Birds Of Paradise

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

A cloud forest with misty valleys at sunrise near Mount Hagen, Papua New Guinea.

Patience, persistence and ear wax—three requirements for photographing the world’s 39 species of birds-of-paradise. (Yes, ear wax—more on this later.) It only took eight years and 18 expeditions to New Guinea and Australia for photographer Tim Laman to pull off this remarkable photographic and scientific achievement.

“There’s a reason why no one has ever done a serious job of photographing all of the birds-of-paradise,” says Laman. “It’s virtually impossible to walk around a rain forest carrying a camera and get a picture. The birds are too high up in the trees or too hard to approach closely.”

Left: Twelve-wired bird-of-paradise (Seleucidis melanoleuca), Badigaki Forest, Wokam Island in the Aru Islands, Indonesia. Right: Adult male greater bird-of-paradise in static display, Badigaki Forest, Wokam Island in the Aru Islands, Indonesia.

So Laman spent countless hours climbing trees, rigging blinds and hauling gear up as high as 160 feet into the canopy of the rain forest. And then he waited. And waited. And waited. In today’s frenzied world, where instant is the new normal, some things can’t be rushed. There’s no substitute for good, old-fashioned patience, a virtue that Laman has in droves. He built more than 100 photo blinds, and together with ornithologist Edwin Scholes, spent more than 2,000 hours crouching and waiting for those magical moments when the birds appeared. Their patience was rewarded and the results are beautifully displayed in their book, Birds of Paradise: Revealing the World’s Most Extraordinary Birds (National Geographic Society, 2012).

But nothing about the project was easy, and 10 days into Laman’s first expedition, he hadn’t made a single publishable photo. He wrote in his journal, “What have I gotten myself into?”

It’s a question that Alfred Russel Wallace no doubt asked himself many times when he explored the dense, mountainous jungles of the Malay Archipelago some 150 years before Laman arrived. The first Western naturalist to see birds-of-paradise display in the wild, Wallace authored The Malay Archipelago: The Land of the Orang-Utan and the Bird of Paradise (1869). Wallace is also credited with developing the theories of how species evolve, along with his more well-known counterpart Charles Darwin. Fast-forward to the 1980s, when Laman read Wallace’s book while working as a research assistant in the tropical rain forest of Borneo, home to orangutans. The book piqued his interest to someday get to the island of New Guinea, home to the birds-of-paradise that Wallace described as “the most beautiful and the most wonderful of living things.”

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.

“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 Amy Gulick is a photographer, writer and fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. View her work at Learn more about the Birds-of-Paradise Project at