MY HIGHEST BLIND EVER YIELDS A CLASSIC PHOTO
“I distinctly remember one morning, seeing an incredible starry sky as I inched up the rope in the blackness. It was a surreal feeling, like I was climbing a rope into outer space.”
It was in 2004, during the first year of my birds-of-paradise project. I was working on an assignment for Nat Geo, and the objective was not to photograph all the birds-of-paradise (that came later), but to capture some of the most iconic, most extraordinary, most beautiful species. In my estimation, the Red Bird-of-Paradise made that short list.
That’s easy to say, but the Red Bird-of-Paradise was definitely not one of the easiest birds-of-paradise to photograph. It only inhabits a handful of islands off the western tip of New Guinea, in the Indonesian region called the Raja Ampat Islands. We worked with the late Kris Tindege as our guide, however, which simplified the logistics considerably. All my collaborator Ed Scholes and I had to do was to fly half way around the world to Jakarta, then east, hopping islands across Indonesia, to meet Kris in the outpost town of Sorong. From there we travelled by boat to the island of Batanta, hired porters in a village, and hiked up into the mountains and set up a camp. Then we just had to find the birds.
While I concentrated on photographing the more readily accessed Wilson’s Bird-of-Paradise for several days (it displays near the ground), Kris and Ed scouted for the ideal display tree of the Red Bird-of-Paradise. Finally one day they came back to camp saying they had found a tree where males had actively displayed that morning. There was just one catch. It appeared to be the tallest tree in this whole area. I went to take a look at it and we watched the evening action at the tree. There was plenty of activity, and the location seemed very promising. But the tree climb was going to be a problem. In trying to keep my gear weight within reason, I had only brought my lightweight bow, and two rope sections that only totaled 70 meters in length. It wasn’t going to be enough to reach up and over a branch and back to the ground. I also knew my bow would only be able to launch an arrow carrying a fishing line to about 25 meters up. I was going to have to climb this tree in stages.
I was back the next morning after the birds had left. After a few tries, I got my arrow over one of the large branches that looked like it wasn’t even half way up the tree. It was a start. Pulling my climbing rope up and over, I then climbed the rope using ascenders and a harness, and hauled myself up onto the big branch when I got there. By tossing a throw bag (basically a beanbag on a cord) over ever higher branches, I pulled my rope higher and kept climbing it until I was getting up to the level where the birds had been displaying. As I rose above the crowns of the surrounding trees, an amazing view opened out over the rain forest of Batanta. In fact, I could see not only the forested slopes of Batanta stretching below me, but all the way down to the coast and across the strait to the neighboring island of Salawati. This narrow body of water was actually a major barrier for birds-of-paradise. On this side lived Red and Wilson’s Birds-of-Paradise. On the other side, Lesser, King, and Twelve-wired Birds-of-Paradise were found. The big difference is that Salawati Island was once part of mainland New Guinea and so it has the same birds species as the nearby mainland. However, Batanta has been separated by deep water for millions of years from New Guinea. Since Birds-of-Paradise never cross water gaps, even if they are only one kilometer wide, ancestral birds that got to Batanta at some point when it did bump against New Guinea have evolved into Red and Wilson’s – two very unique birds-of-paradise. After taking in this view, I kept climbing.
When attempting to photograph birds displaying in the canopy, what I usually do is to climb a tree adjacent to the one the birds are using, not the same one. But this tree was so much bigger than surrounding trees that this wasn’t an option. Instead, what I was going to try was to see if I could get up high enough in the opposite side of the tree crown from where the birds displayed. Fortunately as I got near, I saw that the branches on the part of the tree I was climbing looked healthy and were actually reaching up to about the same level as the dead branches on the other side that the birds used. I was starting to get into the upper reaches of the crown however, where the main branches were no bigger than my thigh, and I made sure to keep safety lines attached to lower points on the trunk. I finally found a place where I could make a seat by tying several poles across between two branches, and hang my camouflage material to make a simple blind. The distance to the branches where the birds were displaying, however, was borderline. In other words, I was worried about the blind spooking the birds from being a bit too close. So I decided that for the first morning, instead of climbing up there, I would get some insurance shots by mounting a camera, focusing it on the main display perch, and triggering it from the ground with a remote control. This would also give the birds a day to get used to the blind without my being in it. Before I headed down I tied my climbing rope off high in the tree, and dropped the end to the ground. Since I knew the length of the rope, when I got to the ground and measured how many meters were left, I discovered that my blind was exactly 50 meters (165 feet) above the ground. It was the highest blind I had ever constructed.
The next morning, I did get a few shots on my remote camera, but they were not satisfactory. But the good thing was, the birds accepted the blind and came to their regular perches that first morning. So for the next several days, I got into an early routine. Rising well before dawn, I hiked to the site and climbed my rope in the dark, hauling my camera and lenses in a pack dangling below me. I distinctly remember one morning, breaking out into the more open upper canopy and seeing an incredible starry sky as I inched up the rope in the blackness with my headlamp off. It was a surreal feeling, like I was climbing a rope into outer space.
The real excitement came though, once I got set up in the blind and it started to get light. One male Red Bird-of-Paradise in particular came repeatedly, as did some other males and females on occasion. The moment came when one male became excited by a nearby female and went to the broken off branch that appeared to be his prime display spot. He flipped upside down and hopped downwards along the branch while twisting back and forth. For just a moment, his tail wires fell into that perfect position framing his wings in the perfect heart shape – and I got the shot. I knew I had seen something special from a viewpoint perhaps never recorded before.
An amazing thing about this bird is that when he perches upright, the two flattened, wire-like tail feathers just hang down with a few twists in them. Only when he goes into his inverted position during display do you see how they work, framing and accentuating his body perfectly. I was lucky enough to capture that moment. There is always a bit of a feeling of luck when the elements come together to make a good wildlife photograph. But you don’t get a chance to experience that serendipity unless you make the effort to be there, in the right position, and ready!