Lesser bird-of-paradise male displaying high in the rain-forest canopy at his display site.
Laman continued his scientific research in the rain-forest canopy of Borneo with a grant from the National Geographic Society, and earned a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Harvard University. But he was frustrated writing theoretical scientific papers that few would read.
"I was motivated to do more popular articles that would reach a wider audience and get more people interested in rain-forest issues," he says.
With his spirit of adventure, scientific background and experience photographing in the rain forests of Borneo, Laman published his first story in National Geographic in 1997 on wildlife high in the canopy of strangler fig trees. He went on to publish a dozen or so more stories for the magazine on subjects including orangutans, hornbills and glider species. By the time he pitched the birds-of-paradise story in 2003, he felt ready to take on what would become his most challenging project to date, much tougher than even he anticipated.
Young male Paradise Riflebird performing a practice display.
New Guinea, where the bulk of the 39 species of birds-of-paradise resides, is the world's second-largest island after Greenland. Coincidentally, the shape of the island is often said to resemble the head of a tropical bird. A spine of mountains, the New Guinea Highlands, dominates the landscape, stretching 1,000 miles from the "head" to the "tail" of the island. The highest mountains soar to 16,000 feet, contain several glaciers and contribute to heavy rainfall from the equatorial atmosphere. Half of all of the species of birds-of-paradise live in montane forests at high elevations, with most of the species found between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. There are few roads in this rugged part of the world, so most travel is by small aircraft and boat. In addition to the geographical challenges of the landscape, New Guinea is politically divided into two countries, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
"We were almost always working on private land, which required negotiating with local people and hiring guides, porters and cooks," says Laman. "A lot of advance planning was necessary before we even started to look for the birds."
Photographer Tim Laman with laptop, shooting in Live View mode from his canopy blind, controlling a camera in a different tree with a wide-angle view of a greater bird-of-paradise display site.
Once on the ground, or in the trees, Laman knew that his goal to photograph each of the 39 species was a monumental task, but he knew it wouldn't be enough to just create identification shots of each species. He wanted to document as much behavior as he could, both for photographic and scientific purposes. In addition to the birds' brilliant colors and elaborate feather configurations, their courtship displays have been described by evolutionary biologists as "bizarre" and "absurd exaggerations." And some of the courtship displays have never before been seen or described.
"Pushing the frontiers of knowledge, discovering new species and behavior, and making contributions to science all motivate me to get out of bed at 3:30 in the morning and spend an hour climbing a tree to get ready to shoot something," says Laman. "At the same time, making good photography to tell the story to a broader audience pushes me to get the best images I can."
During the eight years Laman spent on the project, the technology of DSLRs evolved rapidly, and new advancements played a significant role in his ability to capture extraordinary images and behavior, both with still photographs and video.