as a pet.
Yet the award-winning cinematographer chose the Coulee Region to call home.
After shooting in the Amazon, the Alaskan arctic or African savannah, the upper Mississippi River might seem tame, even boring. Yet Rettig has found plenty to turn his lens toward locally.
He’s filmed whirling mayfly blizzards. Bald eagles as they snatched up hapless coots and squabbled in midair with other birds to keep their prize, tossing their limp prey around like a pickup football game.
The wild is here, Rettig said, for those willing to look around. “We marvel at the things we see every day ... But you’ve got to go out and find it. It’s not going to come to you.”
A native of the Chicago area, Rettig tried a number of jobs, including trash collector, before focusing on recording the natural world on film. He was 24 when he took on his first major project, getting rare images of wild harpy eagles in Guyana.
His work has appeared in National Geographic and Audubon magazines, in IMAX films and in numerous documentaries for BBC, PBS, Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and National Geographics.
A BBC assignment in the 1980s to film the Mississippi Queen brought him to the Driftless Region, “and I was just blown away by how beautiful it is here,” Rettig said. He bought 162 hill acres just east of Prairie du Chien from an elderly farmer in 1989.
“Of all the travels that I’ve done,” Rettig said, “I think this is an absolutely gorgeous place.”
A master falconer, Rettig soon met veterinarian Laura Johnson in
La Crosse, who specialized in treating birds, especially raptors. She would be-come his wife in 2007 and, she said, “his biggest fan.”
She’s been his assistant on several film projects while maintaining a part-time practice in Prairie du Chien.
“It’s been absolutely wonderful,” Johnson said. “I get to see the places Neil goes, the incredible miracles of the natural world.”
It’s not easy, though, or as glamorous as people might envision. The job requires hauling heavy equipment to remote sites, sweating or shivering in blinds for hours or days, enduring insects and tropical illness.
For one five-week project in Panama, Johnson had to make a 40-minute walk in 100-degree heat each day to fetch water on her back for camp. Each night brought on a cockroach invasion. They had to watch for scorpions in the latrine and tarantulas at the water’s edge.
“Creepy-crawly things everywhere,” Johnson said.
“Brutally difficult camp,” Rettig said.
Any discomfort is forgotten, he said, in the adrenaline rush when rewarded with that perfect shot. He compares it to watching a beloved sports team make a winning score.
“When I start screaming,” Rettig said, “the producer should be very happy.”
And there’s always something new to experience, even after more than 40 years in the field, he said.
Like last week, when they took a BBC producer with them to the top of a river bluff near De Soto to film flying eagles at eye level in 3-D. They witnessed a massive squadron of birds sweep inland off the river, in numbers they’d not seen before.
A matter of education
In 2010, they raised five snow geese at their farm for the BBC series “Earthflight,” training them to follow a vehicle and fly with cameras and transmitters attached. The birds performed well, though they led Rettig and Johnson on a scary chase through downtown New York City when they overflew the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge and vanished among the skyscrapers. They turned up in a small Brooklyn park, calmly feeding on the grass.
“Stress-wise,” Rettig said, “that was up there with Rwanda.”
They still have four of the “film star” geese, three white and the lone blue, that keep up a steady chatter as they pick their way around the yard or fly around the hills of Crawford County. Johnson uses honks from a bike horn to call them back home.
Too trusting of humans to be set free, the elegant snow geese are a long-term commitment, the couple explained.
As is Cal, Rettig’s 13-year-old harpy eagle. He wasn’t brought back from South America — that would be illegal with an endangered species, he said — but hatched by an Idaho falconer as part of an unsuccessful project to eventually release captive birds in the wild.
Cal instead gets to be a face for education efforts to alert the public about harpy eagles and other species worldwide struggling to survive, Rettig said.
Such as the Philippine eagle, which rivals the harpy in size. Rettig wants to return to the Philipinnes next year, to reconnect with those he worked with 35 years ago — and, sadly, perhaps document the twilight days of the eagle, now thought to number no more than 200. While some on the islands still kill it as food, the main reason for the Philippine national bird’s decline is deforestation that has pushed the eagles onto marginal lands.
Poaching has increased in Africa and brought Asian tigers to the brink of extinction, spurred by the growing affluence of a Chinese population that clings to the use of animal parts in traditional medicine.
He hopes the images he captures will be more than just a record to remember species after they’re gone, that people will be spurred to support habitat preservation and wildlife conservation efforts while there’s still time. Good management practices helped bring the bald eagle back, Rettig noted, and restored the Mississippi River to some of its former rich biodiversity.
It’s why the 62-year-old has no plans to give up camera work anytime soon.
“I want to do things that educate people,” Rettig said, “make a difference.”