For award-winning photographer and ornithologist Tim Laman, documenting birds has been a lifelong passion that has taken him to over 100 locations in the world, from the Antarctic Peninsula to the uninhabited Foja Mountains of New Guinea. Laman’s new book Bird Planet, published in the UK by Abrams on 4th October 2022, collates his favourite images from over 25 years in the field and the adventures behind pursuing them. Here, Laman reveals his top 10 most memorable bird species, and the experiences he’s had photographing them.
10. Gone Fishing
“A Buffy Fish Owl strides across a fallen tree over a river in the Borneo rainforest. It is hunting for fish in the river below using its amazing night vision. This owl has unique features, like its incredibly huge pupils, opened wide to let in as much light as possible for seeing in the dark, and its remarkable long legs, which allow it to snag fish out of the water. I captured this image using a camera trap, a remote-controlled camera triggered by an invisible beam that stretched across the log. As the owl walked along the log it broke my beam and took its own photo.”
9. Competing Suitors
“Eclectus parrots have one of the more unusual breeding arrangements among birds. Good nest cavities are quite limited and there is a lot of competition for them, both with other eclectus parrots, but also cockatoos and other birds. The strategy the parrots have adopted is for the females to occupy nest sites way before the breeding season. Instead of leaving to feed, they rely on males to bring them food. Males compete with eachother to be the best provider and then the female will choose one as her mate.
As I staked out this nest site in the Iron Range National Park in Australia’s Cape York Peninsula, hoping to see a male arrive, I got not just one male arriving to bring food, but two at the same time, leading to this colourful interaction.”
8. Porpoising Adelie Penguin
“On Devil Island off the Antarctic peninsula, I visited an Adélie penguin colony. I noticed that as the penguins approached land from the sea, they leapt from the water in a behaviour known as ‘porpoising’. This gives them a chance to grab a breath while also looking toward the island to choose a landing spot. I had the idea to capture a penguin in mid-air, ‘flying’ right toward me. I spent quite a long time sitting on the rocky shore, watching for penguins approaching at full speed. Although I couldn’t see them underwater, I anticipated where they would come up. I focused on the water ahead of them, firing a burst of shots when I thought they were launching out. Success rate was low with such a method, but when I did get the timing and focus just right, I got one of my favourite shots of the trip.”
7. A Golden Lodger
“In the central part of Australia’s Cape York Peninsula, there is an area of savannah woodland dotted with a city of termite towers. The insects build these towers to control airflow and keep the temperature in their nest constant, even when there are great fluctuations outside. The golden-shouldered parrot specialises in nesting within these termite towers – a comfortable place to have a nest cavity even when it gets extremely hot in the sun outside. Unfortunately, the golden-shouldered parrot has a very limited range and populations have been in serious decline over recent decades. This is due to changes in natural fire regimes, feral cats, and other factors that are all related to humans.”
6. Dining by moonlight
“It was early October in the Coachella Valley of California and, as usual, I was out before sunrise. As I passed a row of honeysuckle bushes, where I had often photographed hummingbirds, I noticed the full moon about to set behind them. The glow of dawn from the east cast a little light on the flowers. I knew the hummingbirds would soon be starting to forage, and I had an idea — a hummingbird silhouette against the moon. The trick was how to get a hummingbird in the right spot before the moon disappeared. I found some flowers that lined up with the moon and as the hummingbirds began foraging I gambled that one would come to that cluster of flowers. Happily my efforts were rewarded, and I captured this unique shot.”
5. The Life of a Helmeted Hornbill
“My first opportunity to photograph helmeted hornbills came in 2001 when I visited Budo-Sungai Padi National Park, Thailand. I visited with Dr. Pilai Poonswad, founder of the Thailand Hornbill Project and noted hornbill conservationist, who took me to a hornbill nest. Without time to build a proper blind, I rigged a rope in a giant tree, a safe distance from the nest and sat in the tree with my camera, draped in camouflage. Imagine my surprise when the male landed near me with a giant stick insect in his bill! After a brief pause on this branch, the male flew over to the nest cavity and passed this high protein meal to his mate, who most likely fed it to their growing chick inside.”
“Helmeted hornbills are large birds with very special nest site requirements. Not only do they need to find a large enough cavity but the entrance must have a place for the birds to land. With a crew from the conservation group Planet Indonesia, I explored a remote area in Borneo in search for nest sites. We were lucky enough to see a male helmeted hornbill land and spend some time inspecting a potential nesting hole. Later, a female also came to take a closer look. Planet Indonesia continued to monitor this site, and I am happy to report that the pair successfully raised a chick there that year. It is absolutely critical that remaining forests with giant old trees like this are protected for the future of this critically endangered hornbill species.”
“Ever since my first brief effort photographing helmeted hornbills, I was hoping to find more time to document this amazing bird. My wake-up call came in 2015 when I learned that, in Indonesia, thousands of birds were being killed each year for the trade in their ivory-like “helmets.” The helmets were exported from Indonesia mostly to China to be carved into decorations. This prehistoric-looking bird had just been upgraged to “critically endangered” status.
For many years, Dr. Pilai Poonswad’s Thailand Hornbill Project has employed villagers, who formerly hunted hornbills, as nest monitors and guardians. They guided me deep into the forest, where I hid in a blind. My goal was to capture images from the wild of this now extremely rare bird, to show what we have to lose.
Sitting in my blind, my heart raced when I heard the male hornbill land in a tree nearby. I knew he was about to fly up to the nest after scanning the area for danger. Would he see my lens sticking out of the blind and be put off? No, he came soaring in for a dramatic landing and spent several minutes regurgitating a crop full of figs and passing them in to the female. My sincere hope is that my images can help make a difference in the protection of helmeted hornbills and other endangered species around the world.”
“When I saw the nearly full moon in the blue, late afternoon sky, and scarlet ibises flying over, I immediately saw this shot. I tried to choose groups that looked like they were going to pass near the moon and started tracking them with my 400 mm lens. I would get the birds in focus and then follow them, shooting a burst of images when they neared the moon.
This photograph illustrates some of my favorite things about bird photography. Photography starts with planning, choosing a subject, finding it, and being in the field at the right time and place. But there is always an element of uncertainty as well. For example, you can’t control the positions of the birds to arrange the composition precisely, like a painter would. When things come together it is very satisfying, and a photograph is made that captures a unique moment that will never again be repeated.”
Out on the Mudflats
“The ibis I captured in front of the moon were heading back from their feeding grounds in the shallow waters of the Orinoco River delta, Venezuela. I also wanted to get some eye-level views of scarlet ibises in the mudflats at low tide. But in order to get close to the birds I had to make a mobile blind that I could move across the mudflats.
I took a large, inflated truck inner tube, fixed a small platform on top of it, and erected a small camouflage tent trimmed with some branches that was big enough to hide my camera and my upper body. My legs remained outside the blind, and I pushed it across the mudflats, up to my knees in mud. My idea was to appear like a small bush and move slowly enough that the ibises would pay no attention to me. Thankfully, the invention worked.”
“I also photographed scarlet ibises on a small mangrove islet deep in the Caroni Swamp in Trinidad. I’d never seen anything like it. the birds kept arriving at this tree until it was perfectly trimmed in red. A small island is safe from mammalian predators, which is the most important thing for these birds as they settle down for the night.”
3. The Egg Thief
“Everybody loves toucans — except all the other birds! Toco toucans are notorious nest predators, meaning that they raid the nests of other bird species. They use their long bills to reach inside and extract eggs and even chicks to eat.
I was lucky enough to spot this toucan carrying an egg as it flew across an open grassland area of the Pantanal in Brazil. I jogged toward it carrying my biggest lens, just hoping he would still be holding the egg when I got close enough for a photo. Fortunately, he was not in a rush to swallow it. As I approached, I stopped every few yards to grab ‘insurance shots’ in case he flew or swallowed the egg. Eventually I got close enough for this shot without disturbing him. But just after I clicked this frame, he tossed back the egg and sent it right down the hatch in one gulp!”
2. A Surprising Reveal
“Wilson’s bird of paradise is the smallest of the forty or so species in the bird of paradise family, but certainly makes up for size with bold coloration. This small bird zips around his court from perch to perch, occasionally dropping to the ground to clear an errant leaf from his immaculate stage. His display is designed to be viewed from above and so Ed Scholes (founder of the Birds-of-Paradise Project at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and I were keen to try to photograph the display from a new angle.”
“We knew that the male Wilson’s bird of paradise had a green green iridescent breast shield. But we weren’t prepared for just how brightly coloured these green breast feathers would appear. It turns out there is a reason that males create their little clearing right beneath a treefall gap. That way, when they lean back to present their breast shield to a female, it catches the light from the opening in the trees above and reflects it right back to her in stunning fashion.
In order to photograph the performance from above, we watched the male from the ground to learn which sapling was his favorite perch for displaying. Ed and I then aligned a remote-controlled camera mount on a tree above the display court when the male was away. Over several days of pre-dawn starts, before the male arrived for his morning display session, we fine-tuned the camera position and lens choice until we were zeroed in on his striking breast shield display.
Photographing a natural history “first” is always exciting, especially when it also makes a contribution to scientific knowledge.”
1. A New Bird of Paradise
“Perhaps the highlight of all my expeditions to New Guinea was being the first person to photograph the display of the Vogelkop superb bird of paradise. No one realized how distinct in appearance and behavior this variety of superb bird of paradise was. That is until Ed Sholes and I found a display site and filmed a display for the first time during a shoot in 2016. Follow up trips for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to collect more information and images and genetic confirmation by other researchers, led us to publish a paper in 2018 elevating this population to full species status.”
“What was so exciting was not just finding a new species of bird of paradise, it was capturing just what an extraordinary bird this was. The cape that the male raises over his head is made up of feathers of a color scientists call ‘super-black’. The micro-structure of the feathers is such that nearly all light that hits it is trapped, and not reflected. No matter how much light hits it, there is never any detail in this black in my photographs.
The purpose of this black color seems to be to set off the striking iridescent blue ornaments of the breast shield and fake eye spots. The eyespots only look like eye spots if you are looking directly toward him. This is undoubtedly why he shifts around the female, constantly keeping her directly in front to dazzle her with his display. If you look closely at the above image you can see the glint of his actual, black eye, beneath the blue.”
Browse our galley to see more images from the book.