Alfred Russel Wallace (1869) on Rainbirds, Trogons and Barbets - and a visit to Bukit Fraser in the Present

Living in Southeast Asia, it is always enjoyable to walk in the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace as described in his "The Malay Archipelago" (first published in 1869).

After an excursion to Bukit Fraser, Malaysia, yesterday, I dipped into the Malay Peninsula portion of the book and found the following:

"The very first time I fired my gun I brought down one of the most curious and beautiful of the Malacca birds, the blue-billed gaper (Cymbirhynchus macrorhynchus), called by the Malays the 'Rainbird.' It is about the size of a starling, black and rich claret colour with white shoulder stripes, and a very large and broad bill of the most pure cobalt blue above and orange below, while the iris is emerald green. As the skins dry the bill turns dull black, but even then the bird is handsome. When fresh killed, the contrast of the vivid blue with the rich colours of the plumage is remarkably striking and beautiful. The lovely Eastern trogons, with their rich-brown backs, beautifully pencilled wings, and crimson breasts, were also soon obtained, as well as the large green barbets (Megalaema versicolor) - fruit-eating birds, something like small toucans, with a short, straight bristly bill, and whose head and neck are variegated with patches of the most vivid blue and crimson."

Among the birds encountered on our Bukit Fraser trip (guided by the exceptional Mr. Lieuw) were examples of the green barbets, red-headed trogons and "rainbirds" so vividly described by Wallace.


Fire-tufted barbet (Psilopogon pyrrolophus) on Bukit Fraser, 10th June 2017.


That "fire tuft"



The barbets are fascinating to watch, robust, vividly coloured, flamboyantly decorated with red and black tufts. The one pictured here took a while to come down to our level, but enjoyed the offering of papaya when it did.

We briefly glimpsed a red-headed trogon on a perch in the early morning after following its distinctive song, but were surprised by odd purr-calls and cackles in the afternoon, emitted by one or both of a pair of male red-headed trogons. Conflict seemed to be involved. This was a good opportunity to observe the "rich-brown backs, beautifully pencilled wings, and crimson breasts" mentioned by Wallace.


A red-headed trogon (Harpactes erythrocephalus) on Bukit Fraser, 10th June 2017, showing the "rich-brown backs, beautifully pencilled wings, and crimson breasts" described by Wallace.



The crimson breast of the red-headed trogon mentioned by Wallace.


Red-headed trogon settling down after its noisy interaction (odd purr-calls and cackles) with another male bird; a fight it seemed to us.


There was also a glimpse of a close relative of the "rainbird" described by Wallace though it was high in a distant large tree so I couldn't capture a photograph to reveal more than its identity. I had previously seen the Black-and-red broadbill (the C. macrorhynchus in Wallace's account) at Gunung Mulu in 2004.


A distant black-and-yellow broadbill (Eurylaimus ochromalus)


A slightly closer look at that distant broadbill. The yellow belly, pink breast, black breast band (indicating a male), white collar, black head and robust blue bill can be seen.


"The Malay Archipelago" is a very entertaining read even nearly 150 years after it was first published. Direct experience of the places and wildlife Alfred Russel Wallace wrote about adds hugely to the enjoyment.

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