Biologist and photographer features 'Birds of Paradise'

Large-scale projections featuring New Guinea’s colorful “Birds of Paradise” will illustrate a lecture at Hope College on Wednesday, Jan. 30, about a landmark multi-year effort, recently featured in “National Geographic,” to document all 39 of the species for the first time.
Tribune Staff
Jan 20, 2013

Tim Laman, a field biologist and wildlife photojournalist who is a regular contributor to “National Geographic” as well as a 1983 Hope graduate, will present the talk at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 30, in the DeWitt Center main theatre.

The public is invited. Admission is free.

Laman and ornithologist Edwin Scholes, who is with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, conducted 18 expeditions between 2004 and 2011 to photograph and film the 39 species of these songbirds. Their journeys took them throughout the rain forest of New Guinea as well as to nearby islands and eastern Australia, where Laman often climbed trees towering more than 100 feet above the rain forest floor to chronicle not only the birds but also their courtship behavior.

“With 18 expeditions to New Guinea in eight years, this is clearly the most intensive photographic and behavioral study of the Birds of Paradise ever made,” said Eldon Greij, an ornithologist who is retired from the Hope biology faculty and was among Laman’s faculty mentors, who also included Christopher Barney and Harvey Blankespoor.

Greij noted that the 39 species are among the most brightly plumed of all birds and have developed spectacular displays and dances that are unrivaled among other birds. Their extremely modified feather plumes include wire-like strands, tail feather streamers more than three times the length of their body, antenna-like plumes protruding from their heads that are twice the length of their body, and elongated wires ending in round “paddles.”

In his 1869 book “The Malay Archipelago,” British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace wrote that the birds “must be ranked as one of the most beautiful and wonderful of living things.”

“What makes Tim’s spectacular photographs of these birds so special is the extreme difficulty of working in the rain forest,” Greij said.  “Courtship behavior varies with species, but occurs in the canopy as well as on the ground, which is usually dark and wet.”

“Tim’s photographic genius, in part, is to bring multiple cameras, both stills and video, to focus on a subject from different angles, allowing the analysis of virtually all feathers, color patterns and dance moves at the same time,” he said.  “Importantly, when some females were seen to observe male behavior from directly overhead, Tim cleverly rigged a camouflaged camera in the position of the female to record precisely what she saw.”

Getting to and from the canopy requires a line and harness for climbing up and rappelling down.  Laman gets his rappelling line over a branch in the canopy by using a bow-and-arrow attached to a fine line.  The rappelling rope is tied to the line and pulled over the branch, and then attached to his harness.

Laman’s and Scholes’s eight-year project was highlighted in a one-hour special that premiered on the National Geographic Channel on Thanksgiving Day; was featured in the December issue of “National Geographic” magazine; and is the subject of the extensively illustrated book “Birds of Paradise: Revealing the World’s Most Extraordinary Birds,” which Laman and Scholes co-authored and has been published by National Geographic and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  In addition, an exhibition on the birds opened at the National Geographic museum on November 1 and is continuing through May 12.

Laman, who majored in biology at Hope, first went to the rain forests of Borneo in 1987, and the Asia-Pacific region has been a major focus for both his scientific research and photography ever since.  His pioneering research in the rain forest canopy in Borneo led to a Ph.D. from Harvard and his first “National Geographic” article in 1997.  In addition to 21 feature stories on a variety of topics in “National Geographic” through the years, he has also published more than a dozen scientific articles related to rain forest ecology and birdlife, and is a research associate in the Ornithology Department at Harvard University.

His work has garnered numerous awards, including the highest honor of the North American Natural Photography Association in 2009:  the group’s annual “Outstanding Nature Photographer” Award.  Ten of his images have won recognition in the world’s top wildlife photography competition, the “Wildlife Photographer of the Year” awards, and he has won several prizes in the Nature’s Best International Photography awards, including first place in the underwater category.

The DeWitt Center is located at 141 E. 12th St., facing Columbia Avenue at 12th Street.

Comments

Missy Hanz

The bird looks like a flower. It is very small and colorful. - Arthur van der Vant

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