National Geographic : 1953 Apr
436 The National Geographic Magazine back into camp with stories of discoveries made. I was in the cookhouse one morning when Tai, my No. 1 boy, rushed in to say, " Master, Master, bush Kanaka he talk. He talk talk plenty plenty bounde stop along diwai belong em. Plenty man, e Mary. Sing- sing morning time true. " (" Kanaka man says lots of bounde come to his trees. Many males and females go through the noisy courtship dance every morning, early. " ) That sounded good to me, of course. The following day at dawn I took five men, my cameras, binocular , axes, and emergency cover to the place which the native had spotted. It was a clump of casuarinas two hours ' walk distant, the site of an old native graveyard. From 400 yards away I could hear the high- pitched cawing of what seemed to be crows, interspersed with low , repeated growls. In the lacy top limbs a dozen birds flew about excitedly. Crawling through the grass with great caution, I reached the butt of a large tree where I could lie without being seen. Strange Antics of Courtship Looking up, I saw on a limb high above me the most gorgeous bird I had ever laid eyes on (next page). Sunlight breaking through the leaves illuminated his perch , and, against the dark green of the foliage, his flame-colored flank plumes shone like live fire. Slowly he hopped up the branch , dipping his head in a snakelike manner, grasping at little twigs and knobs and shaking them , his wings partly open and his plumes nervously twitch- ing. Then, at the upper end of the limb, he turned sidewise and, like a child jumping with both feet at once downstairs from step to step, he made a series of little leaps down the pencil-size incline to the bottom. Here , suddenly, he raised his wings, lowered his neck in a heronlike crook, and began to thump the wrists of his wings above his back - rapidly and strongly enough so that I could hear them distinctly 60 feet away. At the same time he cast his plumes upward and backward in a curving spray. The whole rear of his body shook like a feather duster. Two other males flew to limbs near by. One of them dared to land near the display perch itself , only to be charged and driven off by the indignant owner. As for the females, six of them fluttered around within 5 to 50 feet of the dance limb. For the most part, they sat quietly aloof to the male 's antics ; but when he became greatly excited, lowered his head , and emitted a number of low, burring growls, they flew to perches directly above his gaudy plumes, and even down to a spot beside him. Once, in Australia 's Taronga Zoological Park, I had seen an Emperor of Germany Bird of Paradise reach such a peak of ecstasy that he swung head down from his perch like a shimmering pendulum , his plumes cascading from his flanks like fragile white fans. As I watched the Greater bird preening and pranc- ing along his limb , with head low and plumes high, I wondered if he might do the same. And he did. A brilliant ball of plumage, he tumbled forward and swung beneath the perch , luminescent in the morning sun. A female flew to the limb and stood just above him. Reaching up, the male pecked and fenced with her in a kind of continuation of their ritual. Then, as if upon a signal, the dance ended, and all the birds soared off toward a large wooded canyon to feed. Back at camp we quickly organized a safari to return and capture this unusual dance on film. Thanks to the American Museum and the National Geographic Society, I had been showered with more elaborate equipment than any ornithologist of my acquaintance has ever carried into primitive country. I had been forced , in fact , to train my bearers like an army mortar squad. At the head of my unit I placed a man with my color camera; attached to it was a reflex housing containing a 400-mm. telephoto lens. Behind him came a bearer with another camera, mounting a 200-mm. telephoto. Both cameras were mounted on ball-socket tripods. Then came six men, each carrying a 35- pound power pack capable of producing a 2,000-volt flash for the speedlights. Next followed men with huge coils of rubber cable with waterproof couplings , an automobile bat- tery, and boxes of extra equipment and film. I had only to sing out, and this platoon fell in with a minimum of confusion; we were off. Trials and Tribulations Unfortunately, on many occasions we re- sembled the King of France who marched up the hill with all his men and then marched down again. Nature seemed to conspire against us. Mist formed on our lenses. Per- sistent rain soaked our power packs- and detonated them with a shotgun blast that cleared the bush of every bird in the area. Worst blow of all , our electronic lights , on which we had placed such hope , proved tre- mendously effective scarecrows. We knew well how wary the Greater Bird of Paradise is- any bird of paradise, for that mat- ter. Yet we had thought that by wiring the dance trees unobtrusively and positioning the lights with care , we could then retreat to our blinds many feet away and obtain photographs of great clarity, taken at 1/ 5000 of a second. It was not to be. Even though we left the lights in place and went away for weeks at a time, the skittish birds never accepted them.