TheOur December 2012 issue features the story of the truly amazing quest of Cornell ornithologist Edwing Scholes and biologist/photographer Tim Laman to find and photograph all 39 species of birds of paradise, perhaps the most spectacularly adorned family of birds in the world. Birds of paradise inhabit Papua New Guinea and parts of Australia. They are known for the flamboyant, sometimes bizarre and colorful plumage and other ornaments males use, along with some nice dance moves, to woo, entice and impress females in elaborate mating rituals. Many of the birds had never been photographed in the wild before.
Laman and Scholes made 18 expeditions over 8 years, visiting over 50 different sites to document the birds. And they succeeded.
It was clear we would need a graphic to explain how these creatures, which show wildly diverse morphological traits, were related to each other (often a bird is more closely related to one that looks entirely different from a similar-looking one). It was also important to document the range of each of the species, as they occupy very well defined niches at different elevation levels.
Senior Graphics Editor Fernando Baptista, Graphics Specialist Maggie Smith and freelance researcher Fanna Gebreyesus teamed up on this one to create this beautiful 3-page gatefold (click on any image in this post for a larger version):
The graphic show 15 birds illustrated by Fernando in the best tradition of natural history illustration. Each of them represents one of the 15 genera that groups birds of paradise. We show the family relationships, relative scale and a little chart gives additional information about the altitude range of each species in any given genus.
At the bottom, we mapped the elevation range of the different species as well as all the expedition sites since the research started in 2004.
Here is the opener spread for the story, nicely designed by our Design Director David Whitmore. With abundant food and no predators, birds of paradise’s male appearance has evolved to really fantastic levels.
And here are all 39 species in the wild:
Fernando’s initial sketches were created for a book that the Nat Geo Society was preparing, but we knew we would eventually produce a graphic with a similar format in the magazine too. Here we see a first attempt at organizing the birds in a rather random but aesthetically pleasing design.
Fernando’s next sketch tries to bring more order by organizing the birds by size in a curved shape.
But conversations with the scientists made clear it was important to document how the different species related to each other at the taxonomy level, as much of it it was new science. That information shouldn’t be limited to the tiny inset chart. In this version the connecting branches of the family tree are not real…
Here they are real. Grouping the birds by size defeated the purpose of showing taxonomic relationships. The lines in this failed sketch show how the merely aesthetic decision would trump clear understanding.
Here we finally see a rough that approximates the final approach, including the map. Birds are grouped with their most closely related species. See the amazing size differences.
Later on, we tried to use a chart to connect the map and the family tree by plotting the altitude range of each species. But it felt disconnected from both the map and the main graphic, creating a third layer of complexity rather than connecting the two existing components of the page.
In this version you can also see how Fernando played with the poses of the birds to avoid the stiff, field-guide feel of the previous sketch, where all of them were looking to the left in the same pose. This version is more fluid and natural. Fernando tweaked many of the poses, rotated heads and kept making changes through the entire process.
So Fernando decided to include the elevation chart below each one of the bird illustrations, indicating the elevation range of each of the birds. The mountain pictogram containing each chart added a bit of immediacy to the concept of elevation.
Here is some of the reference collected by Fernando to draw one of the birds. In most cases he had numerous photos by Tim Laman and additional reference. For those never photographed before, Tim’s photos were all the existing reference. We worked closely with Tim and Edwin, a reputed ornithologist, sending sketches back and forth.
Fernando’s process involves a relatively tight but light line pencil drawing (top left), a layer of watercolor with the main tones (top right), and finally a considerable amount of enhancements and shading done in Photoshop (bottom left). In this particular bird, Fernando changed the orientation of the head at the last-minute to create more dynamism.
Maggie started the map with a base map developed by the Maps Division of the Society (a group separate from the magazine’s cartographers) for the book. In most cases and since we need to deal with custom thematic layers of content directly from the sources, we develop our own custom maps in the magazine using software like ArcGIS, Natural Scene Designer and others. The Maps Division will generally use the cartographic database of the Society to develop products like the National Geographic Atlas.
Below are several iterations of the main map. The initial version was rotated in the page for a more horizontal shape, larger size and a better fit, but we would ultimately prefer to keep the true north orientation and we thought the more diagonal shape made it more active. We tried multiple ways of linking the altitude range levels in the map to the species illustrated on top, but attempts like the chart shown here with the blue bars was ultimately considered too complex. It would slow down the comprehension of the graphic rather than helping it.
The second version shows a combination of shaded relief and contour lines, but the different values of each color from the highlights/shadows in the shaded relief made it hard to relate colors in the key to colors on the map. The detail was also a bit noisy.
The final version had simplified relief included nice and gentle pencil-made touches by Fernando to give islands texture around the edges.
The locator map went through several rounds of improvements as well.
iPAD The graphic was completely rethought for the iPad version of the magazine. Since we wanted the art and maps to shine at a good size in the screen, we would break the content of the graphics into different pieces. Graphics Specialist Daniela Santamariña did most of the hard production work on the project.
Once scaled for optimum legibility, text takes a very large amount of real estate on the iPad. One of the things we tend to do with the larger text paragraph that serves as introduction for most maps and graphics is to use it on a cover page for the interactive, along with an illustration.
We broke down the birds by taxonomic relationships as we did in print, but in smaller groups to enjoy the nice art. A miniature version of the entire tree serves as a key. As we did in the print version, the birds are always compared to the ghosted image of an American crow, a bird of well-known size that shares relatively recent common ancestors with birds of paradise.
The maps were rethought to add significant value by showing the extent and elevation range of each of the 39 species. The user can choose any of the birds in the photo grid below to enter a page with information about it.
Each page also included a reference to the conservation status of each bird, and in most cases audio with its call.
The photos in the story are really stunning. The iPad edition featured a video showing Tim’s preparation for the photo shoot.
Watch it here:
On the IPhone edition, we decided only a simplified range map would have enough legibility on the tiny screen. We often create interactive versions of graphics for the iPhone with the Adobe Publishing Suite or After Effects but, as I explained in my previous post about our iPhone maps and graphics, sometimes we need to make hard editing choices for maximum simplicity.
Scholes and Laman spent over 2,000 hours sitting in blinds, waiting and watching, to produce over 39,000 pictures and video. It was a pleasure for us to document their work. They hope their work will encourage conservation in New Guinea, where birds of paradise have been so far protected by the remoteness of the place.
They have also been working with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (one of the major supporters of the Project) on a educational website about the Birds-of-Paradise Project. The website is also incorporated into the National Geographic Education portal. You can see both here: