Thursday, January 31, 2013

What do Imperial Woodpeckers and Apaches Have in Common?

The answer is that the Sierra Madre Occidental was the final stronghold and sanctuary for both of them. The Apaches in many ways were the protectors of the Imperial Woodpeckers—or at least protectors of the habitat the birds needed to survive. For more than two centuries, the Apaches' ferocious defense of their domain in the mountains of northwestern Mexico deterred the settlement and exploitation of the vast old-growth forests where the Imperials lived. 

In the photograph above, Geronimo (at right) poses with three of his warriors at a time when they were still at war with the United States and Mexico. After their skirmishes with cavalry or settlers, they would often vanish into the high country of the Sierra Madre, leaving their pursuers in the dust. When Geronimo finally surrendered in 1886, some Apaches refused to join him and fled back to their Sierra Madre stronghold, where they fought a losing battle well into the 1930s, trying to preserve their traditional culture. It was only after the Apaches were subdued that logging companies were able to fully exploit the old-growth timber in their vast domain.

An interesting sidenote about the photograph above: In the mid-1930s, Yahnozah (the warrior on the far left), led Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad on a lengthy search through the Sierra Madre, hoping to locate some of his fellow Apaches who had fled there nearly half a century earlier. They saw several Imperial Woodpeckers during the expedition.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

19th-Century Explorations in Mexico

This stunning illustration of an Imperial Woodpecker pair by John L. Ridgway appeared in the July 1898 edition of The Auk, the journal of the American Ornithologists' Union. It accompanied an article by E. W. Nelson, titled, "The Imperial Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus imperialis." (These birds were sometimes called Imperial Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, because they are so similar to the smaller American Ivory-billed Woodpecker.) The article was the first (and arguably the best) major natural history piece on the Imperial Woodpecker, based entirely on field observations of the birds in the mountains of Mexico. Read the full Auk article here: The Imperial Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Edward William Nelson was the quintessential Victorian Explorer, who first made a name for himself studying the wildlife and indigenous peoples of the Alaskan frontier.  With his field assistant, Edward A. Goldman, he launched his first Mexico expedition (which was supposed to last three months) in January 1892. They ended up spending fourteen years in Mexico, crossing and recrossing the length and breadth of the country, traveling through many areas never before visited by a scientist.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Recent Imperial Woodpecker Sighting?

We had been driving through the high country of Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental all day, but our progress was glacially slow. Most of the roads in the mountains are so poor, it takes hours to go just twenty miles, bumping and lurching endlessly with top speeds of only three or four miles per hour. We finally reached a small village in a high valley surrounded by pine-clad mountains. Pines were scattered throughout the village, with one even growing right through the roof of an empty cabin. The ground was still covered by several inches of snow a week after a powerful storm had swept through the area.

    (Photo by Tim Gallagher)

We stopped at the first house we came to and knocked on the door. A man in his sixties named Pedro came outside to speak with us. He was staggering drunk but seemed eager to help. We showed him a color illustration depicting four species of Mexican woodpeckers. He instantly picked out the Imperial and launched into a story about riding on a high, pine-covered mesa with his son, Miguel, just three years earlier and seeing one of the birds clinging to the trunk of a large pine. He told us they had never seen one before and Miguel even wondered if it might be some kind of strange mountain grouse. Pedro immediately drew his pistol and shot the bird, injuring it, and quickly threw a blanket over it as it squawked loudly. 

The two men had brought lunch with them, he said, and they decided to rest awhile and eat there. A short time later, Miguel stood up and went to check on the bird. The instant he lifted the edge of the blanket, the hugh black-and-white bird burst out and flew away. Apparently, it had only been stunned.

I didn't know what to make of his story. Of course, Pedro was completely intoxicated, and yet the tale he told had some interesting elements and would have been difficult to fake, drunk or sober. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Another Sketch of an Imperial Woodpecker

Yesterday I posted a sketch of an Imperial Woodpecker drawn more than 180 years ago by English bird artist and ornithologist John Gould. In fairness to the many excellent artists of today, I thought I should post something more recent. Here's a sketch of the same species drawn by my friend, John Schmitt, a lifelong bird artist who lives in California.

For his model, John used an Imperial Woodpecker specimen at the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in Camarillo. The bird had been collected more than a century ago in the Sierra Madre Occidental of Mexico. John's sketch is a lot more lifelike than the withered old bird skin that lay before him as he drew it. And the bird did not have a spread wing. John meticulously measured the amount of white on each feather to recreate the wing accurately. To view a completed Imperial Woodpecker illustration by John Schmitt, see my post on January 16, titled "Imperial Woodpeckers of the Sierra Madre."

(Illustration by John Schmitt)

Below, John Schmitt poses with a mounted Imperial Woodpecker specimen. 

(Photo by Tim Gallagher)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

John Gould and the Imperial Woodpecker

I love this sketch of an Imperial Woodpecker, which appears at the bottom of a letter an ornithologist wrote to a friend in 1832. Although the petroglyph image I posted on this blog a few days ago was the earliest known depiction of the bird, the sketch above was drawn by famed English ornithologist and artist John Gould, the man who actually first scientifically described this species, a "bird remarkable for its extraordinary size," and gave it the regal appellation of Imperial Woodpecker, Picus imperialis—which was later changed to Campephilus imperialis. George Robert Gray, another 19th-century English ornithologist, established the genus Campephilus, which means "lover of grubs," the primary diet of these birds. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is the only member of this genus in the United States and is the closest relative of the Imperial Woodpecker.

Gould brought some specimens of the Imperial Woodpecker to a meeting of the Zoological Society of London in the summer of 1832. He was a little vague about exactly where they were collected: somewhere in "that little explored district of California which borders Mexico." Actually, the skins were collected by a mining engineer named Floresi in the Mexican state of Jalisco, quite a long way from  California.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Treasure of the Sierra Madre

As far as we know, the only place the Imperial Woodpecker has ever existed is in the high-country pine forests of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental—a vast mountain range a couple of hundred miles wide and nearly a thousand miles long, stretching southward from just below the U.S. border—and a small section of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt at the southern end of this range. It is rugged, remote, and dangerous, and it always has been. Everyone from the Aztecs and Spaniards to the modern Mexican government has found it impossible to maintain order there. The mountains are high and cut through with deep barrancas or canyons—one of which is deeper than the Grand Canyon.

It is there that the last wild Apaches held on well into the 1930s, in roving bands, still attacking settlers who encroached on their land. And there that the Tarahumara (or Raramuri)—those magnificent long-distance runners who think nothing of racing 150 miles nonstop through the mountains—resisted all Spanish efforts to colonize them and maintained their stone-age existence for centuries. It has always been a land of dreamers and desperados, many of whom fled south on the Old Outlaw Trail after robbing banks or committing various other acts of mayhem in the United States. 

    (Photo by Tim Gallagher)

The current desperados are mostly drug traffickers, who grow and transport opium and marijuana, supported by well-armed thugs. They're the ones who make it so dangerous to travel through remote areas of the Sierra. In the photo above, the Tepehuane man is warning us not to cross to the other side of the canyon, which is controlled by Los Zetas, a drug cartel made up of trained paramilitaries who left the Mexican military to engage in the lucrative drug trade. 

                            (Photo by Tim Gallagher)

The dreamers are the ones who come to the Sierra Madre in search of treasure, be it lost caches of Spanish gold, long-forgotten mines, lost tribes, or, in my case, the mighty Imperial Woodpecker. But these are not the only treasures the Sierra Madre holds. It is one of the most beautiful areas I've ever seen, with endless spectacular vistas of pine-clad mountains cut through with magnificent canyons. And it also has fascinating people, most of whom live without electricity, telephones, plumbing, or any of the other things we all take for granted. It's a valuable experience to step back from the urban world once in a while and see how the majority of humanity lives.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Earliest Depiction of An Imperial Woodpecker

As long as I can remember, I've always been fascinated by petroglyphs. They're so beautiful and interesting. I always wonder about the people who made them. What were their lives like? What were they trying to express? And what eventually happened to the artists who created them and to their culture? There's a canyon near Casas Grandes in the Mexican state of Chihuahua that I particularly like—not just for the quality of its petroglyphs but for the fact that it has the earliest known illustration of an Imperial Woodpecker, which was etched into the stone wall of the arroyo centuries ago. The petroglyph is so well done that you can even tell the gender of the bird: a female because its crest is curved so much farther forward than the crest of a male Imperial Woodpecker. 

                             (Photo by Tim Gallagher)

I've visited this canyon twice in the past few years, and it's always been a moving experience. It is a place of solemn silence, with nothing but the sound of wind blowing across the surrounding desert. I can't help thinking about the artist who created this wonderful image in stone. I feel such a strong connection. Here was someone so touched by the beauty of this spectacular bird that he or she had to record it for others to see—which is truly, I think, the basis of all art and literature.

    (Photo by Tim Gallagher)

There are many other petroglyphs at the site, and they are wonderful, too. Many of them depict people, wildlife, or sometimes abstract patterns, but the Imperial Woodpecker petroglyph is still my favorite.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Largest Woodpecker That Ever Lived

It’s amazing to see the difference in size between Imperial, Ivory-billed, and Pileated woodpeckers, which Bobby Harrison captured well in this photo he took of some specimens at the American Museum of Natural History. A whopping two feet in length, the Imperial easily dwarfs its closest cousin, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (center). As for the common Pileated Woodpecker (top)—well, it doesn’t even come close.

The first time I ever saw some Imperial Woodpecker specimens, during a visit to Harvard’s bird collection, I was stunned by their beauty and majesty. I knew right then that I would someday go off in search of these birds. There were so many questions to answer about them. Why had they vanished so quickly and completely? Were they already extinct? Or were they still hanging on in some of the remotest reaches of Mexico’s mighty Sierra Madre? And most important, could they be saved?

    (Photo by Bobby Harrison)

These were a few of the questions I hoped to address when I began my quest. I had planned to start searching nearly a decade ago, but my friends in Mexico kept telling me that it was too dangerous at the moment, because of all the drug-growing activity and violence in the mountains, and I should try the following year instead. But each year, the level of danger seemed to grow astronomically. I finally decided I couldn’t wait any longer—the Imperial Woodpecker couldn’t wait any longer—and one bright, sunny morning in May, I crossed the border at Columbus, New Mexico, and headed south to the Sierra Madre.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Imperial Woodpeckers of the Sierra Madre

In the high mountains of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental there once lived a woodpecker unlike any other—a giant, largest of its clan in the world, whose pounding drumbeat echoed like the blows of a wild axe man through the primeval forests as it bored into massive, grub-infested pines, hammering on them powerfully for weeks at time until they groaned, shuddered, and finally toppled with an impact that shook the ground. Victorian explorers dubbed it Campephilus imperialis—the Imperial Woodpecker. But it had already been named long before. To the Aztecs, it was cuauhtotomi; to the Tarahumaras, cumecocari; to the Tepehuanes, ua gam; and to the Spanish speakers, the pitoreal.

      (Illustration by John Schmitt)

Two feet in length, with the deepest black plumage and brilliant, snow-white flight feathers that showed as a white shield on its lower back, the Imperial Woodpecker was impossible to miss. Its eyes glowed golden yellow; its massive, chisel-like bill shone white as polished ivory; its feathery crest curved forward to a shaggy point. And it was noisy, blaring a loud trumpet-like toot as it hitched up a pine trunk, foraging for beetle grubs as big as a man’s thumb. But its showiness was its undoing—that and the fact that it stayed in tight family groups and often hung around, curious, when one of its group was wounded or killed.

The last documented sighting of the species was a lone female filmed by William Rhein in 1956. This was the only photographic documentation ever made of a living Imperial Woodpecker. Many biologists have already written the Imperial Woodpecker’s epitaph, and it is a sad tale of massive habitat destruction and wanton killing. But stories still persist of lone pitoreales flying yet over the most remote pine forests of the Sierra Madre.

I began searching the Sierra Madre for Imperial Woodpeckers about five years ago and interviewing people who remembered seeing them. It was a tough process. The area has become a major center of drug growing. It is remote and often dangerous as you run into AK-47-toting drug traffickers.

I’ll be posting photos I took and stories of the people I encountered in my travels through the Sierra. I have a book coming out later this year titled, Imperial Dreams: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker through the Wild Sierra Madre, which I’ll say more about as it gets closer to its release date. I invite anyone who has seen an Imperial Woodpecker (even if it was decades ago) or knows someone who’s seen one to contact me.