The Great Argus pheasant is one of the most spectacular, but also most elusive birds in Borneo. I have been doing fieldwork in the rainforest of Gunung Palung for over thirty years, and have spent a sum total of over five years of my life in the forest there. Yet I have only seen a Great Argus with my own eyes once. Nonetheless, I had a dream of capturing images of this bird performing its courtship display.
Why did I think it was even possible to photograph such a rare and elusive bird? The reason is that male Argus choose a small clearing in the forest, and clear some of the leave to make a display arena. With enough searching in areas where we heard Argus calling, we were able to locate a number of these courts. We then monitored them with trail cameras to see which ones were active. Finally, using modern digital cameras in waterproof housings connected to infra-red triggers (which we call “camera traps”), we “staked out” these courts and hoped to capture footage of displaying males.
As it turned out, Argus male frequent their courts much less regularly than we expected, but never the less, as you can see in the images below, we were ultimately successful! Read on below to learn more about the efforts it took over two years to capture footage for the full behavioral sequence in the recent BBC series “The Mating Game”. As narrator David Attenborough says in his interview about the film on the BBC website (HERE), “I’m sure it’s the first time its been filmed in the wild”.
Argus Male Displays to a Female
At one point, a branch fell right onto the middle of the male’s court at one location. When he came back, before dragging away the branch, the male performed a series of practice displays facing toward the stick, as if it was an imaginary female in his mind. This gives us a good sense of what the female is seeing from her point of view!
At one point, a branch fell right onto the middle of the In this shot, the female is on the other side of the male so we get the backstage view of his display. You can see how he holds his head to one side and is peering through a small gap in the fold of his wing to keep an eye on her, and direct his display directly toward her.
Behind the Scenes
Filming the Argus with Camera Traps
I started this project in 2019 working with Silverback Films to try to film a sequence for the program “The Mating Game” for the BBC. I made three trips to Gunung Palung that year, locating courts, setting up the camera systems, and training my collaborators in use of the equipment. In a partnership with the National Park, ranger Darmawan (his full name) took on the task of checking the camera traps in the field every two weeks, changing batteries, and swapping out memory cards, also working with Gunung Palung Orangutan Project research director and photographer Wahyu Susanto, who helped manage the project in my absence, and send back results.
Although originally I had planned to return more regularly, I was unable to do so because of covid, so Darmawan and Wahyu kept the traps running for over two years. We consulted regularly on WhatsApp, making adjustments to camera positions, troubleshooting equipment, and keeping things going. As you can see in the behind-the-scenes video on the BBC’s website (HERE) where David Attenborough is talking about how difficult filming with camera traps are, these men are the stars who kept everything working and put enough time in in the field so that we eventually captured enough footage to tell the story of these incredible birds.
When I started this project, I assumed that the Argus males would behave something like Birds-of-Paradise, visiting their courts daily during a peak breeding season. We just had to find the courts and be filming during those peak periods. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Over the two years of the project, we found no regular seasonal patterns of visits, and visits to the courts went in spurts and were completely unpredictable. Males did show up more often on their own, and did some practice displays, but during the entire project, there were only six times where we filmed a male displaying to a female! Still, that was enough, since we captured them from different angles and with different camera positions that could be edited into the sequence!
The original plan was that once we had an idea of seasons and the most active courts, I would go out to spend a month or so sitting in a blind, to try to film the closeups that would help make a good sequence. Since I couldn’t go, Wahyu stepped up, and made four trips to Gunung Palung to try to film the Argus in person from a blind. He put in an incredible 40 days in blinds! Finally during his last trip, a male came and spent over two hours at the court, calling, clearing leaves, and giving Wahyu plenty of chances to get some much needed closeups. So hats off to Wahyu for pulling off that difficult assignment that really made the sequence come together.
The sign of an active court – some small feathers dropped by an Argus!
Gunung Palung National Park ranger and Argus camera trap monitor Darmawan attaches a mount to a tree on the edge of a court in preparation for deploying a camera. In the back, Wahyu checks the court for fresh sign.
Darmawan adjusts a camera trap box mounted higher on a tree for an overview shot of the court.
Tim, Darmawan, and Wahyu run though a checklist on the remote camera, double checking all settings. When you are going to leave a camera in the forest for two weeks or more, you need to make sure everything is set!.
The moment of truth: Arriving to check a camera after two weeks, and opening the back of the waterproof box to see if there are any results. Is the camera still working? Are there any hits? Are they Argus Pheasants, or just bearded pigs, mouse deer, and pig-tailed macaques? Camera trapping is very challenging, but when you capture something unique, it can be very exciting and rewarding as well.
Succeeding in filming or photographing aspects of animal behavior that have never been shared with a wide audience before is one of the things I get most excited about. This Argus project has been a great example of that. There are still so many cool stories that remain to be revealed from the natural world!
Thanks for tuning in to my adventures. This one got a bit long, but I hope you enjoyed it if you read this far! Do let me know if you like these in-depth back stories to my work. You can always drop an email to email@example.com.
Stay safe everyone, and be sure to get your dose of nature therapy!
PS. We are offering a 20% discount on prints in honor of Valentine’s Day. So if you were thinking about purchasing a Tim Laman original print for yourself or a loved one, now is a good time! www.TimLamanFineArt.com.
PPS. If you’d like to see the full episode of “The Mating Game”, you can find it streaming on the BBC in the UK, or on Discovery+ in the US. Here is a link to the trailer. You’ll see a brief glimpse of our Argus display in there in the middle! The Mating Game