Wildlife photographer Tim Laman’s stunning nature imagery on ‘Bird Planet’

Written by Rebecca Cairns, CNN

Call to Earth is a CNN series committed to reporting on the environmental challenges facing our planet, along with the solutions. Rolex’s Perpetual Planet initiative partnered with CNN to promote awareness and education around key sustainability issues and inspire positive action.

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

That’s how American photographer Tim Laman ended up with water rising above his knees in a marshy river delta at midnight, his camera gear floating by his side. “I found myself in a situation,” he admits.

Laman was in Venezuela’s Orinoco Basin, looking for scarlet birds curling up among the tangle of mangrove roots and sticky mudflats at dusk. He wanted to photograph the birds in the evening and the morning light — which meant spending the night on a fixed plywood raft in the middle of the river. But the tides he used were incomplete, and as the sun set, the water rose above the raft.

“I spent the whole night standing on the platform, waiting for the tide to go out, which it finally did by morning,” says Laman. “The sun came out and I took out my camera and took more pictures of the birds.”

It is a snapshot from this trip that wraps around the cover of his new photo album, “Bird Planet”, capturing birds in flight, against a baby blue sky and softly glowing full moon.

“I think it was worth it, all in all,” he jokes. This adventure was the worst, he says, although after spending three decades photographing birds, he put himself in many precarious positions in search of the perfect image.

Laman’s dynamic photographs give insight into how birds live and move — like this rhino carrying a mouse to its nest in Thailand. Credit: Courtesy Tim Laman

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

“It’s one of the most charismatic and easily observed types of wildlife that people can see whether in the city or in the countryside,” he says, adding: “Getting people to appreciate and pay more attention is one of the goals my. “

544 days and 40,000 photos

Laman developed his lifelong obsession with tropical birds while conducting research for his Ph.D. in the rainforests of Borneo. In the early 2000s, he published a story in National Geographic about the birds of paradise of New Guinea, a tropical island in the South Pacific that is split between the nation of Papua New Guinea to the east and Indonesia to the west. According to Laman, the publication had never run a feature on 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, presenting photos of about 15 species for the feature spread. But he wanted to do more and made it his mission to photograph all 39 species known to science at the time (that number has since grown 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 photographs, becoming the first person to capture every known species of paradise on camera.

This massive effort gets an entire chapter in the book, revealing the birds’ dramatic and colorful mating displays.

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

“Once you find their location 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 used by scientists and photographers to observe the wildlife up close, waiting for the birds.

He also shot birds of paradise footage, which has been featured in wildlife documentaries, including Netflix’s “Dancing with the Birds,” and contributed to scientific research.
Laman is the co-founder of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds-of-Paradise Project, where his videos and images are archived for use by scientists in research.

In one case, Laman’s work confirmed a DNA study that identified a distinct species of paradise. “Once we recorded his behavior and revealed the shape of the plumes of the displaying male, it was really clear,” says Laman.

Another study on the colors and dance rituals of birds-of-paradise mating displays used nearly 1,000 videos from the archive, allowing the researchers to carry out “a very detailed analysis of the evolution of paradise displays, without ever going to New Guinea.” , says Laman.

A kind of flagship for the forest

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

The image of a larger paradise at sunset has become the face of a successful conservation campaign in New Guinea, which prevented a vast area of ​​rainforest from being converted into a sugarcane plantation.

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

New Guinea is home to the third largest rainforest in the world, after the Amazon and the Congo, and with 80% remaining intact, it is important as a home for wildlife and carbon sequestration.

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

Laman hopes birds of paradise can be a flagship species for New Guinea and “bring people’s attention to this important forest that we have to try to protect.”

He’s also eager to show people that beautiful wildlife doesn’t just exist in faraway places: “Bird Planet” showcases the majesty of birds in his Lexington, Massachusetts backyard, like blue jays and pileated woodpeckers. Laman hopes readers will connect his book’s photos with the wildlife they see every day and take action to protect pockets of nature 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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