Wildlife photographer Tim Laman’s stunning take on nature in Bird Planet

Written by Rebecca Cairns, CNN

“I’m willing, more than most people, to go through some inconvenience.”

For example, American conservation photographer Tim Laman landed in a swampy river delta at midnight with water rising above his knees and his camera gear floating beside him. “I put myself in a situation,” he admits.

Laman was in Venezuela’s Orinoco Basin in search of scarlet ibises, bright orange birds that roost in the tangle of mangrove roots and sticky mudflats at dusk. He wanted to photograph the birds in the evening and morning light – which meant spending the night on a fixed plywood raft in the middle of the river. But the tide charts he used were incomplete, and as the sun went down the water rose above the raft.

“I stood on the platform all night waiting for the tide to go down, which it finally did in the morning,” says Laman. “The sun came up and I got my camera out again and took more pictures of the birds.”

It is a shot from that journey that wraps around the cover of his new photo book, Bird Planet, capturing the birds in flight against a baby blue sky and a softly glowing full moon.

“I think it was worth it overall,” he jokes. That mishap was the worst, he says, though after spending three decades photographing birds, he’s put himself in many precarious situations in search of the perfect picture.

Laman’s dynamic photos provide a glimpse of how birds live and moveā€”like this hornbill carrying a mouse to its nest in Thailand. Credit: Courtesy of Tim Laman

“When you freeze the moment of a bird in flight, taking off, or a (mating) display, you’re capturing a moment in time,” says Laman, who hopes his work will inspire people to care about birds and to take care of their habitats.

“They’re one of the most charismatic and easy-to-observe types of wildlife that people can see, whether they’re in the city or in the country,” he says, adding, “One of my goals is to get people to Appreciate them more and pay more attention to them. “

544 days and 40,000 photos

Laman developed his lifelong obsession with tropical birds while studying for his Ph.D. in the rainforests of Borneo. In the early 2000s, he presented a story to National Geographic about the birds of paradise of New Guinea, a tropical South Pacific island divided between the nation of Papua New Guinea to the east and Indonesia to the west. According to Laman, the publication had never published a feature on the birds with photos: “It seemed like a group that was really under-photographed and under-appreciated,” he adds.

Laman visited New Guinea five times for the article and presented photos of around 15 species for the report. But he wanted to do more and made it his mission to photograph all of the 39 species known to science at the time (that number has since risen to 45).

Between 2004 and 2012, Laman and ornithologist Edwin Scholes made 18 trips to New Guinea, spending a total of 544 days there. Laman took nearly 40,000 pictures, becoming the first person to capture all known bird-of-paradise species on camera.

This enormous undertaking gets an entire chapter in the book, revealing the dramatic and colorful mating performances of the birds.

This rare blue bird of paradise forages on its favorite tree in the Tari Valley of Papua New Guinea. Credit: Courtesy of Tim Laman

“Once they’ve found their display spot during the breeding season, they usually come every morning,” he says, adding that he spent up to eight hours a day in a “blind,” the camouflaged shelter scientists and photographers use to shoot Watch wildlife up close, waiting for the birds.

These small ceramic huts help endangered penguins and their chicks

He also shot footage of the birds of paradise, which have found their way into wildlife documentaries including Netflix’s Dancing with the Birds, and contributed to scientific research.
Laman is a co-founder of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of Paradise project, where his videos and images are archived for scientists to use in research.

In one case, Laman’s work provided confirmation for a DNA study that identified a specific bird-of-paradise species. “Once we recorded his behavior and revealed the shape of the emerging male’s feathers, it was really clear,” says Laman.

Another study of the colors and dance rituals of bird-of-paradise mating performances used nearly 1,000 archival video clips, which allowed the researchers “to perform a very detailed analysis of the evolution of bird-of-paradise performances without ever going to New Guinea,” says Laman.

A showcase species for the forest

Laman is a founding member of the International League of Conservation Photographers and his work has played a vital role in conservation.

His image of a greater bird of paradise at sunset became the face of a successful conservation campaign in New Guinea that prevented a vast swath of rainforest from being converted into a sugar cane plantation.

Laman’s photo of this larger bird of paradise in Indonesian New Guinea became the face of a conservation campaign to save the rainforest. Credit: Courtesy of Tim Laman

Scientists are planning the resurrection of a bird that has been extinct since the 17th century

However, plans for industrial logging, mining operations, palm oil plantations and major infrastructure projects threaten the integrity of these forests.

Laman hopes the birds of paradise can be a showcase species for New Guinea and “catch people’s attention to this important forest that we should be trying to protect.”

He’s also keen to show people that beautiful wildlife doesn’t just exist in faraway places: “Bird Planet” showcases the beauty of birds in his own backyard in Lexington, Massachusetts, such as blue jays and helmeted woodpeckers. Laman hopes readers will relate the photos in his book to the wildlife they see every day and take steps to protect natural nests wherever they exist.

“Birds are everywhere, from Antarctica to the Arctic to the tropics,” says Laman. “If we can protect habitat for birds, then it’s a great way to protect habitat for everything else.”

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