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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Birds Of Paradise

With the trained eye of a scientist, Tim Laman captures the behavior of the world’s most rare and extraordinary birds

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"I take advantage of whatever technology is available and push the limits of what's possible," says Laman. "But I don't spend my days reading technical websites. I figure out how to use the tools and then do something cool with them."

Laman peers out of one of his hides in the Arfak Mountains. This hide was made from poles and ferns with help from local landowners.
One of his most gratifying images is of a greater bird-of-paradise displaying high in a tree overlooking the misty rain-forest canopy as dawn lights the sky. The complex and labor-intensive setup to make the shot involved climbing a display tree and mounting a camouflaged "leaf-cam," climbing a nearby tree and building a blind, waiting for the birds to come, and then controlling the leaf-cam from his laptop computer in the blind. The success of the shot also involved ear wax. Local people insisted that the birds would only come if he used a traditional hunting blind and rubbed a bit of his own ear wax on the tree prior to scaling it. Not wanting to offend his hosts, Laman obliged. The locals built for him a customary leafy "cocoon" blind, he rubbed ear wax on the tree, and up he went. Sure enough, the birds appeared—a testament to a beautiful blend of the technical and the traditional.

Local knowledge played a large role in helping Laman document all of the birds, and local support will be crucial to conserving the forests that both the birds and the people rely on for survival. Of the 39 species of birds-of-paradise, only three are considered threatened with extinction, but seven others are approaching that status, having been classified as "near-threatened" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. Preserving the forest habitat that all of the birds-of-paradise need is paramount for their future.

"The good news is that there's still a lot of rain forest in New Guinea," says Laman. "But the pressures on the forests are increasing rapidly as supplies of timber run out in other places like Borneo and Sumatra. Logging companies from Malaysia and China are now coming to New Guinea, and what we've been seeing in the last 10 years is a huge increase in road building, logging, mining and clearing the forests for palm oil plantations."

Laman and project partner Edwin Scholes are teaming up with conservation organizations, both at the local and international levels, to use the photographs and videos they have created to showcase the birds-of-paradise as flagship species for the region. The hope is to encourage landowners and governments to preserve a network of nature reserves to ensure the survival of the birds. And by protecting habitat for the birds, many other species benefit, too, including the people who have lived within the forest and alongside its creatures for millennia.

"I'm pretty optimistic because we're ahead of the curve with birds-of-paradise conservation," says Laman. "We just have to make sure it stays that way."

Tim Laman is a field biologist and wildlife photojournalist affiliated with the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. A fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, he has photographed 20 stories for National Geographic. View his work or order a signed copy of his Birds of Paradise book at www.timlaman.com. Amy Gulick is a photographer, writer and fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. View her work at www.amygulick.com. Learn more about the Birds-of-Paradise Project at www.birdsofparadiseproject.org.


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