An Intrepid Photographer’s Stunning Compilation

June 17, 2023

A review by Rachel Clark

Bird Planet: A Photographic Journey by Tim Laman

Abrams, 2022

224 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 15298

 

Wildlife biologist, photographer, and filmmaker Tim Laman’s Bird Planet is a vibrant, richly detailed, highly captivating, and inspirational photographic voyage through eight different geographic regions: Southeast Asia, Japan, North America, Africa, South America, New Guinea, Australia, and Antarctica. Bird Planet is not a comprehensive study of the birds in the regions it covers. Instead, it showcases select works of Laman’s photographs from each location. When perusing Bird Planet, what first grabs the attention of the reader is the spectacular detail and uniqueness of each of the photographs, which adorn the front and back of the book as well as most of the pages inside.

Each image is distinctive, and each manages to capture not only the bird’s various character traits, but also the delicate beauty of the surrounding habitat. The text, though not as eye-catching, is equally enthralling. Occupying a noticeably lesser portion of the book, the text offers valuable insight into the techniques used to photograph the birds, the life history of the subjects, and relevant conservation concerns. In concert, the images and text serve to excite, inform, and inspire readers, and will surely help give rise to the next generation of conservationists, wanderers, and wildlife photographers.

Bird Planet is chock full of exquisite imagery. Each chapter covers a different geographic region and contains its own set of stunning images. Each photograph conveys something a little different from the rest.  Some are bathed in bright hues, while others are more subdued. Some are shockingly crisp, close-up images, displaying the intricacies of the bird’s facial features and plumage characteristics, while others are taken from a greater distance, and show not only the bird itself, but also its natural surroundings. Some of the photos fall somewhere in between, but each is powerful in its own right and is instantly captivating.

To determine which of the photos are the most alluring would be an almost impossible task, but it would be a serious mistake not to at least describe a few potential front-runners. In the Southeast Asia chapter, Laman’s images of Rhinoceros Hornbills are at once intriguing. Featuring both young and adults, this group of photos ranges from stunning up-close captures highlighting the birds’ red orbital rings and pale eyes to wider frames showcasing the birds in their lush rainforest home. Other photos show this species in its element, going about daily activities, such as eating and delivering food to a mate in a nest hole. No matter the angle, each of these images serves to endear its subject matter to the reader.

Another set of images abundantly worthy of mention come from the New Guinea chapter. Laman’s birds-of-paradise photographs offer the audience a rare and exciting glimpse into the lives of these gaudy yet mysterious species that many people will never get to see with their own eyes. One particularly breathtaking image depicts a male Greater Bird-of-Paradise perched atop his display tree. With his wings spread and tail fanned, he fixes his gaze toward the rising sun, whose gentle rays are rolling over the treetops in the Badigaki Forest. Laman’s images of the Black Sicklebill showcase the male’s bizarre beauty as he performs extravagant courtship displays. With his dark body turned sideways, feathers arced over his head, and bright yellow mouth agape, he tries his best to gain the approval of a nearby female. Laman’s images of the Wilson’s Bird-of-Paradise are perhaps more endearing still, with one showing a female perched a few inches above a displaying male, looking down on him as he fans his breast shield and gyrates his tail feathers. The photograph on the following page is an eye-popping close-up shot of the male’s bright green breast shield, dark face, and blue cap. Adding to the intrigue, Laman points out that the green hues in the male’s breast shield are only visible when viewed from above.

While there is much more that could be said about the global imagery in Bird Planet, there is perhaps just as much that can be said about the text. Though less of a focal point than the photographs, the text is just as rich in detail. Laman takes care to discuss the varied techniques used to obtain the photographs, as well as to offer the audience fun facts about the subjects and to discuss the plight of the species that are imperiled. The print may be on the smaller side, but the text is every bit worth reading, as it serves to bring a new dimension of life and wonder to the photographs and is an integral part of the entire experience that Bird Planet creates.

Many of the images in Bird Planet are taken from highly unique perspectives and many capture birds at moments that are quite fleeting, both of which might make the reader wonder how Laman was able to execute them. Luckily, for several such images, Laman provides details about what steps he took to get close to the birds and capture the dynamite shots. A fun example of this comes from the Southeast Asia chapter, where Laman briefly describes the tree-climbing tactics he employed to snag images of nesting Helmeted Hornbills when he realized that he would not be able to get decent photos from the ground: “Without time to build a proper blind in the canopy, and wanting to minimize disturbance to the birds, I rigged a rope in a giant tree a safe distance from the nest, climbed up and sat in a huge tree crotch with my camera, draped in camouflage.” This effort yielded a spectacular image of a male Helmeted Hornbill with a stick insect in its beak, a food offering for his mate in the nearby nest cavity.

Another instance in which Laman elaborates on his photography techniques comes from the Antarctica chapter when he discusses his experience with Adélie Penguins:

One day on Devil Island off the Antarctic Peninsula, we visited an Adélie Penguin colony. Many penguins were coming down to the waters edge and entering the sea to go out to feed, and others were coming back in with full bellies to feed their chicks. I noticed that as they approached land from the sea, the returning penguins often leapt from the water in a behavior known as porpoising.” This gives them a chance to grab a breath while also looking towards the island to choose a landing spot. I had the idea to capture a penguin in mid-air, flyingright towards me. So I spent quite a long time sitting on the rocky shore, watching for penguins approaching at full speed that were leaping from the water at intervals. Although I couldnt see them underwater, I anticipated where they would come up next and 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 favorite shots of the trip - an Adélie in mid-air flying towards me with the film of water sheeting off its body.

This image is exactly that—a magnificent frame of an Adélie Penguin at the precise moment its body emerged from the sea, a veil of water in its wake.

Throughout the text, there are many fine examples of Laman’s ability to communicate facts about the life history of his subjects in a manner that is concise and enjoyable. A wonderful example comes from the South America chapter when Laman gives some insight into the egg-thieving habits of the Toco Toucan:

Everybody loves toucans—except all the other birds! Toco Toucans are notorious nest predators, meaning that they raid the nests of other bird species, using their long bill to reach inside and extract eggs, and even chicks, to eat. The long, lightweight bill gives them reach that is also useful for plucking fruits, and catching insects, frogs, and small reptiles. In other words, they are very omnivorous.

The associated photograph is a stupendous shot of a Toco Toucan holding a bird’s egg in its beak prior to swallowing it.

A slightly lengthier example comes from the New Guinea chapter when Laman is describing the Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise:

Some of the birds-of-paradise are so whacky they just make you shake your head. The Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise is an example of this. Yes, the male really has exactly twelve wire-like feathers that radiate out in all directions from his backside. They arent actually his tail feathers but are the extended central midribs of the yellow ornamental feathers that come from his flanks. When a female lands below him on his display perch, he spins around and starts flicking the wires past her face, adding a tactile component to an already impressive display. Its rather unbelievable that the females, who are the drivers of evolution through sexual selection for these male characteristics, have selected the males that look like this and perform these behaviours, but they have.

The images accompanying this passage show the male Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise with his namesake wires splayed as he hitches to his display perch, trying to woo a nearby female.

Many of the species included in Bird Planet are imperiled to a certain degree for a variety of reasons. For such species, Laman ensures to succinctly describe the factors that have led to population declines and the efforts in place to mitigate the declines. An excellent example of this come from the Australia chapter when Laman discusses the critically endangered Golden-shouldered Parrot:

Unfortunately, the Golden-shouldered Parrot has a very limited range, and populations have been in serious decline over recent decades due to changes in natural fire regimes, feral cats, and other factors that are all related to human effects on the landscape since Europeans arrived in Australia. I was given an opportunity to photograph them at Artemis Station, a large cattle property where a significant proportion of the remaining population lives. Owners Tom and Sue Shepherd are perhaps the biggest advocates for helping the parrots survive and have been working with conservation groups to manage their property to help the parrots survive.

The associated photographs show stunning male Golden-shouldered Parrots at their nest openings in the side of termite mounds, structures this species specializes in nesting in.

Another great example of this comes from the South America chapter as Laman writes of the Waved Albatross:

Nearly the entire world population of 30,000 or so Waved Albatrosses breed here on Española, with just a few dozen using Isla de la Plata off the Ecuadorian coast. Unfortunately, their numbers are declining, and they are now considered critically endangered, with the main cause being long-line fishing. The announcement in January 2022 that Ecuador is greatly expanding the protected marine area around the Galápagos was good news, but because Waved Albatrosses range over a large area of the tropical Pacific from the Galápagos east and south along the coast of South America, only better fishing practices will likely protect them in the long term.

The corresponding images are spectacular shots of Waved Albatross pairs engaging in courtship rituals, touching beaks, and opening them wide before snapping them shut.

Bird Planet may not be a book to take into the field, and it may not cover all the birds in the geographic regions it explores, but it is more than worthwhile to peruse its over 200 pages. No matter the chapter, Bird Planet offers an array of entrancing images, complemented by text that adds to their depth and luster. Together, the text and images are sure to impact the audience in profound ways. Chief among these impacts is the inspiration of a love and concern for the birds in the photographs. But a second impact is the inspiration of curiosity and wanderlust. Works like Bird Planet are sure to influence those who read it to wander as widely as they can, photographing and protecting birds and their habitats, which seems to be Laman’s primary aim with this work, as he so eloquently writes on one of the book’s last pages:

If we can motivate people to protect habitat for healthy bird populations across the full diversity of places they live—literally from Antarctica to the High Arctic and from the seacoasts to high mountains on every continent and island—then there will also be enough habitat for the full range of our planets biodiversity to thrive.

Laman certainly succeeds in motivating any reader to enjoy the beauty of birds throughout our bird planet.

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Rachel Clark is a wildlife biologist based in Fresno, California. Her deep-seated passion for birds began at the age of nine when she first saw a Western Tanager. Outside of work, Rachel goes birding in the central San Joaquin Valley, central Sierra Nevada, and central coast of California— places where she guides. Connect on Instagram: @tanager_girl.