Birds–of–paradise don’t display in convenient places. They dance on the dim forest floor, strut in the tangled subcanopy, or pose in the highest, most inaccessible branches. And they vanish at the first sign of disturbance. To capture them in full detail required inventing new equipment, connecting remote cameras to computers, and building nearly invisible blinds from which to watch and film.
Multi-Cams: Revealing the Female Perspective
In over a decade of watching the courtship dances of male parotias, Cornell lab scientist, Ed Scholes, had never seen them from the perspective from which they evolved. In fact, nobody had.
Every description and documentation of these dances had been observed from the ground. Nobody had ever viewed them from the branch hanging above the display court, from the female’s point of view.
In other words, nobody has fully understood what female parotias find so attractive about the male’s dance.
On their eighteenth and last expedition in New Guinea, Ed and Tim Laman used new technology and a new strategy to get above the display court of a male Wahnes’s Parotia and capture the first glimpse of what a female parotia sees from her perch.
Doing so required a little ingenuity, thorough planning, and a considerable amount of patience.
Male parotias pay remarkable attention to detail when building their display courts.
They clear away all of the ferns, small saplings and leaves to open up a space on the forest floor.
They trim away leaves from overhanging limbs to open a pathway for the sun, a natural light source for their dance court.
Males are careful to select sites with an elevated horizontal branch so females have a spot to perch and to get a good view.
Ed and Tim had to employ their own engineering design to capture this perspective.
This diagram shows their plan, three cameras set up to simultaneously record the dance from multiple angles.
Camera “A” was positioned in the ground blind. From this spot, Tim could photograph the traditional view with a long lens, getting the fine details of the display.
Ed would be next to him, controlling cameras “B” and “C”, the two other remote units.
Camera “B” was concealed off to the side of the court with a wide-angle lens to get a view of the entire scene and camera “C” was for the female perspective.
It was deployed in a tree ten feet above the court with a line of sight directly down to the female’s perch and onto where the male would dance below.
Each piece of gear had to be installed when the birds were away from the display court.
All of it had to be hidden so as not to disturb the birds, especially the wary females.
More than two hundred feet of camouflaged cables were unfurled to connect the whole set up.
After installing their three-camera system, Ed and Tim sat in the blind and waited…And waited.
For two weeks, the birds teased. They were around but not very active.
It was about time to pack up camp and head out. And then, the big break, the show they had been waiting so long to see finally began.
Here’s the traditional view from the ground blind. The displaying male looks like a ballerina wearing a skirt or tutu. In fact, Ed calls this display the “ballerina dance.”
Here’s the view from the wide camera. And here’s the view from the female perspective. Here are the two remote cameras together.
While Ed knew the female perspective of the male’s display would be different, he never dreamed there was a totally new discovery waiting to be uncovered.
By observing the male’s courtship dance from above, a relatively minor patch of iridescent feathers on the back of the head comes into view.
To the female, this appears to be a visual cue tracing the side to side head movements which would otherwise be invisible against the velvet-black backdrop created by the male skirt.
Until Ed and Tim saw their video, they hadn’t understood the significance of this little ornament.
In a single moment, they had captured a unique insight into the forces of sexual selection that drive the evolution of the birds-of-paradise.
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To make a discovery you often have to do something new. To understand the “ballerina dance” of the Wahnes’s Parotia, Ed and Tim had to devise a way to film from new angles using remote cameras. The result helps explain how males use some previously mysterious display feathers. In this case, Tim’s camera expertise went beyond photojournalism to prove crucial in making a scientific advance.
Leaf-Cam: A Hidden Camera Takes a Fresh Look
The greater bird-of-paradise lives deep in the rainforest of western New Guinea and nearby
Like most birds-of-paradise these creatures have evolved complex courtship displays.
And, like scientists, Tim and Ed have always wanted to better understand these unique birds
and their mechanisms of sexual selection.
But how do you study a bird, the size of a crow, that displays at the top of a tree,
one hundred feet above the ground.
Most scientists have used cameras with long lenses and heavy tripods anchoring them to
the forest floor.
These efforts often resulted in blurred or obscured images.
Ed and Tim’s solution to this: record displays up in the canopy.
With the greater bird-of-paradise they knew they couldn’t put a blind in a tree where
the birds are without disturbing them.
Instead they located a nearby tree that’s strong enough to hold Tim and provides a clear
line of sight into the display area.
Tim is an expert tree climber.
He hauls himself up into the neighboring tree, builds a sturdy concealed blind, and mounting
the same long lens that he uses on the ground, gets stunning close ups.
These images led Tim and Ed to wonder if a camera could be hidden in the display tree
right next to the birds, providing an unprecedented view from within their world.
To crack this challenge they invented the leaf cam.
Tim took a small GoPro camera and sewed it between two large leaves using a thin vine
as thread, climbed the 100 feet, assessed which branches were suitable, and mounted
the camera just above the display branch.
Right here, you see the main display branch of the greater bird-of-paradise.
There’s my blind over there.
And right here, the leaf camera is ready to capture bird-of-paradise display.
The birds were unaffected and the images were a great surprise.
But the techniques needed improvement.
The inability to effectively control the recording and the poor image quality forced them to
consider a more sophisticated digital camera.
Tim installed this heavier gear and ran 60 feet of USB cable to the blind in the nearby
With this refined solution he could sit in his blind, observe the display branch from
his perch and actively control the leaf cam by adjusting focus and exposure from a laptop.
Take a look at his image.
Tim worked for years to capture a view of a greater bird-of-paradise displaying in the
foreground with the rainforest in the background.
A lot of engineering and effort went into getting these stunning images.
Two 100 foot tall trees side-by-side, climbing ropes hung from both trees, a solidly constructed
blind perched on one tree, a leaf cam mounted high in the display tree, the two trees feathered
together with computer cable.
Tim spent eight days scrambling up and down the trees in order to capture the perfect
The light was ideal.
The animals were unaffected by the technology.
Most importantly, Tim and Ed had captured behavior from a perspective that no scientist
had ever seen before.
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The extraordinary display of the Greater Bird–of–Paradise is a very hard thing to witness: the birds perform at dawn, high in the rainforest canopy. To capture the details of the display and the females’ responses, Tim and Ed devised an ingenious remote camera they could place in the display tree, at eye level with the birds.
Building Blinds Hiding in Plain Sight
So there’s the court, right there.
You can see the kind of clear patch of forest,
and there’s one nice stick, that’s the main…
the main court stick.
obtain the close, intimate looks at birds without
working out of a blind.
You have to sort of
hide or disappear into the forest
if you want to be able to get that close to the animals.
I’m Eric Liner and I’m a cinematographer and producer with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology,
and I had the good fortune of working and filming with Ed and Tim
on the Birds-of-Paradise Project.
Two little trees, right here.
The first thing we would do when we’d arrive at a display site is identify
the best perspective to film from.
We’d try to find the spot that’s least obstructed, where the sun isn’t going to
be problematic if it moves throughout the day, try to find the least distracting
backgrounds to film against.
And once we’d identify that spot where we wanted to work, it was time to build
a blind or hide.
The difference working in the jungle versus working in the United States is that we
actually couldn’t transport our blinds, that we’re limited
with how much equipment we’re able to take.
And so what we would do, we’d communicate
to the locals who we were working with, where we wanted to be,
the height of the blind, where the opening should be for the windows,
and once we’re all sort of on the same page about where the blind
is going to go, that’s when the real magic begins,
that’s when the blind building starts.
And the guys we’d be working with would just disappear, just, you know,
immediately disperse into the forest.
And you’d hear the thwacking sounds of their machetes as they’re taking down small
saplings or palm fronds.
And within moments,
they’re all coming back from the forest with big arm loads of materials to
construct these blinds.
The key tool in that process is the machete.
There isn’t anything that they can’t do with a machete. It is like the duct tape
of the jungle tools.
There isn’t anything that can’t be fixed
or anything that can’t be made with a machete in hand.
It’s really impressive and quite remarkable
just how efficient, effective, and skillful they are.
They’ll use vines for a sort of natural lashing material to lash together the
branches for a frame.
And then they’ll make this tight
thatch of fronds that will serve as basically the camouflage material
around the blind.
In what seems like sort of no time at all,
a very robust and,
because it matches all the natural environment, a very hidden blind.
The structures could be anything from a simple cube or square
to these just fantastic, sophisticated egg-like structures high in the canopy.
You can’t help but be impressed with the quality
and the effectiveness of the structure, the blinds,
that people of Papau, New Guinea are able to construct out of materials that they
find all around them in the forest.
It’s worth keeping in mind
that the intimate images
and incredible behaviors
that Tim and Ed have been able to capture over the course of their work on the
are due in large part to the blinds that locals help them create in order to
film the birds and really disappear into the forest.
That’s nice. There’s fruits up there, so we’re hoping those birds will come and feed on it.
I’m now in a blind
at the display site of a Magnificent Riflebird.
One of the black birds-of-paradise, he has an amazing display.
That’s him, he’s calling.
He’s just up above on a high vine up in the canopy.
But he has another vine right in front of me, over here, just outside my blind,
where he’s been displaying the past couple afternoons.
So I’m quietly waiting here in my blind to get shots of him when he comes down.
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All the high–tech cameras in the world won’t capture close–up images of skittish birds without one decidedly low–tech accessory: a filming blind. The blind hides people and equipment so they don’t disturb the birds. Here Cornell Lab producer Eric Liner tells how local New Guineans used their intimate knowledge of the rainforest to build sturdy blinds using little more than saplings, vines, and machetes.
The Human Endeavor
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.