Birds of paradise have evolved into very conspicuous animals with orange, red and turquoise plumage and ornate wire-like feathers that have captured the imagination of scientists and bird enthusiasts alike.
Their showy features are a delight to behold, but they would also make them an easy target for hungry cats and other predatory mammals -- if there were any around. The absence of such predators is precisely what allowed these otherwise impractical species to evolve.
"There was an evolutionary opportunity to develop that kind of extravagance," ornithologist Ed Scholes of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology said. "They're a quirk of geography."
More than 20 years ago, wildlife photographer Tim Laman saw his first birds of paradise, the Standardwing and the Red Bird of Paradise, while traveling in Indonesia. He started imagining a project to photograph every species of these birds in their natural habitats of New Guinea and parts of Australia.
"It was one of the dream assignments on my list," said Laman, who's also a rainforest biologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard.
Laman, whose work often focuses on conservation, finally pitched the project to National Geographic in 2003. He teamed up with Scholes, and during the next three years the pair made five trips to New Guinea and managed to photograph about half of the 39 species of birds of paradise.
After eight years, Laman and Scholes completed their mission of photographing all of the bird-of-paradise species, including the ballerina-like bronze parotia, which only recently was recognized as the 39th species.
The project took Laman and Scholes through more than 200 flights, 18 expeditions and thousands of hours spent hiding in blinds as high as 50 meters above ground. They set up a battery-powered jungle ethernet and remote-controlled cameras hooked up to laptops to take the nearly 40,000 photographs that comprise the Birds of Paradise Project.
Here is a selection of some of the best videos and photos from their avian adventures.
Goldie’s birds-of-paradise live on two or three islands on the western edge of Papua New Guinea.
Males coordinate their displays and their calls sound almost like an intense duet, says Scholes.