Capturing the Red Bird-of-Paradise Display

MY HIGHEST BLIND EVER YIELDS A CLASSIC PHOTO

Red Bird of Paradise (Paradisaea rubra) male performing practice display at a tree-top lek.  Batanta Island, Raja Ampat Islands, Indonesia.

Red Bird of Paradise (Paradisaea rubra) male performing practice display at a tree-top lek. Batanta Island, Raja Ampat Islands, Indonesia.

 “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.

Rain forest canopy view of Batanta Island and across the strait to Salawati Island.  This narrow strait has distinct Bird-of-Paradise species on each side.

Rain forest canopy view of Batanta Island and across the strait to Salawati Island. This narrow strait has distinct Bird-of-Paradise species on each side.

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.

Tim Laman climbing a giant rain forest tree on Batanta Island to photograph the Red Bird-of-Paradise.

Tim Laman climbing a giant rain forest tree on Batanta Island to photograph the Red Bird-of-Paradise.

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!

 

 

 

One Million Views on YouTube!

People around the world seem to be captivated by Birds-of-Paradise!  The five minute video introduction to Ed Scholes and my Birds-of-Paradise Project posted on YouTube on 10 October 2012 has reached 1,000,000 views today, 23 Jan 2013.

This video was produced by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Multimedia department’s Eric Liner and John Bowman using video material shot by me, Ed Scholes, and Eric Liner.  Eric and sound recordist Ian Fein, who also contributed to the video, accompanied us on one of our expeditions to New Guinea in 2009 to gather material for this video.

Why has this video captured the interest of so many?  The birds are spectacular, and their behaviors otherworldly, but I think a big part of it is the story of exploration.  I think it surprises people that in this day, there are still places on the planet that harbor such spectacular creatures as the birds-of-paradise that remain relatively unexplored.  Ed Scholes and I were able to be the first to document all 39 species of this famous family of birds in the wild.  If we are just documenting such a extraordinary group of birds for the first time, just imagine all the other little-know life forms out there in the wilds of New Guinea and elsewhere that remain to be documented and studied!

It is our sincere hope that the Birds-of-Paradise project will inspire others to keep exploring our planet.  There is much to discover, document, and protect.

 

Snap Me!

Villagers at Payakona Village in a traditional singsing put on as part of a "compensation" ceremony.  Feathers of multiple species of birds-of-paradise adorn their headdresses, which are famiy heirlooms.  Traditional use of feathers such as this continues in New Guinea.

Villagers at Payakona Village in a traditional singsing put on as part of a “compensation” ceremony. Feathers of multiple species of birds-of-paradise adorn their headdresses, which are famiy heirlooms. Traditional use of feathers such as this continues in New Guinea.

On one of our first Bird-of-Paradise Project trips back in 2004, we were driving a rural road in the Western Highlands of New Guinea.  Passing a small village, we noticed a huge gathering of people.  There appeared to be a traditional ceremony going on.  We stopped and saw that indeed, there was a ‘singsing’, or traditional dance in progress, with dancers wearing huge headdresses of bird-of-paradise feathers, faces and bodies painted, muscles rippling and carrying battle-axes.  This was exactly what I wanted to photograph, since I was very interested in documenting the use of bird-of-paradise plumes in New Guinea culture.  This was not a performance for tourists, but a real village ceremony where bird-of-paradise plumes still played an important role.  As I approached the fringes of the crowd, I pulled my camera out of my shoulder bag.  Just then, I noticed a man striding toward me from the right.  He was a dancer who had finished performing.  His face and torso were painted in bold patterns, and his headdress made him look even more imposing.  As he moved toward me, he was shouting something I couldn’t understand, and at the same time he was pulling his stone axe out of his belt.  I became a little concerned.  I tried to signal my friendly intentions with a forced smile and started shoving my camera back into the bag thinking that perhaps the sight of my camera was what had offended him.  Then I finally understood what he was saying.  “Snap me!  Snap me!” he was yelling.  He wanted to pose for a picture (with his axe)!  I obliged and received a friendly reception after that.  We visited the village again the next day for the continuation of the ceremony, when I took the photo above of a group of dancers sporting a huge number of bird-of-paradise plumes.

 

 

 

The Story Behind a Dream Shot

A Greater Bird-of-Paradise (Paradisaea apoda) male greets the sunrise from his tree top display perch in the Aru Islands, Indonesia.

A Greater Bird-of-Paradise (Paradisaea apoda) male greets the sunrise from his tree top display perch in the Aru Islands, Indonesia.

This is one of my true “dream shots”.  I had imagined a shot like this with a bird-of-paradise in the foreground and a view out over the rain forest for years, but never found a place where I might be able to make it.  Finally in the Aru Islands in 2010, I saw my opportunity.  But the problem was getting the camera in the right place.  I solved the problem by developing what I called the “leaf-cam”, a camera well hidden in leaves, and controlled remotely.

Here is a short video that tells the story of how I set this up, and finally got the shot.

 

 

 

Recent Media Coverage of the Birds-of-Paradise Project

Over the past three months, a lot has been going on with my Birds-of-Paradise Project.  Here is a collection of some of the main websites that have picked up the Birds-of-Paradise Story:

WIRED magazine:  “Rare Glimpses of Amazing Birds-of-Paradise Courtship Rituals” 

DISCOVER magazine:  “Capturing the Courtship Rituals of Bizarre Birds-of-Paradise” 

THE WASHINGTON POST:  “Top 10 Museums of 2012”

THE BOSTON GLOBE:  “A bird’s-eye view of nature’s flashiest showmen”

PETAPIXEL:  “Gotta Catch ‘em all:  Photog Spends Eight Years Capturing the 39 Birds of Paradise”

NPR – SCIENCE FRIDAY:  “Birds Gone Wild” 

HARVARD GAZETTE:  “Glimpses of Paradise”

New Articles in National Geographic

Check out the two latest issues of National Geographic magazine for Tim’s articles:

Opening spread of the Birds of Paradise story in Dec 2012 National Geographic

December 2012 features the Birds of Paradise story.  See the story at National Geographic.

January 2013 is a Special Issue of National Geographic kicking off the 125th Anniversary of the Society and celebrating Exploration.  Tim was part of a team of five photographers sent on assignment to Yasuni National Park in Ecuador to document the most species-rich place on the planet.

This issue of Nat Geo has a series of five covers on the front of the magazine.  Tim’s image above is featured as the “second” cover.  See the story at National Geographic.

World Premier at the Banff Mountain Film Festival

Last weekend the Banff Mountain Film Festival premiered “Winged Seduction – The Birds Of Paradise”.  This National Geographic television film is a part of the Birds of Paradise project that goes along with the Birds of Paradise book, National Geographic Exhibit and article.  Birds of Paradise Revealing The World’s Most Extraordinary Birds is now available for purchase.  You can purchase a signed copy of the Birds of Paradise book from Tim Laman’s online store.

Blue Bird-of-Paradise

Tim has had his images published in Canon’s Wildlife As Canon See It series many times over the years.  His latest one was in July issue of National Geographic and it features the beautiful Blue Bird-of-Paradise.  This image is also used in Tim’s new book Birds of Paradise: Revealing The World’s Most Extraordinary Birds.  Contact the office to preorder your signed copy!

Birds-of-Paradise Book


It has been eight years in the making, but Tim’s book, with collaborator Edwin Scholes, BIRDS OF PARADISE: REVEALING THE WORLD’S MOST EXTRAORDINARY BIRDS is finally complete and currently being shipped from the printers. Tim just received his advanced copy, and we are happy to report that the printing quality fully meets his expectations.  It will be on sale from Oct 23, so please contact the office to reserve a copy now. If you buy it directly from us, Tim will sign and even personalize your copy if you like. This is a book like none other that you are not going to want to miss.

Look3 Festival of the Photograph

Tim was not able to make it to the festival this year but did participate by showing a multimedia piece.  Entilted “How to Impress Females (In The Bird World)” was very well recieved at this years festival in Charlottesville, VA.  It is about the unique mating rituals of the birds of paradise and bowerbirds.  In each species, the males compete for females in very different ways.  You can watch the video through Tim’s website.

It is now featured on PDNPluse Video pick of the week.  Click here to watch Tim’s work on the Photo District News’ Blog.