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An Epic Mission for Birds-of-Paradise: Q&A with Tim Laman

By Pat Leonard
Photographer Tim Laman talks about the Birds-of-Paradise Project

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In 2003, renowned National Geographic contributing photographer Tim Laman embarked on an epic eight-year mission to document, for the first time, all 39 species of birds-of-paradise with his research partner, Cornell Lab biologist Edwin Scholes (see “Quest For Paradise”). Together they conducted 18 expeditions to remote mountain rainforests, mostly in New Guinea. As the project culminates this fall with a book, a National Geographicarticle, a television documentary, a traveling exhibition, and a national speaking tour, Laman paused to talk about how he hopes the birds-of-paradise “wow factor” will underscore the urgent need to conserve the earth’s biodiversity in wild, beautiful places.
—Pat Leonard

How did you first get involved in the Birds-of-Paradise Project?

While researching a story about them for National Geographic in 2003, I learned about Ed Scholes’s work using digital video to document and study the courtship behaviors of New Guinea’s birds-of-paradise. When we met, it became obvious that it would be great to team up.

How much gear do you take on these expeditions?

Typically I have about 250 to 300 pounds of gear, which includes 60 to 70 pounds of climbing equipment. Then there’s camera equipment, camping gear, computers, a small generator, and lots of batteries. We had these classic expeditions with a line of 20 porters from local villages carrying the gear.

Can you give me an example of a really complicated shoot?

To photograph the Greater Bird-of-paradise, I built a blind in a tree adjacent to the branch where the birds had been displaying. Then I climbed their tree and rigged up a camera hidden in big leaves stitched together to form a pocket—we called it the “leaf-cam.” I ran a cable from the camera to the other tree and controlled it from my laptop in the blind. I had to put the gear in place and take it down every day because the leaf-cam wasn’t waterproof.

Is there a species among the birds-of-paradise that’s your favorite?

That’s a tough question. The Blue Bird-of-paradise is an amazingly colored and spectacular bird. But one of the peak experiences was definitely photographing the Greater Bird-of-paradise, using the “leaf-cam.” I got a nice variety of views and some great light in the morning, which is often in short supply in the rainforest.

What kept you going over the years despite obstacles?

It’s exciting to go to a place like New Guinea and have a chance to photograph birds that are so famous and yet so poorly known. Part of it was the opportunity to do something that hadn’t been done before. There are many books about the birds-of-paradise that use paintings based on museum specimens. We not only saw living examples of all the known species, we got pictures of all of them, and video of nearly all.

What role did the Cornell Lab play in this project?

The Lab became a big supporter and provided significant funding to help us complete the project. Ed and I have contributed more than 2,000 video clips of bird-of-paradise behavior to the Macaulay Library archives. Darwin went around the world collecting specimens. I think what we’re doing is really the exciting 21st- century version of biological collecting.

So you think the world’s got plenty of secrets left and places to discover?

Totally. I think that’s one of the great myths: that just because you can call up Google Earth and see the whole planet it means there’s no place left to explore. If there’s a group that’s as well-known as the birds-of-paradise that hasn’t been documented until now just think about all the other species of birds in New Guinea, not to mention reptiles, amphibians, insects, and invertebrates. There’s a huge potential for this kind of natural-history collecting using media.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library

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