Aru Islander Eli Karey explained what Tim Laman had to do: “Before you climb the tree in the morning, you must get some wax from your ear with your finger and rub it on the tree trunk. You must do this so the birds will come!”
Which is how I found myself in the predawn darkness watching Tim wiggle a sweaty finger into his ear in honor of the local custom. We were standing at the base of a large tree, surrounded by climbing gear, in a remote forest on a rarely visited island partway between New Guinea and Australia. We had endured days of travel to reach this distant Indonesian outpost, and Tim was finally ready to haul his camera equipment up the rope, into a leaf-covered blind high in the canopy. With the help of the Karey clan, Tim’s blind had been made in the traditional style used by generations of bird hunters on the Aru Islands. If all went according to plan, Tim would document one of the greatest spectacles in the natural world: the communal courtship displays of the Greater Bird-of-paradise.
Our trip to the Aru Islands took place in late 2010 during the penultimate year of our nearly decade-long quest to scientifically document all of the species in the incredibly diverse family Paradisaeidae: the birds-of-paradise. This project took us all over the island of New Guinea, to several nearby islands, and to the rainforests of Australia. We made 18 expeditions, spent more than 500 days in the field, and visited more than 50 field sites.
Our journey began in 2004, when Tim Laman and I joined forces after he received an assignment to photograph birds-of-paradise for National Geographic (see page 6). By the time the article was complete, Tim had photographed 22 species—a huge success by any measure. But somewhere near the end of those first few years, perhaps in a fit of delirium induced by the tropical heat, we realized that our partnership offered a unique opportunity to continue. So we hatched a plan to do something nobody had ever attempted: to find and document all 39 bird-of-paradise species. We knew it would be a challenge, but we never imagined it would take another five years before our vision would be complete.
By going to the Aru Islands, Tim and I were following in the footsteps of the great 19th-century naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace. Like Wallace, we had come to these fabled islands to find the Greater Bird-of-paradise. Wallace made his voyage because he knew that seafaring traders had long been transporting Greater Bird-of-paradise skins from the Aru Islands to distant lands, where they were prized for their rarity and beauty. In the 16th century, some of those early “trade skins” made their way to Europe aboard the only ship to return from Magellan’s famous voyage around the world. Because of their exceptional appearance and the special way the skins were prepared by the Aru Islanders (with legs and wings removed to accentuate their plumes), the first bird-of-paradise skins to reach Europe caused a sensation. At that time, many believed that these ethereal creatures must have come from the biblical Garden of Eden. In other words, they were thought to be birds from paradise.
By Wallace’s day, belief that the birds came from a literal paradise on Earth had subsided, yet the intrigue surrounding their origins and natural history had not. So it was, at the eastern terminus of his epic voyage through the “Malay Archipelago” (more or less the Indonesia of today), that Wallace finally encountered the true homeland of the Greater Bird-of-paradise. Beyond being the first Westerner to see the species in the wild, Wallace was the first to observe a bird-of-paradise of any species performing its elaborate courtship display. In a letter posted from the Aru Islands in 1857, Wallace wrote, “I have discovered their true attitude when displaying their plumes, which I believe is quite new information; they are then so beautiful and grand.”
Wallace was the first naturalist to comprehend how the extraordinary plumes of a bird-of-paradise were actually used in life. Before Wallace, people could only speculate on how the birds-of-paradise used their incredible feathers. He saw how the yellow flank-plumes of the males become radiant when fluffed and expanded over their backs. He witnessed the astonishing sight of multiple individuals moving in exaggerated synchrony along the branches of their communal treetop display area. It took an arduous journey to a remote forest in a far-flung part of the world, but Wallace’s observations made him a pioneer in the scientific study of birds-of-paradise. He was the first person to go down the exploratory path we would follow in the course of our multiyear project. It is the path of discovery that comes from observing birds-of-paradise in the context for which their extraordinary appearances evolved: during their courtship displays. From his experience in the Aru Islands, Wallace realized that to fully comprehend the extraordinary nature of any of the birds-of-paradise meant understanding their courtship behavior. Only then would the exceptional appearances for which they had been revered begin to make sense.
The long days that Tim spent in the traditional canopy blind made our project a huge success. In addition to his incredible photographs, Tim also captured audio and video recordings of courtship displays, female visits, and even mating, which added substantially to the scientific understanding of this species’ natural history. His modern photographic equipment combined with the canopy perspective of the birds’ courtship revealed details never before documented. No doubt, Wallace would have been amazed to see their “true attitude” with such clarity and detail.
But before departing on the next leg of our journey to find and document another species, we decided to try something Wallace could not have imagined in his wildest dreams. Because one of the goals of our project was to reveal the birds-of-paradise from new perspectives and in ways they had never before been seen, we decided to find a way to get a wide-angle view of birds-of-paradise overlooking the forest canopy. Our idea was to place a remote-controlled camera within the display tree, just a few feet from where the males performed their courtships. We finally found the ideal spot and set about designing the camera setup. We concealed the camera within a bundle of leaves and used a long cable to connect it to a laptop computer inside the canopy blind in the adjacent tree, from where Tim could operate it. We called this unusual setup the “leaf-cam” and hoped that it would offer a unique window into the rarely seen world of these birds.
To make it work, Tim would have to scale the display tree, rig the leaf-cam, rappel back down, and then climb the adjacent tree to operate the leaf-cam laptop and regular camera from inside the canopy blind. It was an ambitious plan that would require hours of working in the dark before dawn to avoid disturbing the birds. The possibilities for failure seemed endless: rain could destroy the unprotected camera, the birds might not return to the display tree out of fear, the cables (which had to be left out overnight) might become disconnected or chewed by rodents. But fate was on our side. High in the forest canopy, mere miles from the very site where Alfred Russel Wallace saw a tree full of Greater Birds-of-paradise displaying for the first time, the leaf-cam performed flawlessly. With the leaf-cam image displayed on the laptop screen, Tim saw a sublime scene from a completely novel perspective. As the sun cracked the horizon, one of the males arrived on the display tree. From an exposed branch, he spread his wings, fluffed out his yellow flank-plumes, and began to call while overlooking his domain. As Tim triggered the shutter from the laptop, Wallace’s words rang truer than ever before: “they are then so beautiful and grand.”