Working on the Lepidoptera Project in the Entomology department keeps me very busy during the day, but I rarely get to see other parts of the Life Collections. So it was a real treat when my boss Darren said I could look at the specimens in the bird skin store. While carefully going through the drawers, I found this spectacular little bird from the family Nectariniidae. The species is Cinnyris solaris, which is also has the evocative name of Flame-Breasted Sun Bird. This particular specimen was an amazing surprise, because of the label data. It states:
Flores (lesser Sunda Islands, Indonesia) [?1862] Noted “Wallace 1862”[?Collected or obtained from Alfred Russell Wallace?] F.P. Pascoe Coll. 1909
A bird that was probably collected by Alfred Russel Wallace! I checked the excel spreadsheet that listed all of the birds in the museum collected by the famous 19th century naturalist and got my second surprise- it wasn’t on the list! Five other Wallace birds were listed (including the two shown here) but the Sun Bird wasn’t there.
I decided to do some research on the specimen, and here is what I found out: The specimen was donated to the museum in 1909 by the English entomologist Francis Polkinghorne Pascoe, who acquired a lot of material from Wallace over the years. In Wallace’s paper A List of Birds inhabiting the Islands of Timor, Flores and Lombok the bird is mentioned as Nectarina solaris (it was later placed in the genus Cinnyris.) The bird would have been in Wallace’s possession when Pascoe acquired it.
However, the bird was also more likely to have been collected by Wallace’s assistant Charles Allen rather than Wallace himself, as Wallace never set foot on Flores. Wallace did not think much of Charles Allen as an assistant, as detailed in this letter to Wallace’s mother on 30th September 1854:
If it were not for the expense I would send Charles home; I think I could not have chanced upon a more utterly…careless boy.
In 1893, the major portion of the collection was donated to the British Museum in London via a relative, Miss Pascoe, but she donated the remainder to the Hope Department here at the Museum in 1909. Alfred Russel Wallace himself was said to have suggested this. These items were mostly insects, but also included this beautiful Flame-Breasted Sun Bird. Today the Flame-Breasted Sun Bird is a scarce species due to its limited island range, but is not considered threatened. I feel privileged to have chanced across such an amazing specimen in the bird stores. Gina Allnatt, Curatorial assistant (Lepidoptera) ** Letter used by Gina for research can be seen at Wallace Letters Online