Being a scientist isn’t all lab coats and test tubes. An undertaking like the Birds-of-Paradise Project demands an explorer’s passion, a scientist’s curiosity, an inventor’s ingenuity, plenty of patience, and endless hard work. See how Ed Scholes, Tim Laman, and their guides met these challenges through preparation, dedication, and creativity.
Determination: Pursuit of the Astrapia
One of the reasons there’s been so little documentation of these birds in pictures is that it’s extremely hard to find their display sites.
And so you can hike around the forest and maybe see them, you know, bird watching but to actually get pictures of them, you…umm… To capture the really unique aspect of the behavior of their displays, you’ve got to find their display sites and that just requires a lot of time in the forest following the birds, and being up before dawn listening for their calls, finding where they’re displaying from.
We got up to head to the Arfak Astrapia site before the sun came up, 4:30 in the morning. We were down to one of the last days of this expedition.
I think all humans get a thrill out of discovery. We love it when we see something no one’s ever seen before. But sometimes, the road to discovery can be pretty brutal.
We got there, hadn’t really heard the bird or anything yet. You’re sweaty and hot; we had just marched through the forest to get there. And it was not really clear where the bird was going to be.
There’s the call. He’s right up here.
In the distance, we hear the clicking sound of the male. It doesn’t sound like a song or even like a call. It actually sounds more like a human being going, ‘click’. Look up. There he goes, there he goes. In the fruit, in the fruit.
There, that was pretty good for the first shots of the astrapias.
Needs improvement, but at least it’s something.
I was starting to get the feeling that it was going to be a bust, that we got our one shot to basically prove the existence and that was going to be it.
And right around that time we had a trick up our sleeve.
Fortunately, the day before we had made a successful recording of the male… the ‘click’ sound.
And we had brought back the recorder for playback and a small pair of speakers.
The male kept calling and I kept playing back with the recorder. And he would move away, go away for a little while, and we were afraid we were going to lose him. And he’d come back, closer. Then he’d move away and come back. So he was clearly interested in responding to the playback.
Then this remarkable thing happened where, I think because of the playback, he got excited that maybe there was another bird around. At one point, I look up with my naked eye and I see the bird upside down. And I think, oh my gosh, he’s displaying.
I thought I’d probably have to be satisfied with just an obstructed view, maybe get him in the frame a little bit, but you know, I actually got some shots where he’s upside down and you can see it really clearly. Yeah, you can. You know, so you can see the posture.
That’s something that’s never been documented before.
That’s it. That’s as close as you get to “aha” moments in science anymore. Aha!
That’s what he does.
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Filming all 39 birds-of-paradise required crisscrossing New Guinea to find each species’ particular region and favored habitat. For each one Ed and Tim had to hike in, find a male and his display perch, build a blind, and then come back at the crack of dawn to wait and watch. In the Arfak Mountains their hard work paid off with the first images ever captured of the little-known Arfak Astrapia.
Ingenuity: Capturing the Ideal Shot
We went to the Aru Island in Indonesia to photograph the greater bird-of-paradise.
It did take several hours by boat up a channel and then hiking in through the forest to get to the location. And then of course, the whole time I was thinking what is this location going to be like, is it going to be possible to get a good picture, are we going to have a good view?
Many birds-of-paradise display on the ground or near the ground in the lower part of the forest, and those of course are a little easier to photograph and film.
The greater bird-of-paradise displays up in the treetops, and when we got to the site it was immediately apparent that I was not going to have a good enough view from the ground, to shoot from the ground.
And I knew I was going to have to climb up in the tree, make some sort of platform and a blind up in a tree in order to be able to photograph the birds.
All right, here it goes. All right, we got the rope over.
For Tim, having the ability to be an expert tree climber and taking his 6’7″ frame up into a tree and sitting in a cramped blind and then waiting for seven or eight hours for a bird to show up and get the images – there are very few people on the planet who can probably do that.
A good example of that is the work that we did on greater bird-of-paradise.
All right. Here’s the lek right here. See these branches right here.
This is the main display perch, and the secondary perch there. And there’s my blind over there, where I’ve been shooting from. And right here is my leaf camera.
And now we had two ropes up two different trees and the first thing Tim had to do was climb the tree in the dark, get the camera set up, climb back down, go over to the other tree, climb that tree, get in, set up his big camera, set up the laptop, plug everything in and basically pray it was all going to work because there wasn’t any more opportunity to climb back down and fix it if it didn’t work because the sun was coming up and the birds were coming.
Ever since the beginning of the birds-of-paradise project I’ve been sort of dreaming of a shot where I could see a bird in the foreground and be looking out over the rain forest in the background.
And I saw the shot download to my laptop and I said that’s it, and I knew I had it.
That was a real exciting moment where I had sensed that sense of success after all these years of sort of dreaming about a shot like that.
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Doing research means doing things no one else has done before, so a big part of being a scientist is solving problems. On top of hard work and training, scientists need ingenuity. Tim Laman had to get creative to film Greater Birds-of-Paradise displaying high in the forest canopy. Watch his process as he hatches an idea, goes the distance to install it, and eventually succeeds.
Teamwork: Discovery Through Collaboration
That’s the female. And there he goes.
The land of the birds-of-paradise is isolated at many levels, and that’s one of the important reasons why thirty-nine species have evolved to be so different.
Getting to the difficult to reach places, had to go to so many different mountain ranges….so many different islands.
It’s all very logistically challenging, and once you’re there you have to know enough about the birds to be able to find them.
And once you find them, you have to have an enormous amount of patience to be able to be in the right place at the right time.
The work really isn’t that glamorous. It involves hours and hours of just sitting and waiting and doing nothing other than having your blood sucked by leeches and mosquitos.
Which way is the trail? I don’t know, where’s the trail?
No matter where we go, we end up having to hire a whole team of people to porter our gear to the site where we’re going to work more remotely in the forest. Sometimes the whole village, the men, the women, even some of the kids, are carrying boots and shovels. Okay, thank you very much. There’s absolutely no way we could even do the work that we do in New Guinea without working with the local people.
These people are experts in their homeland. They know where the resources are; they know where different kinds of forests are. They often know where the birds that we’re after are.
While I’m sitting in a blind trying to photograph one species, I’m always aware that I’m just working on one particular bird.
Ed is usually spending his time either at other sites observing and documenting or scouting, trying to find new places for both of us to work.
It’s really a division of labor. He’s doing the thing that he’s a specialist at, that’s climbing the trees and getting the photographs in the canopy. And I’m doing the thing I’m a specialist at, and that’s finding other birds, finding other individuals of different species and deciding where we’re going to work next.
Every day we’re out there doing the things that we’re both the best at. That’s why our partnership works.
Well, it’s better than from my angle. At least you’re looking down. Well, that’s one of another advantage of having two different angles because I’m looking up like that.
I have this, like, bright sunny patch like that right in the background right now.
A fundamental motivation for our work is scientifically driven. It’s not simply to have beautiful images or images that can be used to tell the stories we’re telling. But for us it’s also an opportunity to understand more about these birds and what they do and how they’ve evolved and how they’ve come to be.
Everybody out there, whether they’re scientists or not, they crave that same kind of feeling. Knowing that things exist that they didn’t know about and getting to experience it for the first time.
That’s one of the most incredible things about the birds-of-paradise. They are an example of that extraordinary element of our planet’s natural heritage that offers so many rewards for discovery and so many opportunities to see things that haven’t been seen before.
The extreme isolation of this region has helped to shape the diverse evolution of these birds. But that same isolation has made it really difficult for scientists to study them.
Ed and I see our work as a way to make what was unknown, known. With the birds-of-paradise, there’s always something more to discover.
Were you watching when they flew over there? I was.
So what was your interpretation? They didn’t get anywhere near the spike structures underneath them…
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Scientific breakthroughs take teamwork. This project required experts in photography, tree climbing, sound recording, animal behavior, and evolution—plus the unique knowledge of native New Guineans. With the combined skills of Tim, Ed, and local experts, the project was a success. But if any one of the team had been missing, we might still be guessing at the details of the birds-of-paradise.
By the Numbers
No voice narration.
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What does it take to come home from New Guinea with images of all 39 species of birds-of-paradise? Summing it up in two numbers—18 expeditions and 8 years—tells only part of the story. Numbers like 544 days, 109 blinds, and 39,568 photos give a little more perspective. Take a look at more numbers from the project to sense some of the energy and dedication that were required behind the scenes.
Methods and Technology
Birds–of–paradise are very tricky to see, capture, and study
Ed Scholes: Evolutionary Biologist
I happened to be at home one evening, had the television on…I think I was probably procrastinating from studying for something important and I was flipping through the channels and I just happened to catch the opening credits and it was called, “Attenborough in Paradise.”
I saw some vaguely tropical looking backgrounds and for that next hour, I just kept slowly creeping closer and closer to the television. It got dark while I was sitting there. The room was lit by the blue glow of the television.
This was the very first time that anybody had ever done a documentary film with more than one species of birds-of-paradise.
I remember sitting there watching this and just thinking, how in the world can those birds exist?
And I said that’s it…I don’t know if I’ll do anything with my life but if I do one thing, I wanna find a way to go to New Guinea and at least see a bird-of-paradise.
My name is Ed Scholes. I live in Ithaca, New York. I work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and my job is a two-part job. I’m a scientist and biologist, as well as, a curator of a biodiversity video collection in the Macaulay Library.
I was always a very outdoorsy child. I mean, I lived in very suburban areas. I was one of those kids who’d always find the wooded lot nearby, ride my bicycle around for hours to get away from the houses and go exploring some little patch of woods.
And I think it was that desire to explore even the small patches of wilderness around me that kind of led to this passion for formalizing it once I was given the opportunity to.
I am a comparative biologist; I make sense of biological diversity by studying the similarities and differences among organisms, both closely related and more distant.
It was that drive to feel like I couldn’t understand the evolution of any one of the birds-of-paradise unless I had seen them all.
It was sort of like looking at a mosaic of tiles and if you were to just look at a handful of those tiles, you wouldn’t really see the big picture. And so I had to see all the tiles to be able to step back and understand what this evolutionary mosaic is about.
One of the most influential things in my past was in high school.
This was in Texas; I had a really amazing biology teacher. He actually took us outside for a lot of field trips.
We were at a wildlife reserve and we went out with a master’s student who was radio tracking raccoons.
I remember later having this kind of epiphany.
Is it really true that you can go to school and study raccoons and their behavior and track them with radio collars?
I think I knew that kind of thing existed but I had never really realized that was something you could go to school for.
It takes a lot of personal commitment and dedication to do this kind of work; it’s not easy to leave from home in Ithaca, New York, and say bye to my friends and family, and travel about as far away on the globe as you can get from where I live and spend a month or more there.
But I think this is true for me and for Tim, we do it because we’re just extremely fascinated with the amazing things and the amazing component of global biodiversity that the birds-of-paradise represent.
In 2001, when I was in a remote mountain range on the northern part of Papua New Guinea, I remember going up to this big tree stump and a log had fallen across this little ravine. And there on that log was the male Superb Bird-of-paradise.
It was the first time I’ve ever seen one anywhere but high up in the trees. And I realized that’s probably his display site.
And he was vocalizing and he was turning, and he was looking up and it was really clear to me that there was a female around.
And all of a sudden, he starts going into his display and a female comes down, and this is the first time I had ever seen the display of the Superb Bird-of-paradise and years before anybody else had ever filmed it.
And I think even to this day if you were to listen really closely to the original recording with headphones on, I think you can hear me mouthing something like, “Oh My God”!
That moment of seeing that for the first time definitely has never left me.
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How do you get to be an evolutionary biologist who does fieldwork in remote tropical forests? As Ed explains, he was a pretty normal kid from the suburbs. A high-school teacher took him out on class field trips, and Ed realized that being a scientist could mean going on field trips as a career. After seeing an early TV show about birds-of-paradise, he knew where he wanted to go.
Tim Laman: Wildlife Photojournalist
There’s no specific formula for how to pursue a career in wildlife photography and field science. Everybody has to find their own way.
The most important thing for me is that you need to be completely passionate about your work. It’s more of a lifestyle than a job.
My name is Tim Laman. I’m a field biologist and a wildlife photographer. I live in Lexington, Massachusetts, near Boston, and I work all over the world. But I especially spend a lot of time going to the tropical rainforest regions of the world such as the Amazon, and especially, New Guinea and Indonesia.
I grew up in Japan. I went to Japanese public school. I can remember that when I was in first and second grade, I had a small pet turtle. And as part of a school exercise, we were to write poems about something, and I wrote a poem in Japanese about my pet turtle.
And my poem was, well, it was selected to be published in the local newspaper there. So I guess my first publication was this little poem I wrote about my pet turtle in second grade.
I think I really got intrigued with bird photography because birds are challenging. They’re not easy -there’s flight, interesting behavior, color. There’s lots of aspects to bird photography that are a little different than other kinds of wildlife. I guess I like the challenge of it, as well as the beauty, and just, you know, being out, being outdoors.
When I was twelve, on one of the summers when we were back in the United States, my father took me on my first real sort of experience in the wilderness. He took me on a canoe trip up in Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota, where we paddled our canoe off into the wilderness and spent a whole week.
And I don’t think we saw anybody for several days. I just found that really exciting, this idea of being out there in the wilderness, catching fish to eat for dinner, and I think that was a real inspirational trip for me. I really developed this love of wild places that I keep seeking out to this day.
There wasn’t a specific moment that I can remember having an epiphany or anything, where I realized, oh yeah, I want to become a wildlife photographer or field biologist. It was a gradual process of pursuing various things that interested me and finding my way to this current career that I’m pursuing.
When I went to college, I was very interested in biology. I began to look for opportunities to get involved in research and fieldwork. I found out about a project in Borneo.
I was fascinated by the rainforests. I’d never been to a rainforest. I was living at this research camp for an entire year, and after many months, I really had this desire to, you know, see the sunset or get a little more distant view. I mean, the forest is, is so tall.
I got a friend to bring out some ropes and I was able to climb up the rope and get up there. And that’s kind of what got me started on exploring the rainforest canopy.
Since few scientists bother to take that difficult step of climbing up into the tree tops, it’s really kind of a wide-open field of research. That canopy level of the forest is really where most of the action is.
Most people who look at pictures in National Geographic Magazine, they have no idea how much work goes into every shot.
For me, I don’t have any qualms about spending one week to get one amazing shot. I’m not going to take one picture, I may take a couple thousand pictures during that week, but my goal is really just to get one publishable image.
What I’m doing now, being a wildlife photographer as well as scientist, it really kind of requires a combination of skills or mindsets. This combining of my scientific background and my photography interest, it’s a perfect kind of combination to make these expeditions where I’m trying to photograph and record wildlife to tell stories, but I’m also making scientifically valuable collections at the same time.
To me, that’s the best of both worlds. I really enjoy going to these remote places and I love the experiences of seeing the wildlife, being there firsthand, and seeing a Parotia Bird-of-Paradise do its incredible ballerina dance right in front of me.
But then the really satisfying thing about it is that I’m able to share with others and have people see these places that they wouldn’t get to see.
Being able to be the eyes to tell the stories and to share that with people around the world makes it really satisfying.
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Tim Laman is both a trained biologist and one of the foremost nature photographers in the world. As he explains in this video, he achieved this not by following a set path but by using all his energy, passion, and creativity to pursue the things that captivated his interests.