Courtship call of the greater bird-of-paradise (with intro by Tim Laman)

As the first rays of sunlight spill over the rainforest canopy here on Indonesia’s Aru Islands, a male greater bird-of-paradise (Paradisaea apoda) swoops onto its stage and prepares to give what is surely one of the most spectacular performances in the animal kingdom. With golden light filtering through the bird’s wispy, watch-me display feathers, he begins to hop and pirouette, piercing the misty morning air with his courtship call as he cycles through his signature dance moves. While most of the females he’s trying to impress have seen it all before, it’s a performance that very few people on Earth have ever witnessed—partly because it happens 100 feet above the forest floor.

For photographer Tim Laman, who joined scientist Ed Scholes from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology on 18 different expeditions over the course of eight years in an effort to document for the first time all 39 known species in the bird-of-paradise family, capturing this high-altitude courtship display required both patience and ingenuity. First, Laman and Scholes had to find a male’s display tree in the middle of the dense rainforest. Then, they had to devise a strategy to ensure that they wouldn’t disturb the birds while attempting to photograph their dance. Their plan required countless trips up and down two towering trees, but, in the end, provided unprecedented and unobtrusive access. In the top branches of the display tree, Laman mounted a digital camera that was disguised in a homemade jacket of leaves. In a neighboring tree, he built a blind that would give him a direct line of sight to the bird’s display branch. Using 60 feet of USB cable, he connected the camera to his laptop, allowing him to control the focus and framing remotely.

On the morning when Laman finally captured this scene, he started scaling trees at 4:30 am to make sure he’d be set up before sunrise. (He had been climbing these same trees for eight straight days.) Then, at just the perfect moment, a magnificent greater bird-of-paradise flew into his frame to begin his dawn display, and Laman knew instantly that all the scrambling and planning had been worthwhile. With its highly modified display feathers fanned out—feathers that have evolved through sexual selection to become so lacy and decorative that they are no longer useful for insulation or flight—the bird was a testament to the remarkable courtship traits that have evolved in the bird-of-paradise family, and a powerful reminder of why Laman and Scholes had embarked on this project in the first place.

As he sat in his blind and recorded the performance, Laman wasn’t the only one admiring the bird’s impressive display. A few minutes later, a female arrived and watched with rapt attention as her suitor bounced and bowed and flapped his wings. Female birds-of-paradise are very discerning when it comes to selecting a partner (they sometimes watch weeks’ worth of performances before choosing a mate), and she wasn’t yet convinced that she wanted to put all her eggs in his basket. But he had caught her attention, and he was working hard to keep it.

Aru Islands, Indonesia

Tim Laman

Tim Laman is a field biologist and wildlife photojournalist. He has spent the vast majority of his career studying and photographing wild places in the Asia-Pacific region, a fascination that began with his first trip to the rainforests of Borneo in 1987. Laman’s pioneering research in the rainforest canopies of Borneo led to a PhD from Harvard and his first National Geographic article in 1997. Since then, he has continued to pursue his passion for exploring wild places and documenting little-known and endangered wildlife and biodiverse regions under threat. Laman has 21 National Geographic articles to his credit, and has published more than a dozen scientific articles on birds and rainforest ecology.

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