© A Homage visit to 19th Century Birders – Kuhl and Van Hasselt

posted in: Reports, Sunbirds | 4

“Two German and Dutch friends – Heinrich Kuhl and Joh.Coenraad Van Hasselt-despite their short tour of scientific research duties (1820-23) in Batavia, (now Java Jakarta) Indonesia – contributed immensely to the milestone of natural science especially in ornithology; for which fauna, products to include 2000 bird skins and more were collected for Natural History Museums in their respective countries. Portrait of Heinrich Kuhl (left).

“Tragically, their lives were cut short when both succumbed to unknown tropical illnesses then, two years apart from each other in 1821 and 1823 respectively. To commemorate their discovery and excellent scientific works, two species of sunbirds were named after them.

“Kuhl’s Sunbird aka White-flanked Sunbird (Aethopyga eximia) and Van Hasselt’s Sunbird aka
Purple-throated Sunbird (Nectarinia sperata).

“Images of these birds are available at LINK by generous contributors.

“Over the many decades, field-guide writers appear to prefer the usage of names specifically to describe bird species- perhaps for easier references.

“Do modern writers do justice to write off honorary names so easily and let ornithological history fade away in the passage of time like this headstone, with their names so engraved in (below left)?

“It is important their names continue to be honored simultaneously in all references, for they are synonymous with the discovery of species and reflect the ornithological era of the Oriental Bird region.

“My objectives were three folds in visiting Bogor Botanical Gardens and other bird areas in West Java. (The 87 ha garden is renowned primarily as a main centre for botanical research and conservation. It also boasts of several thousands of plant species – palms, trees and orchids within its landscaped gardens).

“Firstly, it was to pay homage to two 19th century ornithologists in a Dutch cemetery of 42 graves, located and tucked away in a bamboo grove corner, next to the sprawling and presidential palace grounds.

“The designated cemetery gardener’ service was engaged to search-scrubbed and cleaned some headstones. We finally found the shared grave of Kuhl and Van Hasselt, amongst several other graves that had totally lost their identities through erosion and passage of time (above right).

” Secondly, to relax-enjoy and check list birds the renowned garden, study its habitat or … what ecological disaster has left of it (above left).

“Thirdly, to seek out the Javan endemic – Kuhl’s Sunbird Aethopyga justifying its existence in honour and glory of this 19th century species discovery.

“Did I find my bogey bird?

“As birding luck would have it or by divine intervention, I was treated to an agile 13cm male with diagnostic white flanks prospecting nectar off a Red Powderpuff (Calliandra haematocephala) blooming bush in Cibodas Botanical Gardens 1200m asl., a 2-hour, rocky mini-bus ride away from Bogor to the splendid views of Mt. Gede and Pangrango (above right).

“The terrain was challengingly enough. Unfortunately, poor lighting conditions and restless feeding habits of the Kuhl’s Sunbird provided only weak identification shots (above).

“At least I could honestly say, I’ve successfully pursued the Javan endemic I came looking for in the resurrected name of KUHL’s SUNBIRD.

“Perhaps… Kuhl is titillating my passion to revisit one day for more than just a peek of white flanks?”

Avian Writer Daisy O’Neill
Copyright article and copy images: Courtesy of Daisy O’Neill Bird Conservation Fund
Penang Malaysia

4 Responses

  1. Howard Banwell

    Nice piece, Daisy. They lived in such different (pre-Darwinian) times. It is good to be reminded of the debt we owe to such people for the contribution they made to our understanding of the world we live in.

  2. Khng Eu Meng

    Interesting read, but allow me to point out one mistake. Batavia is not the old name of Java. It is the old name of Jakarta.

  3. Daisy O'Neill

    Thanks Eu Meng for the correction. Written relying on my memory of yesterday years and neglected to refer.
    Goes to show my distiction in Geography had during my schooling years, half century ago has been returned to my teacher- she too bitten the dust.

    YC, Would you kindly make the necessary changes? thanks.



  4. Amar-Singh HSS (Dato Dr)

    Enjoyed the read Daisy – had left it for when I had some good time of quiet this morning. Great to hear about these two fellow travelers who attempted to help us understand an appreciate our world. Sad that the bird is now called “White-flanked Sunbird”. I generally prefer a meaningful name but recognize the value at times of naming after a person.


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