Monday, February 25, 2013

The First Review . . .

This review of my latest book, Imperial Dreams (on sale this April 16), came out today in Publishers Weekly:

After taking part in the sensational 2005 discovery of the rare Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Arkansas, Cornell ornithologist Gallagher (The Grail Bird) sets his sight on an even bigger prize: the legendary Imperial Woodpecker, a giant, crested species thought to be long extinct. Led by a decades-old map and film footage of the majestic bird, Gallagher travels to Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental range, where drug traffickers rule with impunity and horrific acts of violence—including kidnapping, arson, murder—are part of everyday life. The book recounts the natural and political history of the region, weaving in stories about Gallagher's encounters with birds, locals, bird-watchers, and scientific experts. Although questing for technically extinct birds like the Imperial Woodpecker is "generally akin to believing in Sasquatch or claiming to have been abducted by a UFO," Gallagher embarks on a risky trek past poppy farms, burned out houses, and terrified villagers to the wilderness area of the two-foot-long creature's last definitive sighting in the 1950s. Although the book's regional focus may be narrow, its tragic tales of environmental degradation, epic violence, and human foolhardiness have implications that will resonate well beyond the dangerous forests and valleys of Northern Mexico.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Empire of the Imperial Woodpecker

The empire of the Imperial Woodpecker is a remote landscape, high in the mountains of northwestern Mexico—a place of lofty, old-growth pines and rugged oaks swept by powerful winds, rains, and snowstorms. Here these giant woodpeckers lived and evolved across the millennia, subsisting on grubs as big as your thumb that they reached by prying off slabs of thick pine bark with their chisel-like white bills.

                      (Photo by Tim Gallagher)

These mighty birds thrived well into the mid-20th century, but then they ran into trouble. Although the plateau pine-oak forests were remote, labor was cheap. Logging companies moved into the Imperial Woodpeckers vast domain, and the mighty pines came tumbling down. 

   (Photo by Tim Gallagher)

Not only that, but the dirt roads the logging crews cut through the forests opened up these pristine areas to subsistence hunters, some of whom killed Imperial Woodpeckers for food, for the rumored medicinal values of the birds' feathers, or just out of curiosity. 

By the mid-1950s, the Imperial Woodpecker had vanished across most of its range. Today it's hard to find anyone below the age of 70 who even remember the birds, even those living in isolated villages, where people still live in the old ways, in adobe huts or log cabins, without any modern conveniences. But I did find a number of people who had more recent credible sightings, and their stories are what kept me going as I traveled through the high country of the vast Sierra Madre. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

How Do You Find a Needle in a Haystack?

    (Photo by Tim Gallagher)

People often ask how I could possible hope to locate a bird as rare as an Imperial Woodpecker in an area as vast as Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental—that is, if there are any of them left at all. It's a fair question. Unless you're lucky enough to see one fly past close enough to make a positive identification or hear one calling or drumming, you could walk right past an Imperial Woodpecker as it clung to the other side of a tree trunk and never know it was there. 

To help increase our odds, we used a custom-made device to mimic the unique double-knock drumming done by most Campephilus woodpeckers—which sounds like BAM-bam, with the second impact hitting only a fraction of a second after the first, sounding almost like an echo. Martjan Lammertink designed the device, which consists of a birdhouse-like wooden box lashed to a tree trunk to act as a resonator, and a striker, which resembles two lengths of broomstick, each about a yard long, with a pivot bolt in the center. To make the sound, you swing the striker in an arc, hitting the box hard with the first stick while the other one swings over the pivot bolt, hitting the box less than a second later, producing a near-perfect rendition of a Campephilus woodpecker double-knock.

Martjan tried out the double-knock box in Latin America and was able to draw responses from two species of Campephilus woodpeckers, the Pale-billed and Magellanic (which are relatives of the Ivory-billed and Imperial woodpeckers). To see this device in action, watch "Talking with a Pale-billed Woodpecker."

    (Photo by Tim Gallagher)

Above, Martjan Lammertink uses a GPS unit to record the precise location of each double-knock session during our expedition in the Sierra Madre.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Another Man Who Knew the Imperial Woodpecker

             (Photo by Tim Gallagher)

Jose Perez is an old vaquero I met during my travels through the Sierra Madre. As a young man in the 1940s and '50s, he would spend weeks riding horseback through the high country. Now in his 90s, he remembered the Imperial Woodpecker well, and described it perfectly even before I showed him my stack of illustrations depicting the woodpeckers of northern Mexico. When I asked him how the female pitoreal differed from a male, he laughed and told me her crest was negro (black), then he put his arm above his head and bent it to illustrate how much it curved forward.

I spoke with him for a long time, trying to glean as much information as he could remember about this spectacular bird. We really know so little about the Imperial Woodpecker. To me, it's vitally important to find people like Jose who were eyewitnesses to this bird's existence and to record their memories. If this species is truly extinct, or beyond saving, they might be our only living connection to one of the most remarkable birds that ever lived.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Searching for a Lost World

    (Photo by Tim Gallagher)

I think probably everyone who has gone looking for the Imperial Woodpecker in the last fifty years has wondered: Are there any untouched places in the remotest reaches of the vast Sierra Madre—any tiny lost worlds where a few Imperial Woodpeckers might still linger on? 

I've certainly thought a lot about that over the years. Before our last expedition in the Sierra Madre, Martjan Lammertink and I spent months poring over the rugged terrain of these mountains on Google Earth, and we did find places in the high-country pine forests that had never been penetrated by logging roads. They were usually on high, cliff-sided mesas, too difficult to log.

Could these be the lost worlds we were searching for? Surely if there were any Imperial Woodpeckers left, they would certainly be there. That thought kept us going as we sketched out our plans to explore one of the most dangerous parts of the Sierra Madre Occidental.

                             (Photo by Tim Gallagher)

Monday, February 4, 2013

Coming Soon to a Bookstore Near You . . .

Here's a sneak peek at the cover of my new book, Imperial Dreams: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker Through the Wild Sierra Madre, which goes on sale worldwide on April 16, 2013.

You'll be able to find it at most bookstores and at the following online retailers, in both hardback and electronic versions. Click on the links below to access the Imperial Dreams page at each of these booksellers: 
Barnes & Noble
and iBookstore

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Imperial Woodpecker Memories

    (Photo by Tim Gallagher)

Nicolesa and Salvador are Tepehuanes who live in the high country of the Sierra Madre Occidental in the Mexican state of Durango, as their ancestors have done for countless centuries. The Imperial Woodpecker (or uagam, as it is called in their language) plays a major part in Tepehuan myths and legends. "In the winter time they sing of the giant woodpecker," wrote Norwegian explorer and ethnologist Carl Lumholtz, who spent years living with the indigenous people of the Sierra Madre in the 1890s. "The giant woodpecker during the wet season rises high up toward the sun; that is why he gets his tail burned."

For many, and perhaps most, of the Tepehuanes living in the Sierra Madre, life has not changed much in the past century or two. They still live hardscrabble lives with few modern conveniences, dwelling in adobe huts built of handmade bricks or in log cabins hewn from the surrounding pine forest, with no electricity, no telephones, and no plumbing. Most of them get around on foot or on mules and donkeys.

Both Nicolesa and Salvador remembered the Imperial Woodpecker well. "They were beautiful," Nicolesa told us. "I would see them one, two, three at time, mostly in the high country." But she had not seen one since around the time she first learned how to make tortillas, she said, about the age of ten, which would have been in the 1950s.

The Tepehuanes were kind enough to let me stay in an empty adobe hut in their village—after first chasing the chickens and goats outside.