Next Time, A Bigger Lens & Tripod
05 January 2015 | Gam and Waigeo, Raja Ampat
Patrick and Rebecca
The Red Bird of Paradise
If only I had a Howitzer length lens for my Minolta, like native porters carry around for those photographers at National Geographic.
Rebecca and I had watched both the National Geographic and BBC specials, about all the expense and trouble their photographers went through flying half way around the world, trekking forever into the high jungles, carrying tens of thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment, setting up camouflaged blinds, then all the sitting for days to capture images of the most beautiful birds in the world, the Bird of Paradise.
There could have been a much easier way for those photographers. All they had to do is jump on a sailboat and cruise to a spot in Indonesia, 27 miles south of the equator, and anchor near us. To photograph the birds, along with some cruising friends we simply woke up and by 5AM, dinghied ashore on the island of Gam, in Raja Ampat. From the beach, our guide signaled with a flashlight where to land and pull the dinghy onto the beach. With dim lamps strapped to our foreheads we could just keep from stumbling over shadowed tree roots and slippery rocks. There were 6 of us cruisers chugging our way up the steep, jungle enclosed, trail. It was a heart thumping, lung pumping climb but no one balked. There seemed not to be a competition to win but a competition not to be the first to fall behind, out of line, or ask for a break. I could hear our physically strong friend, who still smokes cigarettes puffing heavily at the humid morning air. We had to be at the blind before sunup at 6AM. In 45 minutes of tramping our shirts were soaked with sweat but relief was just ahead as we could see a clearing at the top of the mountain.
It was dark but the sky to the east was brightening. We had 15 minutes to settle in behind the canvas and brush blind before we would become silent, serious, bird watchers. I parked on a rough lumber plank set on log supports. With my camera resting on a solid tree branch, I had the perfect support for stability and rotation to follow the action to come.
With excited eyes and a mute voice, our guides outstretched arm tracked something in the trees to the east. In one area high and not quite over head, all the branches were void of leaves allowing a clear view through the limbs and out to the brightening sky beyond. What he saw no one else did. But in a few moments, what began as a flitting of a dim object across the opening, punctuated by a few bird sounds, was soon fueled by the brightening sky. Red Bird of Paradise soon made a racket of noise and whirled about the branches full in our view. It wasn't just one but many birds in a full on display of hopping, shimmying, fanning, dancing and all the things Birds of Paradise do for the game of "who gets the girl". All the bright males must have been exciting studs as there was nothing fussy or inhibiting about the girls. Everything quickly became a wild party of mix and match, swap and swap. 45 minutes later, with the sun full above the horizon, all the Red Bird of Paradise suddenly went home, and so did we. With only a 300mm lens, the images would need to be exploded to a grainy rendition but would be our scrap book memory of one of the most rare natural sightings we have witnessed while circling the world.
A week later at the island of Waigeo, Raja Ampat, Rebecca and I again made an early morning rise, but this time at 3AM and hiked nonstop for 2 hours high into the mountains of Sapokren. When we made it to the top, Rebeca wondered how she would ever make it back down again - it was an arduous and fast hike to get there on time. This time we were hidden from view from the Wilson Bird of Paradise. The colorful male bird clears an area of ground free of branches and leaves for his stage show to lure in an attractive lady. Males came and went but only one did his Chip And Dale Routine, and only briefly. I almost got the picture of a life time but without a steadying branch or tripod to rest the camera, it is an amateurish blur. So close to such an incredible picture! If I were a professionally motivated photographer, it would have been so easy to spend more mornings in this spot and get the National Geographic quality image even with my stunted camera lens. But there will be more animals, more sights and more photo practice as we continue through Indonesia.
Indonesia has proved to be one of our favorite cruising grounds. In part it is so good because it is not visited by masses of cruising boats which inundate more traditional areas like Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.