Thursday, February 27, 2014

Ten Years After

February 27, 2004; Bayou de View, Arkansas—It is shortly after one o'clock on a clear afternoon in late winter as we paddle our canoe down the bayou, me in the bow and Bobby Harrison in the stern. Gene Sparling is up ahead somewhere in his kayak, looking for the place where, less than two weeks earlier, he'd seen a huge black-and-white woodpecker that fit the description of an Ivory-bill.

From left to right, Gene Sparling, Bobby Harrison, and Tim Gallagher at Bayou de View on February 27, 2004, shortly after the Ivory-bill sighting.

As we move slowly with the current, transfixed by the movement of the murky brown swamp water, we both catch sight of a large bird flying up a side slough toward us. It's one of those things you pick up in your peripheral vision and without even thinking about it your mind runs through the possibilities—large, swift flying, black and white. 

Ivory-billed Woodpecker by Larry Chandler.

And then it bursts into full view right in front of you, exposing the
deepest, darkest black coloration, but what really catches your eye are the snow-white trailing edges of its wings, the unmistakeable field marks of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. And just as it pulls up to land on the trunk of a tupelo less than 100 feet away, you both shout simultaneously, "Ivory-bill!" And the bird veers away into the woods, landing a couple of times on the backs of tupelo trunks and then continuing on as you ram your canoe into the side of the bayou, jumping out and abandoning it while you struggle to move as fast as you can through the muck and mire, scrambling over huge fallen logs, tearing your clothes on broken branches and shrubbery. And fifteen minutes later, practically in cardiac arrest from the excitement and sheer exertion of the chase, you collapse against a massive fallen tree as Bobby sobs, "I saw an Ivory-bill...I saw an Ivory-bill."

And all these years later, on the 10th anniversary of this sighting, the moment is still so vivid, so amazing, so unlike anything you've ever experienced, your heart still races whenever you think about it.

At the very spot we saw the Ivory-bill, 10 years to the minute later,   I drink a toast with Bobby—unfortunately it's Mountain Dew, not Champagne. (Photo by Clara Gallagher)

Bobby Harrison discusses the February 27, 2004, Ivory-bill sighting in George Butler's documentary, The Lord God Bird. Here's a link to an 8-minute clip from the film that has interviews with Gene Sparling, Bobby Harrison, and Tim Gallagher.

Ed Bradley of "60 Minutes" interviews Tim Gallagher and Bobby Harrison for a segment that aired in 2005. Here's a link to the archived program. (Photo by Ron Rohrbaugh)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Imperial Dreams makes Top 10 Science & Health Books of 2013 list

I just heard that my latest book, Imperial Dreams, was one of the books chosen for Booklist's Top 10 Science & Health Books of 2013 list. I was honored to be on the same list as E. O. Wilson and the other authors. The reviewer said, "Gallagher sets the gold standard for nature writing in this chronicle of his search for the possibly extinct imperial woodpecker in Mexican territory held by drug traffickers."

Friday, November 1, 2013

Explorers Club talk—November 4 in New York City

I'm looking forward to returning to the Explorers Club. The club itself is a great place to explore, filled with memorabilia from countless expeditions to the far reaches of the Earth and also outer space. Noteworthy past members include Robert Peary (of North Pole fame), Roy Chapman Andrews (arguably the model for Indiana Jones), Roald Amundsen (of South Pole fame), Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Hillary, and astronaut Neil Armstrong. Astronauts Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn are current members.

I'll be talking about my own expeditions through the mountains of northwestern Mexico in search of the giant Imperial Woodpecker—largest woodpecker that ever lived and perhaps the rarest bird on the planet. It hasn't had a documented sighting since 1956, and yet stories persist among mountain villagers that a handful of them yet live on. My goal was to find out if the rumors were true, and beyond that, to talk with people who knew this species intimately, and try to find out why its numbers plummeted so precipitously in the late 1940s and early '50s.

The Explorers Club is at 46 E. 70th Street, New York, NY. The reception begins at 6:00 p.m. and my talk at 7:00. For full details, call (212) 628-8383, send email to, or click on this link. Hope to see you there.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Next stop, the Explorers Club—November 4

I'll be taking my Imperial Woodpecker talk to the Explorers Club in New York City on Monday night, November 4. There's a reception at 6:00, followed by my talk at 7:00. Hope all my New York friends can make it. Here's a link for more information.

In the vast mountain pine forests of Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental lived a bird like no other—a spectacular giant woodpecker, two feet in length, largest of its clan that ever lived. With the deepest black plumage and brilliant, snow-white feathers that show as a white shield on its back, the Imperial is the closest relative of America's famed Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The last documented sighting of an Imperial Woodpecker took place in 1956, and yet rumors still persist among the mountain villagers that this bird still lives on in the remotest reaches of this mighty mountain range. 

To find out if the rumors could possibly be true, author Tim Gallagher set out on a harrowing journey through the high country of the Sierra Madre, a vast, lawless region—now the epicenter of illegal drug growing in Mexico. Join Tim for a fascinating evening as he shares his adventures in search of this enigmatic ghost bird.

Tim Gallagher (FN '06) is an award-winning author, wildlife photographer, and magazine editor. He received the Explorers Club Presidents Award for Conservation in 2006. He is currently editor-in-chief of Living Bird, the flagship publication of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Tim's lifelong interest in wilderness exploration has taken him twice to northern Greenland, where he made two open-boat voyages up the coast to study nesting seabirds and falcons, and to the hinterlands of Iceland, where he climbed lofty cliffs to learn more about the spectacular Gyrfalcon, the world's largest falcon. In addition to his latest book, Imperial Dreams, Tim is the author of Falcon Fever, The Grail Bird, Parts Unknown, and Wild Bird Photography.

To make a reservation, please call (212) 628-8383 or send an email to:

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Steve Bodio Reviews Imperial Dreams

    (Photo by Tim Gallagher)

Imperial Dreams by Tim Gallagher is a natural history of the world’s most spectacular woodpecker and a mystery: a forensic inquiry into what, despite the narrator’s hopes, looks like the death of a species. It starts as a lighthearted adventure and becomes a tragedy and a tale of terror. It may be Gallagher’s best book yet, one to excite adventure travelers who might never pick up a “bird book,” while telling an unforgettable tale of loss.
Several years ago, Gallagher was one of the rediscoverers of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. His success led him to think about its relative, the legendary Imperial Woodpecker (or Pitoreal ) of Mexico. I do not use “legendary” lightly; although the ivory-bill was the largest woodpecker in the United States, the imperial was the largest that ever lived. The raven-sized male, with its red Woody Woodpecker crest, looked like a huge exaggeration of the ivory-bill. But the female had a unique forward-curving black curl recognizable even in pre-Columbian petroglyphs. They knocked such large chunks of bark off dying trees that their sign was unmistakable. Their home was the cold montane pine forests of the Sierra Madre, with grizzly bear, wolf, jaguar, trout, and Thick-billed Parrot, all vanished or vanishing. Though they had been seen on occasion into the 1970s, there were few credible recent reports. Their forests had been cut over by loggers, and were now the virtual property of drug traffickers— the narcotraficantes—whose reign of terror discouraged all outsiders.
Tim Gallagher was born in England, raised in southern California, and is a longtime resident of Ithaca, New York. He is tall, thin, and gray-haired. For such a person to wander the Sierra Madre with pictures of woodpeckers, asking nervous peasants about them, takes either extreme courage or foolhardiness. But that’s just what he did.
The final of his five expeditions started optimistically in Durango, but before they left for the mountains they were “befriended” by an obvious drug dealer, and abandoned by one of the ornithologists who had agreed to accompany them. Despite such omens, they continued.
Tim often digresses in the book to explore the not-too-distant past of the Sierra Madre, telling stories of pioneer anthropologist Carl Lumholtz, and of famed ecologist and essayist Aldo Leopold, who wanted to establish the largest park in Mexico there. He reminds us that the Apaches held out in the Sierra, with bounties on their scalps, until the 1930s. They meet many decent people, though most are wary of these strange outsiders. They see opium poppies, and are warned off more than one trail. The country has been logged, and the forest is second or third growth, with ground plants eaten to stubble by goats and burros. They see one mesa across a chasm that looks like better habitat, but are warned that it belongs to the Zetas—a fearsome drug cartel made up of paramilitaries once part of the Mexican military—who will kill them if they enter. What they do not see is any sign of the woodpecker. They have a device that makes a double-knock sound that mimics the distinctive drumming of the pitoreal and most other woodpeckers in the Campephilus genus, but they never hear a response.
Their drive out of the mountains is a nightmare. The relatively benign drug lord who promised to meet them and accompany them—and warned them not to leave without him—does not show. Without “Carlos” and his Uzi submachine gun, they must drive, unescorted, for a long day over hideous dirt roads, at no more than five miles per hour. They ask a local village elder if it is safe, and he tells them: “Along the road, everything is quiet—the only thing that happened is that a few houses were burned down”—this since they entered, a couple of weeks earlier. They stop for snacks, and the proprietor seems nervous; later they find that a villager had been kidnapped and held for ransom there the day before.
Tim tries to be optimistic about the fate of the pitoreal, as he does about the ivory-bill. Although long-lived individuals may have survived into our time, do they have much future? The Imperial Woodpecker’s fate might seem even grimmer than the ivory-bill’s; the researchers find evidence that loggers repeatedly encouraged shooting and poisoning the bird to ensure its demise. If true, it represents a case of successful, conscious biocide; worse, one done for imaginary reasons—the destruction of trees that were already infested with beetle grubs. Tim’s excellent adventure contains a dark warning for any species that is perceived as an economic threat.