I recently traveled to West Papua, Indonesia to dive the epicenter of marine biodiversity, Raja Ampat (“Four Kings” in Indonesian).

In addition to incredible fish life, manta rays and a profusion of fans, corals and colors, the area has an additional attraction for nature lovers, namely rare birds-of-paradise (BoP). Nature lovers familiar with David Attenborough’s programs for the BBC have undoubtedly been as amazed and flabbergasted by the elaborate mating rituals and coloration of these birds as I have.

Although I don’t consider myself a birder and my bird photography is generally confined to willing and approachable subjects, we were so close to the limited distribution of the elusive and near threatened Wilson’s bird-of-paradise that it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.

I rose at 4 a.m. in pitch black dark to join a German couple from Stuttgart and guide Fikih, along with two boat drivers, for the 45 minute ride from our Birie Island dive resort, Papua Paradise, to nearby Batanta Island. Batanta is one of two islands where this colorful bird can be found, the other being Waigeo.

We threaded through a narrow channel of water to a muddy inlet, to embark on an initially level hike.

A muddy inlet, Batanta, Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia and the start and end of our hike to a blind to observe the Wilson’s bird-of-paradise.

It was dark, so we picked our way by headlamp, dodging leaves and roots over and underfoot.

There was a serious pitch at the end to climb up to a rattan blind with three face-size openings in the screen. This required pulling oneself up hand over hand using a rope, then stepping carefully up the steep final slope, which was slick and leafy with tree roots.

Photographically, it was very challenging. I definitely benefited from Kelly (one of our travel companions) having gone the prior day. Her description was quite accurate, befitting her engineer’s bent toward precision.

Optimizing my gear for the bird

I had to employ everything in my photographic bag of tricks to return with any images. I brought along my Fuji 100-400mm lens for just this outing, as well as the 1.4x and 2x teleconverters. As it turned out, although the colorful male’s size (21 cm or about 8 inches, including the brilliantly iridescent curly blue tail feathers) would benefit from the use of a teleconverter, I couldn’t spare the loss of 1-2 stops of light and the risk of missing the bird in the viewfinder during its fleeting appearances.

The blind had just enough room for the three of us to sit with our legs dangling below. There was no place for a tripod or even a monopod, so hand-holding was the only option. A little of the lens’ weight could be supported by propping the lens on the edge of the opening.

We had to be stock-still quiet, lest we frighten away the skittish bird. Even the sound of a shutter might be too much, prompting me to switch to electronic shutter. This bumped my Fujifilm XT-3’s frame rate on continuous high from 8 fps to 11 fps. Fikih said the bird normally began to appear around 5:50-6 a.m., which gave us 20 minutes or so to wait in the dark.

It was tricky trying to optimize settings in the dark. For a while, I didn’t think I would have anything to show for this outing, as I couldn’t initially get my lens and the camera to communicate. I tried everything, turning the camera off and on, disconnecting and reconnecting the lens to the camera and taking the battery in and reinstalling it.

Finally, just when I was beginning to despair, I scoured the external dials of the camera with a tiny beam of light from the headlamp, discovering the aperture button was on A (aperture priority). I don’t know why switching it to where I could vary the aperture made a difference but suddenly I had control over the aperture, which I threw wide-open (in this case, f5.6 at 400 mm). I also had to max out my ISO to 12800 in order to keep a reasonably fast shutter speed of 1/125s. I figured better to have a noisy image than a blurry tosser.

Capturing the bird in the wild

Leaves had been laid down by one of our guides in the bird’s arena. The need to tidy up his display field would hopefully lure it within range where we could admire it. My visit in early February did not coincide with the Wilson’s BoP mating season which is May-June and again in October, so we didn’t have a chance to see it interact with or try to attract the less colorful female.

We were lucky in that the Wilson’s bird-of-paradise was tardy that morning, meaning we had a little more light penetrating to the forest floor. A short series of whoops heralded its imminent arrival about 6:15 a.m. Our guide whispered: “He’s coming!”

Suddenly, the brilliantly colored bird flew down and began bopping about, presumably readying the field, which appeared farther away than where the leaves had been dispersed.

Over an observation period of about two hours, we had four appearances, three of which were sufficient to sight the brilliant blue tail feathers as the bird hopped about for a few fleeting seconds. Before signing up, I had inquired of one of the guides what the success rate for sightings was at this site. His response, “about 80%” sounded promising enough to make it worth the trip. As it happened, it was our final morning at the resort, so no diving was planned for us, so I didn’t have to miss a dive to do this excursion. That would have been a difficult choice which thankfully I didn’t have to make.

The colorful male Wilson’s bird-of-paradise tidies its arena in anticipation of attracting a female.

What I learned

The Wilson’s BoP is a fascinating creature. Some of the fun facts I learned after my excursion:

That blue head is a specialized form of skin. Even more amazing coloration than the red and yellow feathers seen here is utilized for attracting females, with the inside of the mouth a brilliant fluorescent chartreuse yellow when he sings and viewed from the perspective of a prospective mate looking from above, the male flashes a collar of jewel-toned green.

Shooting a small target from a long distance from a blind at a steep angle, with NO degrees of freedom, through trees, was definitely not an ideal shooting situation — but better than nothing at all.

Although my bird photography is generally confined to easily approachable subjects in a landscape (blue-footed boobies in Galapagos and penguins in Antarctica), this was a fun challenge which drew on everything I know about photography to emerge with any usable images. If I have the chance to return, the red bird-of-paradise can also be seen in the West Papua area. Next time!

Aerial view by drone of the many islands of beautiful Raja Ampat, Indonesia.