Saturday, May 4, 2013

Moluccan Woodcock (Scolopax rochussenii ) and Alfred Russell Wallace.

My eye was caught recently by an announcement that an expedition had secured film footage and recordings of the Moluccan Woodcock  (Scolopax rochussenii ) first described by Alfred Russell Wallace some 150 years ago and seen very seldom since. The discovery had been made on the island of Obi,south of Halmahera in Eastern Indonesia. A short film is now available on YouTube under reference or key in Moluccan Woodcock and follow various links.

Whilst short the sequence captures an image of this large, almost mythical bird, which is active at dawn and dusk and was found, not on high land, as expected, but on much lower swampy ground. Other sites were examined and resulted in 51 sightings of the bird!!!   Rather a drastic turn around compared to previously!!

From this my curiosity ran riot a little. I discovered that a company, Ashburton Minerals Ltd had drilled for gold on Obi recently and had high hopes for what appeared to be a southerly extension of the Gosowong Deposits within the Halmahera magmatic arc. This appears to have not been continued, at the present time at least  and therefore the threat to this recent discovery may have diminished.

The connection with the species' finder, A.R.Wallace, soon followed and a whole host of details just begged to be explored!!  2013 is the Centenary of Wallace's death and various celebratory occasions have occurred in recent times. That Wallace ( 1823-1913 ) was a remarkable man is in no doubt. Exploring the Malay Archipelago  ( the title of his book of his adventures )  over several years he discovered over 5000 new animal species of which over 200 carry his name. Quite independently, he arrived at the same conclusions as Charles Darwin on the mechanisms associated with evolution, which resulted in the joint presentation by Darwin and Wallace, in July, 1858, of the Theory of Natural Selection. It was the publication two years later of "The Origin of Species" by Charles Darwin that linked the author with the popular conclusion that he was the man who discovered evolution. Wallace was in no way bitter about this and comes over as a very genuine person for whom natural history and science sustained a satisfying permanent interest and challenge. He was described by Sir David Attenborough recently as "an admirable man".

This latter story has been convincingly told by Bill Bailey, actor, musician and comedian, who has recently presented two television programmes, "Bill Bailey's Jungle Hero" on BBC 2.  Bailey has a passionate interest in wildlife himself, but had been fired up by the injustice surrounding Wallace and his discovery. The relevance of this was clearly known about by the scientific community,but in popular terms, had largely gone unrecognised. Bailey had also visited SE Asia many times but, on this recent occasion for the television programmes , had followed much of Wallace's journey during the eight years he spent collecting specimens in the region from 1854.  It's absolutely fascinating stuff, and I would recommend everyone watch both programmes if they can, as much contained within them is new and refreshing.  Bailey's efforts over the years has resulted in a painting of Wallace being hung in the Natural History Museum, London close to the statue of Charles Darwin, a fitting culmination of a partnership which brought such insight to our world. Well done Bill Bailey!  Even the painting succeeds, in my opinion, to convey an image of a generous, kindly and sincere man.

Such has my own interest been aroused in the subject that I've already enquired about Wallace's book, "Malay Archipelago". This has never been out of print and can be purchased from Amazon and elsewhere!
Whilst knowing of Wallace's relevance in ornithological terms, particularly the Wallace Line, I confess to having erred towards Darwin as far as explanations relating to evolution are concerned. Somewhat shamefacedly, I shall now put that right!  

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