"A great prize, no less than a completely new form of the Bird of Paradise" - an encounter with Wallace's Standardwing

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a Wallace's standardwing bird of paradise, named for Alfred Russel Wallace in 1859 by G.R. Gray, "for the indefatigable energy he has hitherto shown in the advancement of ornithological and entomological knowledge, by visiting localities rarely if ever travelled by naturalists."


Standardwing (Semioptera wallacii halmaherae Salvadori 1881), Saturday 9th March 2019, Weda, Halmahera


Alfred Wallace, co-discoverer of the Wallace-Darwin theory of evolution by natural selection, had a particular fascination with the birds of paradise, but, "Five voyages to different parts of the district they inhabit, each occupying in its preparation and execution the larger part of a year, produced only five species out of the fourteen known to exist in the New Guinea district."

On a visit to Batchian Island (Bacan these days), however, there was a great treasure awaiting.

When his assistant Ali one day brought him a "curious bird," Wallace realized that he had "a great prize, no less than a completely new form of the bird of paradise, differing most remarkably from every other known bird."

Wallace wrote excitedly to his agent Stevens in 1858:
"...I believe I have already the finest & most wonderful bird in the island. I had a good mind to keep it a secret but I cannot resist telling you, I have got here a new Bird of Paradise!! of a new genus!!! quite unlike any thing yet known, very curious & very handsome!!! When I can get a couple of pairs I will send them overland to see what a new Bird of Paradise will really fetch. I expect £25 each! Had I seen the bird in Ternate I would never have believed it came from here, so far out of the hitherto supposed region of the Paradiseidae. I consider it the greatest discovery I have yet made..."

In "The Malay Archipelago," he describes the bird as follows:

"The general plumage is very sober, being a pure ashy olive, with a purplish tinge on the back; the crown of the head is beautifully glossed with pale metallic violet, and the feathers of the front extend as much over the beak as in most of the family. The neck and breast are scaled with fine metallic green, and the feathers on the lower part are elongated on each side, so as to form a two-pointed gorget, which can be folded beneath the wings, or partially erected and spread out in the same way as the side plumes of most of the birds of paradise. The four long white plumes which give the bird its altogether unique character, spring from little tubercles close to the upper edge of the shoulder or bend of the wing; they are narrow, gentle curved, and equally webbed on both sides, of a pure creamy white colour."


Gray's note in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society (1859) is shown below.



Here below is Sclater's (1860) plate showing Semioptera wallacii.


and here, the illustration in The Malay Archipelago (1869).



After a journey last October in search of the birds of paradise in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, I wanted to see this standardwing for myself.

I set off from Kuala Lumpur (on the evening of 7th March 2019) in the direction of Halmahera Island (eastern Indonesia) to look for the bird. Flights to Jakarta and then on to Ternate were followed by a speedboat ride to Sofifi on Halmahera and a drive to Weda on the east coast.

Here below is a view of the area, looking towards the east, with Papua New Guinea on the horizon.

View showing Ternate, Tidore, Bacan and Halmahera islands with the location of the standardwing encounter near Weda on the east coast of Halmahera indicated


On the drive from Sofifi (a neat town with flowers planted along the roadsides) to Weda we saw endemic long-billed crows and the also endemic blue-and-white kingfisher. Here below is the view of the east coast of Halmahera overlooking the town of Weda.

Forest-covered hills above the town of Weda on the east coast of Halmahera


Up at 4:30 on the Saturday, we (guides Bambang and Nofri and myself) were soon walking through the forest in pitch darkness. At one point the torch picked out a very large black millipede moving through the leaf litter in front of us.

A flash of the torch to the left revealed a colourful bird with a black head, white breast and red belly, the rarely seen ivory-breasted pitta, which looked at us sleepily. Wallace (1864) gives the following description: "The noble Pitta maxima, one of the very finest birds of the Malay Islands, is found only in the rocky forests of the mountainous island of Gilolo [Halmahera], where it hops among the crags and stones with such activity that it is very difficult to follow it." Ours was not that active, but we had just interrupted its slumbers.

Some raucous calls were already in evidence some way further into the forest.


Ivory-breasted pitta (Pitta maxima) on the pre-dawn walk to the standardwing lek


The presence of the standardwing lek is evident to the ears some time before reaching it. As we approached, a dusky scrubfowl trotted along the path.

We settled in and waited for the light levels to build. From time to time a bird would flutter upwards in a clearing and then allow itself to fall back down, white plumes extended.

With the light came a clearer view of the two male standardwings present at the lek, revealing the white shoulder plumes, the blue (rather than green of the original descriptions) pectoral gorget and green frontal "bib," "scaled with fine metallic green," as Wallace had noted. Following the initial phase of "fly-up-then-parachute", they danced in the near-dark, flicking out the shoulder plumes and hopping from branch to branch. As the light came up they slowed down and rested as seen in the two photographs below.





Wallace mentioned a number of other birds, which I also came across later in the day:
"The handsome red lory with green wings and a yellow spot in the back (Lorius garrulus), was not uncommon. When the Jambu, or rose apple (Eugenic sp.), was in flower in the village, flocks of the little lorikeet (Charmosyna placentis), already met with in Gilolo [Halmahera], came to feed upon the nectar, and I obtained as many specimens as I desired. Another beautiful bird of the parrot tribe was the Geoffroyus cyanicollis, a green parrot with a red bill and head, which colour shaded on the crown into azure blue, and thence into verditer blue and the green of the back. Two large and handsome fruit pigeons, with metallic green, ashy, and rufous plumage, were not uncommon."

I spent the rest of the day looking for birds, encountering 23 endemic species amongst the total. Some highlights included paradise (and other) kingfishers, Blyth's hornbill and noisy white umbrella cockatoos in addition to the variety of parrots, lories and lorikeets and the various fruit doves and imperial pigeons.

Here's one of the kingfishers.

sombre kingfisher (Todiramphus funebris)


We finally called it a day with this beautiful Moluccan owlet-nightjar (Aegotheles crinifrons) at about 8:00 pm and headed back to base for dinner.

Moluccan owlet-nightjar (Aegotheles crinifrons)


My quest on this journey had been to see the standardwings, but there was far more in store.

The divers (a really enjoyable group) staying at Rob Sinke's highly recommendable Weda Reef & Rainforest Resort convinced me that I should not miss the local reefs and so the Sunday was spent diving, enjoying spectacular corals, sponges, crinoids, fish and more.

Then, the Monday afternoon back in Ternate connected me, via a knowledgeable taxi driver (the ever-cheerful Ojhi), with the search for Wallace's Ternate house and the research efforts of George Beccaloni and Paul Whincup. Local historian Rinto Taib showed me around the currently closed museum inside Fort Oranje, which houses the gravestone of Maarten Dirk van Renesse van Duivenbode (1804–1878) who had been a helpful friend to Wallace in the Moluccas. The stone features the crossed keys of the Leiden coat of arms (a city I once lived in).




Wallace (1869) writes: “I brought letters of introduction to Mr. Duivenboden, a native of Ternate, of an ancient Dutch family, but who was educated in England, and speaks our language perfectly. He was a very rich man, owned half the town, possessed many ships, and above a hundred slaves. He was moreover, well educated, and fond of literature and science--a phenomenon in these regions. He was generally known as the king of Ternate, from his large property and great influence with the native Rajahs and their subjects. Through his assistance I obtained a house; rather ruinous, but well adapted to my purpose, being close to the town, yet with a free outlet to the country and the mountain.”


View of Ternate showing the locations of Fort Oranje, the area of Wallace's house and the Sultan's palace. GoogleEarth image.


View of Tidore from the flanks of Mount Gamalama on Ternate


This was a short, but thoroughly enriching visit to the Islands of Ternate and Halmahera, with some magnificent wildlife encounters both above and below water. The mission to see the standardwing was successful and my personal experience of birds of paradise was extended westward from the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Some marvelous dives, the visit to the area of Wallace's house on Ternate and a tour of the island were unexpected bonuses.


References


Gray, G.R. 1859. Notes on a new bird-of-paradise discovered by Mr. Wallace. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 27, 129-130.

Sclater, P.L. 1860. Note on Wallace's Standard-wing, Semioptera wallacii. Ibis, 2, 26-28, pl. II.

Wallace, A.R. 1864. Remarks on the Habits, Distribution, and Affinities of the Genus Pitta. Ibis 6 (21): 100-114.

Wallace, A.R. 1869. The Malay Archipelago. Macmillan and & co, London.

Alfred Russel Wallace Letters from the Malay Archipelago. Edited by John van Wyhe and Kees Rookmaker.

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