Sketch by Tim Laman
Sketch by Tim Laman

The Moment: Bird's-Eye View

This story appears in the December 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Bird’s-Eye View Ground observers marvel at the courtship dance of the Wahnes’s parotia, a bird of paradise. For some 30 seconds, the male shakes his head and pushes his feathers out to form a “tutu” in the New Guinea rain forest. Photographer Tim Laman and ornithologist Edwin Scholes, out to document all 39 species, wondered, What does the female see from her overhanging branch? To find out, Laman rigged a tree with a laptop-controlled camera to record video as he and Scholes watched, hidden in a blind.—Luna Shyr

Behind the Lens

Q: How does this dance look to the lady bird?

A: It’s incredible how different it looks from above. You just see a black oval instead of a ballerina with a tutu on. The iridescence of the breast shield is so much brighter because it’s catching the light from above. We also saw a bright patch on the back of the head we didn’t know was part of the mating display. That was a real wow moment.

Q: Where’s the dance floor?

A: The bird picks a place with a horizontal perch where females can watch, and he removes leaves. He clears the area daily—about six feet across—so he can dance without falling over things.

Q: Did the bird meet with success?

A: Matings are rare. During the two weeks we worked on these shots, the male had no luck.