Birds Beyond Borders is an inclusive and collaborative non-profit documentary and research project. Through the story of bird migration the project aims to reveal more about climate change, our relationship with the natural world, and how we embrace wildlife as human society develops. In this blog for Leica Nature the filmmakers introduce themselves and their inspiring project.

With previous projects tackling deforestation in the UK and insect decline in Europe, a team of wildlife filmmakers are taking on their biggest challenge yet. Benjamin Ward and Jimmy Cape (UK) have assembled with filmmakers Martha Mutiso, Karim Kara and Benjamin Owuor (Kenya) to try and understand why Afro-Palearctic birds are disappearing, and the deeper meanings behind this.

Among these species are the recently red listed house martins (Delichon urbicum) and common swift (Apus apus) which will be a focal point in the film. The birds have declined by 50% in the past 20 years in the UK. Declines that Benjamin and Martha have both played witness to on their doorstep for decades.

Every year species of swallow (Hirundinidae) along with swifts (Apodidae) will migrate from their wintering grounds in Southern and Eastern Africa up towards Europe. Little is known about the birds migration. When they arrive in their breeding grounds, in this case the UK, they solely rely on buildings and structures to nest. As the name ‘house martins’ suggests, these birds could be regarded as some of our closest wild neighbours.

Martha Nzisa Mutiso, Kenyan ornithologist and storyteller, who will be producing and appearing in the film says ‘As a child, I would always hear swifts and see swallows on power lines when the rains arrived. I then learnt that they travelled here for the winter. But in the last few years the rains, as well as the birds, have been less frequent.’

The reason why these birds are disappearing in some parts of the world is complex. The main causation, simply put, is the effects of climate change. This is anything from nesting opportunities decreasing in the birds breeding range due to building insulation or potential moulting issues when the birds winter. Although the film does embrace these individual issues, the team have taken more of a holistic approach with moulding the film’s narrative, using bird migration as a backdrop to explore our connection to wildlife as well as climate change.

By using the latest tracking/ringing data, as well as general observations, we can see how climate change is causing some birds to be way off course from their typical breeding/wintering sites and flyways. Last year it made headlines when European bee-eater, birds that do not typically migrate to the U.K., nested in the country for the first time. In regards to birds like house martins, it’s believed that climate change is making their migrations a lot more taxing, which can affect their ability to build nests in spring.

A partner on the Birds Beyond Borders project, ‘House Martin Conservation UK & Ireland’, has urged people to value house martins nesting on their homes. We must also consider swifts! Every year, these birds rely on the exact same spots for nesting, even using the same nest structures multiple times if present. People have been known to deter the birds or clear nests with disdain for the birds’ droppings, or they worry about damage to their properties. The birds do not damage property and their droppings are harmless. Having these birds living around your home is a blessing, and you should be humbled to be a guardian of a nest or colony of house martins or swifts!’

Compare this to some of the conversations held at the NEWF Congress themed ‘Africa Refocused’ in Durban this year. Benjamin Ward, Martha Mutiso, as well as a number of other ornithologists, spoke on a panel, ‘Birds of a Feather: Stories of birds in the African Culture’. Here, a discussion opened up about the intrinsic symbolism of birds within Africa. African cultures regard birds as the highest form of life. Though the persecution of birds does occur in Africa, understanding the inherent value of birds in a community can help us better our perspectives when protecting wildlife. It also sheds light on the power African storytelling and symbolism can have when it comes to wildlife conservation.

Communities and guides from across Kenya have also helped to discover new information on migratory birds unknown to western science. There’s so little known about birds like house martins and swifts when they are in Africa. On the ground observations in Kenya have been critical for this project.

‘In Kenya, much of our wildlife is migratory, both big and small, so it moves into areas where people are living,’ says Dr Paula Kahumbu, scientist and producer who will also be contributing to and featuring in the Birds Beyond Borders project. ‘People have been living alongside wildlife coming and going for thousands of years, and we have a lot to learn from that’.

Co-director, Jimmy Cape, who recently contributed to David Attenborough ‘Wild Isles’ has said:
‘We’ve been filming for over a year and developing this film for well over 2 years… to finally have answers and results is great but that often comes with more questions. To truly do this project justice we’re taking on our next ‘bound’ of shoots in 2023. Although what we have is excellent, there’s so much more we want to cover, and voices we want to include. Although movements are underway to acquire our new resources and funding for filming in 2023, any help in the meantime would help keep the project in motion. We have a public fundraiser which you can find on our website

Benjamin Ward, campaigner, conservationist and co-writer says:
‘These birds mean so much to me, having witnessed their decline throughout my lifetime, I’m so grateful for everyone helping to tell this story. I’d also love to take this moment to thank the other team members contributing to the project so far like Elliot and Freya, our animation team, Daniel helping with music composition and the camera crew like Alex and Ben. I’m also excited about the new members coming onboard with the project as we start moving from pre-production through to post production.’

The team are aiming to produce the film independently and want the whole process to be as inclusive as it can be. To achieve this, they have also been sourcing funding for the project independently, a direct link to their fundraiser can be found here:

If you like to keep updated on the project please follow Birds Beyond Borders on social media:
Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Or continue to follow the Leica Nature Blog, a Birds Beyond Borders partner, for blog updates on the project.

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