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Alfred Wallace and the Papuan Birds of Paradise

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The subtitle of Alfred Russel Wallace's book "The Malay Archipelago" - "The Land of the Orangutan, and the Birds of Paradise" - gives a strong hint as to the central goals of his journeys.


Magnificent bird of paradise (Diphyllodes magnificus)  

I have enjoyed following (during 2017 and 2018) in the footsteps of Wallace's 1854-1862 expeditions in the region. Encounters with wild orangutans in Sumatra, Sabah and Sarawak have been memorable. The birds of paradise were less easily within reach though, but this October 2018, guided by Stewart McPherson, we travelled to Papua New Guinea to see what we could see. It's a journey well worth the effort.

Wallace's book (which I read again on the Air Niugini flight out) contains some highly enticing quotes:

April 1858, "I looked with intense interest on those rugged mountains, retreating ridge behind ridge interior, where the foot of civilized man had never trod. There was the  country of the cassowary, an…

A Papuan Pitcher Plant

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On a recent journey to Papua New Guinea (guided by Stewart McPherson), we came across just a single example of the carnivorous pitcher plant Nepenthes. The focus of the journey had been on birds of paradise, orchids and human cultures, but this was one of several other interesting plants we met with. Apparently they are very much more abundant to the west in Irian Jaya. I am more familiar with Nepenthes on Borneo, my favourite being Nepenthes ampullaria and its associated tiny narrowmouth frogs.

The plant was  a Nepenthes maxima, the great pitcher plant, growing on a raised area next to a stream at an elevation of 1945 m in an area south of Mount Hagen, not far from Rondon Ridge. Mount Giluwe (4367 m) lies to the west behind a ridge of Nebilyer limestone (see image below).


The Nepenthes location in the upper Wahgi Valley near Mount Hagen (North is to the right)

We scrambled through the dense vegetation to reach the plant and then released Stewart to talk on his favourite topic - the …

A Damaru hand drum in Sikkim 1943 and Lhasa in the Present

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My father was fascinated by a hand drum he saw a man using in a Gangtok market in 1943.

He took two photographs, which are reproduced below. The drum itself has come out very blurred due to its rapid movement.





He later (1993) recalled, "We spent a few days with the Political Officer for Sikkim, entertained and were entertained by the Maharaja and his three grown up children." The Maharaja was Tashi Namgyal, ruling Chogyal of Sikkim from 1914 to 1963. He was born in Tibet and crowned by the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso.

Back in England, he photocopied part of a book on "Heritage of Tibet"  (W. Zwalf, 1981, ISBN 0-7141-1420-0) and highlighted a 19th century skull drum (damaru) which reminded him of the ritual drum seen in use in Gangtok during WW2. The text states that the damaru was inherited from India, appearing as an attribute of deities in both Hindu and Buddhist sculpture. "The drum could be made of wood, painted with designs, or two skull tops, closed…

Wallace's "Rainbirds" - a Night-time Encounter on the Kinabatangan River

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Last June I wrote about broadbills, trogons and barbets described by Alfred Wallace in "The Malay Peninsula" (1869).

This Monday 30th April, looking for wildlife along the Kinabatangan River of Sabah (and staying at the delightful Sukau Lodge) there were several encounters with Wallace's "blue-billed gaper," now known as the black-and-red broadbill.

Here is the quote from Wallace (1869) again:

"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 o…

1797 Discovery of Celestine near Bristol

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I very much enjoy connecting J.C. Sowerby's early mineral illustrations and descriptions to actual specimens.

In Sowerby (1804), he illustrates a distinctive specimen of celestine, shown below, from Aust in Gloucestershire, near Bristol.

He reports that a Mr. Clayfield had discovered "Sulphate of Strontian" here in 1797. "He observes that he discovered detached veins in different parts of the cliff. The strata in which the veins are found are nearly horizontal, consisting of Limestone of different hardnesses, and argillaceous Sandstone intermixed with Clay and Gypsum, and some of the fissures were filled up with Sulphate of Strontian from 3 to 12 inches in thickness."






I have an old specimen (shown in the three photographs below) which shows the same crystal form and orange staining. The specimen is 9 cm long and displays crystals to 3 cm. The label states an origin from the nearby Yates mine, but the crystals do not seem to be typical of specimens from there. …