Monday, March 22, 2021

The Return of "Extinct" Species

 A film crew from "CBS Sunday Morning" and reporter Conor Knighton came along with Bobby Harrison and me last year on one of our searches for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in an Arkansas Bayou, just before the COVID lockdown. The program aired on March 21, 2021. Here are some photos (below) and a link to the show.

Jane Pauley introduced the show.

Bobby Harrison (left) with Conor Knighton and Tim Gallagher.

Tim Gallagher with the field sketches he and Bobby drew right after their sighting in 2004.

Tim and Bobby on the day of their Ivory-billed Woodpecker sighting, February 27, 2004.

Bobby Harrison and Conor Knighton.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Remembering Steve Earle (1951-2019)

It’s always hard to bid farewell to good friends, and the past year and a half has been especially difficult with the death of so many people who were important to me—Peregrine Fund founder Tom Cade; Bird Watcher’s Digest editor Bill Thompson; and legendary falconers Bob Winslow, Bob Martin, and Mike Connolly, who I had admired since I was a young falconer growing up in California. But the death of Steve Earle, one of my oldest friends, has hit me particularly hard. He passed away of natural causes in the early morning hours on Christmas Eve.

Steve and I first met when we were just thirteen or fourteen years old, and we cut our falconry teeth together, hunting a variety of game with Kestrels, Red-tailed Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks—and later Prairie Falcons and Peregrines—at a time when the Southern California coast still had lots of wide-open spaces to fly raptors.

Thirteen-year-old Steve with a Red-tailed Hawk

Steve in his teens training a Cooper's Hawk in his Seal Beach backyard.

In addition to raptors, the ocean was always an important part of Steve’s life, as a surfer, fisherman, and beachcomber. He grew up in Seal Beach in the Sixties, the son of a schoolteacher and a commercial fisherman—a career Steve and his two brothers also took up. I worked with him for a time in the 1970s on a swordfish boat called the Volare, an Italian verb meaning “to fly”—a perfect name for a boat captained by Steve. He had recruited me because of my skills as a birder, hoping I could sit in the crow’s nest, peering at the horizon through 10x binoculars for hours at a time, searching for the telltale shape of swordfish fins on the horizon. It was a challenge, but thanks to Steve’s tutelage, I could soon distinguish between the fins of distant swordfish, striped marlin, blue sharks, hammerhead sharks, and many other species.

The Volare tied up at Fish Harbor with its swordfish plank raised.

It was a good life. We’d anchor each night off one of the Channel Islands—Santa Cruz, San Clemente, or Santa Catalina—and often catch lobster, abalone, or fish to eat in the evening. By day, we’d scour the seas, endlessly searching for swordfish basking in the sun after their morning meals. If we spotted one, we’d lower the long metal plank on the bow of the boat and one of us would walk to the end of it while the other carefully moved the boat forward, trying to get close enough to throw a harpoon at the fish. 

A finning swordfish.

                              Steve stands at the end of the plank, about to harpoon a swordfish.

It was exciting and interesting. Steve worked hard and eventually bought the Volare from the man who employed us, and he lived on the boat for many years—right up until the hull was destroyed by wood rot a few years ago. 

Steve Earle looking like the Ancient Mariner after several decades at sea in pursuit of swordfish.

Looking back on Steve's life, what I think impressed me most about him was the way he dealt with adversity—and he faced a lot of it in his later life. About a decade ago he was diagnosed with bladder cancer and went through a harrowing, hours-long surgery, which nearly killed him, and left him barely able to walk for months. I was living in Upstate New York, but I came to California and visited him not long after his surgery. He was living alone on the Volare, which was tied to the wharf in Fish Harbor, near San Pedro. It was awful, and he obviously was in a lot of pain, but he never complained. He had the most amazingly upbeat attitude, and it really got him through it. Most people would have given up, but he lived another ten years. And it wasn't a bad life. He did the things that interested him most. And he always helped his friends, talking for hours on the phone whenever one of us was in crisis. I'll always be grateful for the emotional support he gave me after the death of one of my children, when I was overcome with despair and didn't see how I could go on. 

Shortly after his surgery, Steve holds up a picture of him at age 19 with his tiercel Prairie Falcon.

Steve didn’t fly falcons in his later years. But he never stopped loving them and spent countless hours watching nesting Peregrine Falcons on the sea cliffs and bridges and buildings of California and later on the Oregon coast, where he spent the final years of his life. 

The last time I saw Steve was just a couple of months ago in the Florida Keys, where he and I and our mutual friend, Hollis Roberts, had gone to watch the fall migration of Peregrine Falcons en route from their Arctic breeding grounds to their wintering areas in Latin America. It was Steve who originally introduced me to Hollis, when we were in our mid-teens, and the three of us always flew hawks together growing up. It was a great reunion. We saw more peregrines than any of us had ever seen in a single day. The hawk watch at Curry Hammock recorded more than five hundred peregrines one of the days we were there. We got to see many peregrines there as well as at Key West and another place where the falcons were flying right over our heads. One day when it was raining we went driving around to see if we could locate any perched peregrines, and we wildly exceeded our expectations, finding seventeen peregrines sitting on a single radio tower. We had the best time, laughing, joking, talking endlessly—and watching peregrines. We were like kids again. What could be better? 

So fair winds and following seas, my old friend, wherever you may travel. 

Migrating Peregrines in the Florida Keys.

With Steve (left) and Hollis (right) at the Florida Keys HawkWatch.

Saturday, July 20, 2019


Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin at the Sea of Tranquility. Photo by Neil Armstrong
Fifty years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history as the first humans to set foot on the moon. It was one of those pivotal moments—the kind of earth-shaking event about which people ask for decades after: "Where were you when...?" Fill in the blank.

I've often tried to skirt around my answer when someone asked me about the moon landing. You see, I was eighteen and a few months earlier had been convicted of possessing a small amount of marijuana—at a time when this was considered a serious crime and well worth destroying someone's life over. (Now recreational marijuana possession and use is perfectly legal in California.) I'd never previously been arrested for anything, and yet here I was, serving a 5-month sentence in a maximum-security county jail facility. I was in a classic cell-block with two tiers of cells—P Tank above and O Tank below—with a bullet-proof-glass-enclosed catwalk where the guards would randomly walk past, at any hour of day or night. The prisoners in P Tank were usually in transit to other places. They'd stay a few days then get transferred to a branch jail or to the honor farm. In O Tank, we were more permanent. The county jail authorities didn't like to send druggies to the farm or to let them participate in any kind of work-release program. In O Tank, the days went slowly. We didn't have television or even playing cards to entertain ourselves.

But a few weeks after I began my sentence, a curious thing happened. The guards gathered all the inmates from O Tank, marched us upstairs, and we crammed into the cells of P Tank, where the prisoners had a television in every cell. Together we watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land the first spacecraft on the moon. I've never heard of anything like that happening before or since at a jail. I suppose someone made a decision that this was too historic an occasion not to share with us, and for that I'm grateful.

Many years later  I was at an Explorers Club banquet in New York City, receiving a conservation award, when I met Buzz Aldrin. We had a nice conversation, but I never told him I'd been watching the moon walk from a jail cell on that historic day, half a century ago. I wrote about these and other experiences in my memoir, Falcon Fever (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008).

With Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin (right), the second man to walk on the moon; astronaut Kathryn Sullivan (left), the first American woman to walk in space; and famed marine biologist Sylvia Earle at the Explorers Club Awards Banquet, New York City. Photo by Bobby Harrison

Remembering Mike Connolly

I was saddened hear that my old friend Mike Connolly passed away last Sunday. Mike began training hawks in the 1960s in the San Diego area and quickly excelled as a game hawker—first hunting cottontails and other game with his great Cooper's Hawk, Shadow, and later flying Peregrines (most notably Orchid and Witch) at ducks for years. He became a legendary figure in California falconry, and deservedly so. He was always generous with his time. He brought his peregrines to every California Hawking Club field meet for years and always let everyone tag along to watch his falcons catch ducks. He had very high standards and inspired a generation of young falconers to follow in his footsteps. I spoke with him on the phone just a couple of weeks ago when his hospice care began. I still thought he might bounce back one more time. Mike was such a powerful presence, it's difficult to accept the fact that he's gone. He will be greatly missed.

                                                                 Mike Connolly with his peregrine falcon, Orchid.                                                  Photo by Omar White

Mike Connolly (left) and Scott Francis (right) came to see me when I gave a talk in Missoula, Montana, during my book tour for Falcon Fever. They were two great California falconers who are now both gone. Rest in Peace, my old friends. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Fielding Lewis and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

                   Fielding Lewis's controversial 1971 photo of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. 

One mystery I always hoped to sort out was the identity of a hunter who had taken two snapshots of a male ivory-bill in 1971 and sent them to George Lowery, a famed ornithologist at Louisiana State University. When the man had initially reported seeing a pair of ivory-bills, Lowery assumed he had seen pileated woodpeckers and encouraged him to try to get a picture. When he subsequently shot some pictures, Lowery was convinced and went immediately to the Atchafalaya Swamp of southern Louisiana, where the man had seen the birds. Although Lowery never saw the ivory-bills, he did see an excavation the birds had started in a tree.

The man asked that his identity and the exact location of the place he’d taken the pictures not be revealed. Like many southerners, he had a visceral fear that the feds would come in and impound the land, so he couldn't hunt there anymore. Lowery respected his wishes and never divulged the information.

That summer, Lowery took the pictures to the annual meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union, expecting all the scientists to be excited by this amazing physical proof of the continued existence of this species, even at that early date long thought extinct. Instead, he was met with immediate withering skepticism. One of the first things the other ornithologists did was to peer at the snapshots through an electron microscope. Their verdict: obviously a fraud—a taxidermied bird hung in two different trees. Some of them laughed at Lowery behind his back, jeering at his gullibility. Some darkly suggested he may have been in on the hoax. But no one who knew him could ever have believed that.

Lowery kept quiet about the affair after that, and a few years later he passed away. The story of the hunter who gave him the pictures grew from that point on until he became a legendary figure, shrouded in mystery—an old Choctaw living far out in the swamp; a greasy-haired hermit who only came to town once or twice a year to sell his beaver pelts. People speculated wildly in books and magazine articles about who he might be and where in the vast Atchafalaya Swamp he saw the birds. I had no idea who he was. I just knew that I wanted to talk with him, to look him in the eye and decide for myself whether I believed his story.

I did hear about a man named Fielding Lewis who supposedly had seen ivory-bills somewhere in the Atchafalaya in the 1970s. I wondered if there was any possibility that he could be the mystery man. One day I did an Internet search for his name and got only one hit in the entire state of Louisiana. And this Fielding Lewis did live in the southern Atchafalaya. Could it really be this easy? As I was getting ready to call him on my cell phone, I got the wicked thought: maybe I should pretend that I know he took the pictures and see what he says.

“This is Tim Gallagher from Cornell University,” I said as the man answered the phone. I’m interviewing people who have seen ivory-billed woodpeckers, and I’d like to ask you about the pictures you gave to George Lowery in 1971.”

Without a pause he said, “Okay.” Then he told me he lived out in the woods and I’d never be able to find his place. He suggested that Bobby Harrison and I meet him in front of a Cajun restaurant not far from his home. When I called my wife and told her this, she said: “Don’t do it! It’s the South. We’ll never hear from you again.” I assured her everything would be fine. Bobby is with me. What could go wrong? But to be honest, it did seem a little strange.

We ended up getting to the restaurant a couple of hours earlier than we’d planned, so I called Lewis again. A woman answered and told me he wasn’t home; he had gone to his office. His office? All my fantasies about this guy immediately imploded—the stringy-haired swamp rat living in a shack perched precariously on wobbly stilts above the swamp; the trapper poling along in his hand-hewn pirogue—all gone. And I missed that image. So who was this guy? What would he really be like?

By this time, Bobby and I were too excited to go inside the restaurant. We hung around outside, peering at every car that passed. Finally a big white Chrysler New Yorker pulled into the parking lot, driven by a portly man in his seventies, puffing on the biggest cigar I’ve ever seen.

“Fielding Lewis?” I said as he stepped outside. He nodded and we shook hands. He looked like a character from Tennessee Williams—like Big Daddy, larger than life, with a booming voice and a bone-crushing handshake.

As we drove behind, following him to his office, I noticed the frame around his license plate said “Louisiana State Boxing Commission.” I asked him about this as he opened his office door, and he told us he was the state commissioner of boxing and had been a boxer himself years earlier. Stepping into his office, we were hit by a wall of choking cigar smoke. It was like going through a time warp, passing into the 1940s. On the wall hung a black-and-white World War II era cigarette ad of a Hollywood starlet puffing a Chesterfield. Framed pictures of boxers stood on every available desk or table, including a nice autographed shot of Mohammad Ali as a teenager, when he was still called Cassius Clay.

Lewis was a great storyteller and he regaled us with endless anecdotes about his many exploits over the years and the numerous fascinating characters he’d encountered in his life. We finally got him talking about ivory-bills. He spoke about George Lowery—how he was the nicest person he’d ever met. They had become close friends, he said, and he had a picture of him posing with his grandkids. Then I hit him with the big question: “Did you know that those pictures you took caused a huge controversy with ornithologists and that some of them think the bird was taxidermied?”

He stared at me, visually stunned for moment, and then bellowed with laughter. “Now where the hell would I get a stuffed ivory-bill?”

Bobby and I came away believing his story. And when we visited the spot where he had reportedly seen the birds, we found numerous huge cypresses, but most of them were dead—victims of salt-water incursion back around the time he had seen the birds, which was interesting. Slowly dying trees like that would have been a natural magnet for infestation by wood-boring beetles and species that feed on their larvae, such as ivory-billed woodpeckers.

[excerpted from The Grail Bird by Tim Gallagher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt]

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Remembering Tom Cade

Tom Cade passed away yesterday at the age of 91. Considering his age and the state of his health, I know I shouldn't be surprised, but I'm still having a hard time imaging a world without Tom. He was such an inspiring figure to me for so long. I first heard about him in my teens, and it was such a proud moment when I first met him and got to know him. What can you say about Tom Cade? Of course, he was a renowned biologist, a raptor conservationist, an Ivy League professor, and a lifelong falconer—but he was so much more.

Tom Cade (left) and Jim Weaver

Tom was a dynamo who poured all of his energy and leadership skills into a valiant attempt to turn around the Peregrine Falcon's perilous population decline. By the mid-1960s, most of the Peregrine eyries across the United States had been abandoned and the species was no longer breeding east of the Mississippi River. Tom strongly believed he could breed Peregrines in captivity and release them to the wild in sufficient numbers to have a massive positive impact on the dwindling falcon population.

Tom's enthusiasm was contagious. Many falconers contributed their own birds to use in the captive-breeding program at Cornell. And many of them also volunteered their time and provided initial funding for the project. No falconer could imagine losing the Peregrine Falcon. Tom and The Peregrine Fund—an organization he founded in 1970—released some 4,000 captive-produced Peregrine Falcons in the space of 28 years in what became one of the most successful endangered species recovery efforts ever attempted. I'll never forget attending the event in August 1999 at the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho, when Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt officially removed the Peregrine Falcon from the Endangered Species List. What an amazing accomplishment. And what a great way to end the Twentieth Century.

Uummannaq, Greenland, 2000.                                                                       (c) Tim Gallagher

I had the great privilege the following year of accompanying Tom Cade, Bill Burnham, Kurt Burnham, and Jack Stephens on an expedition to Greenland—actually a follow-up to research conducted nearly a century earlier by Danish ornithologist Alfred Bertelsen, who had extensively mapped out numerous nest sites and breeding colonies of birds in the Uummannaq region of Greenland. When Tom was a young graduate student at UCLA in the early 1950s, he had read a paper Bertelsen had published in a Danish ornithological journal in 1921, and he decided he would someday retrace Bertelsen's route and see how much the bird numbers and species makeup had changed in the intervening years. And he did it, decades later at the age of 72—traveling countless miles up iceberg-choked fjords in an open boat; camping out on the frozen ground as frigid Arctic winds tried to rip the tents to shreds. I'm still impressed by Tom's determination and stoicism in the face of hardship. I'll always remember that. Rest in Peace, my old friend.

(Left to right) Bill Burnham, Kurt Burnham, and Tom Cade in Greenland.          (c) Tim Gallagher

Tom Cade and Kurt Burnham in Greenland.                                                  (c) Tim Gallagher

Tom Cade in a helicopter in Greenland.                               (c) Tim Gallagher

With Tom Cade in 2015 at a celebration in his honor at Cornell.

 Tom Cade and his wife Renetta at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.    (c) Tim Gallagher

Tom Cade with Phyllis Dague, who worked with him for many years.  (c) Tim Gallagher

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Bob Martin, Falconer

I'm saddened to report the death of my old friend Bob Martin, who passed away last week at the age of 73. Bob first took up falconry in the late 1950s when he was in his early teens. He and his friend Mike Arnold, who lived in the same neighborhood in Burbank, California, were absolute fanatics about the sport, reading everything they could find about falconry and tirelessly searching the nearby hills for raptor nests. Their efforts took a quantum leap forward when they met Bob Klimes, president of the Southern California Falconers' Association, and Bob McCallum, who were both avid game hawkers and provided the two boys with help, advice, and stellar examples to follow. 

    A recent picture of Bob with one of his peregrines from a 2018 article by Brent Frazee.

I first met Bob when I was 14 years old, in the mid-1960s, at a meeting of the old Santa Ana Valley Falconers' Association, which met each week at Jack Hagan's house. I remember Bob had a fresh-trapped passage tiercel peregrine—one of the first tundra peregrines I'd ever seen—and I was absolutely awestruck. Fortunately, Bob wasn't stuck up about having such an impressive bird. Then, and throughout his falconry career, he was always generous, freely sharing his vast knowledge about training raptors. 

He was an excellent hood-maker, and some examples of his work can be seen at the Archives of Falconry. His craftsmanship showed in everything he created, from hoods, blocks, and falconry bags to the log house he built nearly singlehandedly in Montana. He was also a talented musician, playing and singing with his wife JoAnne in their bluegrass band. 

Bob was always a staunch game-hawker, flying first-rate falcons in spectacular style. Last season, he went on the road with his two intermewed peregrines, Salt and Pepper, flying them at sage grouse, prairie chickens, and other challenging quarry. He had planned to do the same this fall. Sadly, it was not to be. He will be greatly missed.

                                     Bob Martin with his peregrine in the 1960s. Photo by Mike Arnold

               Bob Martin (at right) and Bob Mechsner in La Verne, California, in the 1960s. Photo by Dan Fenske