-- stories behind the pictures --

Flashback Japan – feature in Japanese National Geographic

Happy 20th Anniversary to National Geographic Japan, the first international edition of National Geographic magazine!

In honor of their anniversary, National Geographic Japan created a special section called Flashback Japan in their December 2015 issue, and I am honored to be featured.  They selected one of my images from my story about Japanese Winter Wildlife, originally published in the January 2003 issue of National Geographic.  Here is the spread from Japanese National Geographic. I have provided an English translation of the Japanese text below.

Flashback Japan - Dec 2015 National Geographic Japanese edition spread featuring a photo from Tim Laman's Jan 2003 article about Winter Wildlife in Japan.

 

Here is the English translation of the text on the spread above, published in Dec 2015 National Geographic Japanese edition:

Deer and Sea Ice, Hokkaido, Japan

One morning, photographer Tim Laman was exploring the remote coast of Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido. While he was making landscape photographs of the sea ice, several deer appeared, walking along the beach. “I became very excited at what they might add to the composition,” Tim said.

Laman, a world-class wildlife photographer, is also a field biologist with a doctorate from Harvard. He says, “I like to capture images showing animals in their landscape.” After a while, two of the deer, coming from opposite directions, met and gently touched noses, perhaps in greeting. “It was a brief moment, but I snapped the shutter and captured it.”

Japan is a second home to Laman, because he was born and grew up in Japan — in Tokyo, Sasebo, and Kobe, due to his father’s job. So the story, Japan’s Winter Wildlife in NGM 2003 January issue, was like a dream come true. “I wanted to show the broader world the beauty of nature in Japan. I chose the winter season for its clean beauty,” he said.

On his assignment, he worked in Nagano, Iwate, and Hokkaido, to capture monkeys in Jigokudani or swans in Lake Kussharo, and many other subjects. Tim says some of his favorite photographs are those of Red-crowned Cranes in Kushiro Shitsugen wetland. “Sunrise on the river, and the roosting cranes backlit through the mist. Or a couple making a mating call as snow gently fell through the air. I had many unforgettable moments.”

Filming the Magnificent Riflebird Display

Magnificent Riflebird Bird-of-Paradise (Ptiloris magnificus) male displaying to female.  His display involves very rapidly swinging his head back and forth, alternately hiding it behind one wing and then the other.

Magnificent Riflebird Bird-of-Paradise (Ptiloris magnificus) male displaying to female. His display involves very rapidly swinging his head back and forth, alternately hiding it behind one wing and then the other.

This is one of my favorite Bird-of-Paradise video sequences because the behavior and wing sounds are so amazing, and we captured it from two angles.  The Magnificent Riflebird usually performs his display on a large horizontal vine.  In 2009, Ed Scholes and I, with help from our local guide Zeth Wonggor, located the display vine you see here deep in the forest of the Bird’s Head Peninsula region of West Papua, Indonesia.  The male was visiting the vine fairly often, and calling a lot from this area.  But he only performed his full display when a female came to watch him, which was very rarely.  We had two blinds at this site, in order to film from two different angles, and we spent a ridiculous number of hours – Ed estimated he spents 80 hours, and I also spent a lot but was alternating between this blind and others for King and Lesser Birds-of-Paradise in the same area so my total was a bit less.  That is a lot of time to sit in a dark hut being attacked by mosquitos, but to us, it was worth it because we succeeded in capturing this amazing display.  And being able to see it from two angles just makes it so much richer.

One of the really fascinating aspects of this display is the sound the bird makes with its wings.  This loud swishing sound made every time he shakes his wings we presume is made by the feathers somehow rubbing together, but the exact mechanism of how the this works is one of the biological mysteries of birds-of-paradise that remains to be solved.

Filmed entirely with Canon 5D Mark II cameras and Canon lenses 600 mm f4 and 200 mm f2.0.  The audio which highlights the birds amazing wing sounds was recorded with a shotgun mike placed outside the blind below the display vine.

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Borneo – My Rain Forest Roots

Rhinoceros hornbills (Buceros rhinoceros) perched high in canopy of the lowland rainforest behind.  Gunung Palung National Park, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, on the island of Borneo.

Rhinoceros Hornbills (Buceros rhinoceros) perched high in canopy of the lowland rainforest. Gunung Palung National Park, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, on the island of Borneo.

Borneo is where I got my start in exploring the tropical rain forest and getting really serious about my wildlife photography.  I first went to Borneo as a research assistant for a year.  Then I did my Ph.D. research there over several years.  I turned my Ph.D. project exploring the rain forest canopy and studying strangler fig trees and associated wildlife into my first National Geographic magazine article back in July 1997.  Since then, I have been back to Borneo over 25 times working on various National Geographic articles and other projects.  It will always hold a special place in my heart.

This photograph of Rhinoceros Hornbills in the rain forest canopy is one that I dreamed about for years.  It was actually on my very first day in the rain forest in Borneo that I saw a Rhinoceros Hornbill flying over head, way up in the upper canopy, and thought “I have to find a way to get up there to get pictures in the canopy”.  It took many years for me to perfect my tree climbing skills and create the opportunity to get this shot by rigging a blind very high up in a large dipterocarp tree on a hillside near a fruiting Ficus tree.  I spent a great many hours in that blind over many days, until one day a group of hornbills stopped in this tree before visiting the Ficus, and I got this shot.

See a full gallery of my Borneo rain forest images at www.timlaman.com.

Yasuni National Park, Ecuador

Cobalt-winged Parakeets (Brotogeris cyanoptera) at a clay lick south of the Napo River, Yasuni National Park, Orellana Province, Ecuador

Cobalt-winged Parakeets (Brotogeris cyanoptera) at a clay lick south of the Napo River, Yasuni National Park, Orellana Province, Ecuador

For the January 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine, I was part of a team of five Nat Geo photographers including Ivan Kashinsky, Karla Gachet, David Liittschwager and Steve Winter.  We went to Ecuador for one month to document the biologically richest place on the planet, Yasuni National Park, and the important conservation issues and human cultural issues surrounding it.  Here is the feature story at Nat Geo.

You can see how all our efforts came together to tell the story in this interactive.

Also, Spencer Milsap of Nat Geo produced this video piece, which my assistant Anand Varma and I also helped to shoot.  It captures what it was like to work on this story in the Amazon rain forest of Ecuador.