Friday, March 29, 2013

Imperial Dreams Sneak Peek

I just received two advance copies of my new book, Imperial Dreams, which goes on sale in hardback and electronic editions on April 16, 2013. For me, it's always exciting to see the completed version of a new book. After months—or years, in this case—of writing and rewriting a manuscript, proofreading it again and again, then going through the galleys and the uncorrected proofs, etc., etc. And then, finally, everything is done, and it's time to write the next book. I hope everyone enjoys it.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Imperial Woodpecker Specimen 29855

     (Photo by Tim Gallagher)

I spent quite a bit of time traveling through the high country of the Sierra Madre Occidental in the state of Chihuahua and interviewed several people in the area about the Imperial Woodpecker. One of the most interesting was Bill Martineau, now in his early seventies, whose family was among the Mormon settlers who founded Colonia Chuhuichupa in the 1880s. The Mormons have now mostly left the old mountain colonies such as Chuhuichupa, Pacheco, Garcia.

    (Bill Martineau; photo by Tim Gallagher)

"The Martineau's were one of the first Mormon families to settle in Chuhuichupa, and I was the last one to leave," he told me, laughing. He has amazing memories of what the old-growth pine forests were like when he was a boy in the 1940s. "It was a paradise on Earth," he said, and described enormous sylvan giants rising high above the forest floor. When they were cut, it took an entire logging truck to carry each one out, one massive log at a time.

Few people have spent as much time in the old-growth forest of the Sierra Madre as Martineau. When he was just three or four years old, his father would tie him to the saddle of a horse so he wouldn't fall off and then take him along as he tended his cattle in the high country. Sometimes the elder Martineau would lose track of Bill, but apparently he never worried about him because the horse knew the way home. 

When I asked him about the Imperial Woodpecker, Martineau described the bird perfectly, including its call, and told me a fascinating story from his boyhood. An American had approached his father in 1948, asking him if he could show him some imperial woodpeckers. Martineau's father told the man he knew where some of these birds lived in the high country above Chuhuichupa, and he took him on a several-hours-long ride into the mountains to a place named, appropriately enough, Pitoreal Pass. (The Imperial Woodpecker’s common name in Mexico is Pitoreal.) Young Martineau came along for the ride. Tragically, they found an Imperial Woodpecker lying dead at the base of its nest tree—a huge pine snag with a nest hole on the trunk, high above them.

Curious what might be inside the cavity, the elder Martineau tied two lariats together and attached a small log to one end, which he threw over a limb above the nest hole. He then fashioned a sling for Bill, tied the other end to his saddle horn, and backed up the horse, hoisting his eight-year-old son more than 60 feet in the air. "You fall out of the sling and you're dead," he shouted to his young son. He finally got him right beside the nest hole, and the boy reached inside. He pulled two partially feathered young from the nest. They were already dead though still warm to the touch, he told me. Perhaps both parents had been shot, and the young woodpeckers starved.
The American broke down and wept as he saw them. "The birds are going to go extinct, and there's nothing I can do about it," he said as he sat on a fallen log, covering his face with his hands as tears streamed down his cheeks.
A couple months after I interviewed Martineau, I was looking through the bird collection at the San Diego Natural History Museum when one of the Imperial Woodpecker specimens caught my eye. Specimen number 29855 was collected by W. M. Fuelscher in the high country not far from Chuhuichupa, which was spelled phonetically as “Chewy-Choopa” on the tag. It had been added to the collection in 1949—very late for an Imperial Woodpecker specimen, most of which were collected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
I thought immediately about the story Martineau had told me. Now, what I’d like to know is whether specimen 29855 at the San Diego Natural History Museum is the same adult Imperial Woodpecker that he and his father and the other man found in 1948 and whether the mystery American is W. M. Fuelscher. The bird was collected in the same general area at the same general time. And according to the museum’s curator of birds, this was the only specimen the collection ever obtained from W. M. Fuelscher.
So far, I haven't been able to find out anything else about the man. There’s a historical landmark called the Fuelscher House in San Diego, but I couldn't find any current residents in the area with that name. Going through some death records I did find a William Fuelscher who died in 1972 at the age of 77 in Southern California, who may or may not have been the person who brought the specimen to the museum. Perhaps we’ll never know the full story.

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Follow-up Interview . . .

                             (Photo by Tim Gallagher)

Genero Quintana greeted us warmly at the door of his home in the foothills of the Sierra Madre. In his late seventies, he had a kind face, dark and creased from countless years in the sun, and a thick shock of gray hair, combed back. It had taken us weeks to locate him. The house was full of people, including his wife and daughter as well as some teenagers, perhaps his grandchildren, and we all sat together at the kitchen table as I asked him about his Imperial Woodpecker sightings.

It had been about fifteen years since Martjan Lammertink and Roger Otto had met him, when he lived on a remote rancho in the high country and rode through the forest every day, taking care of his cattle. Of all the people they interviewed during their travels through the mountains in the 1990s, he had been the most impressive. He told them about two Imperial Woodpeckers (pitoreales) he had seen within the past five years and another in the 1970s. 

Quintana was quite familiar with the species, having seen them often as a boy, before the old-growth forests nearby were cut in the late 1940s and '50s. And the other species a person might confuse with an Imperial—the Pale-billed and Lineated Woodpeckers—do not occur in that part of Mexico. But what impressed Martjan and Roger most was that Quintana mentioned his sightings nonchalantly, before they had even expressed any interest in the birds. He described the species accurately and picked it out instantly when they showed him some Mexican woodpecker illustrations.

“Mr. Quintana made the impression of being a sincere man and a careful observer,” they wrote in a report for Birdlife International. “The habitat where he saw his last Imperial Woodpeckers fits the requirements of the species well (although the patches are small). Since Mr. Quintana rides daily through the forest and came upon the bird only twice in the past five years, it is understandable that such an occasionally visiting bird would leave no traces.”

He told Martjan and Roger that the pitoreal was not a resident species in the area where he’d had the most recent sightings, but he had come upon wandering, solitary birds in 1977, 1990, and 1993. He said the last two woodpeckers had black crests, so they were obviously females. Martjan speculated that it may have been the same bird returning after a three-year absence though there’s no way to be sure. Quintana’s last sighting had been sometime between February and May of 1993, and it had flown away southward.

Quintana told me he was born in 1933 and grew up in the remote village of Cienaga de Horcones, where perhaps fewer than two-dozen families live. When he was growing up, he would often see pitoreales in the big trees on the hillsides nearby. But all the decent-sized trees were logged in the late 1940s, and the birds quickly vanished. He remembered meeting Martjan and Roger and taking them to the places where he'd seen the birds, and he mentioned some other details about his sightings. He had seen them in shallow canyons where patches of big trees and numerous snags remained, he said. But sadly, he had not seen any other imperial woodpeckers after the lone female in 1993.

At the end of our conversation, I took a picture of Don Genero holding an illustration of some Mexican woodpeckers. I showed it to Martjan later, and he seemed delighted. "How did you ever find him?" he asked.


Saturday, March 9, 2013

Imperial Dreams in Kirkus Reviews . . .

Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker Through the Wild Sierra Madre
Author: Tim Gallagher

Review Issue Date: April 1, 2013
Online Publish Date: March 6, 2013
Publisher: Atria
Pages: 304
Price ( Hardcover ): $26.00
Publication Date: April 16, 2013
ISBN ( Hardcover ): 978-1-4391-9152-1
Category: Nonfiction

A quest to find the legendary imperial woodpecker takes ornithologist Gallagher (Falcon Fever: A Falconer in the Twenty-first Century, 2008 etc.) on a trek through the dangerous byways of Mexico's Sierra Madre.

Since his earlier discovery of the related ivory-billed woodpecker, also thought to be extinct, the author was hopeful of tracking its cousin. Their impressive plumage and loud “trumpetlike toot” made them easily identifiable, and part of their vulnerability came from their social nature, as the animals clustered in groups to protect wounded birds. Considered a pest by farmers (including opium producers) and loggers who cleared the land, it was ruthlessly hunted while its habitat was destroyed. Reportedly, some also considered it a delicacy. By 2008, Gallagher was convinced that it was imperative to make the attempt to locate and protect any of these great birds that remained alive. His problem was not only the dangers inherent in trekking through steep mountain trails, but the fact that the region was controlled by ruthless drug lords and lower-level kidnappers who took advantage of the lawless environment to extort money from local inhabitants and luckless visitors. Gallagher chronicles his own trips to the area, where he was befriended by Mormon ranchers and guided by a member of the drug cartel, as well as the hair-raising adventures of others. The author sets his tale against the historical backdrop of the region, which was home to the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and provided sanctuary to Apache Indians fleeing American troops. Finally having relinquished his quest, he compares himself to the prospectors and treasure hunters who once scoured the area, and he concludes that he would have had “a far better chance of getting killed in the Sierra Madre” than succeeding.

An exciting adventure story set against a sobering picture of the Mexican political scene.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Eyewitness Testimony . . .

                (Photo by Tim Gallagher)

Pedro Fimbres was 90 years old when I interviewed him a few years ago, but he had a timeless look about him: tall and thin with brown weathered skin and dark eyes. I could easily picture him as a medieval Spanish nobleman in a castle in Andalusia.

At first we spoke about the Sierra Madre Apaches and his family’s history—his uncle, Francisco Fimbres, had launched a vendetta against the Apaches in the late 1920s after they had killed his wife and kidnapped his infant son, and it was a horrific tale of vengeance and bloodshed. But then I noticed the limb of a tree, riddled with holes, hanging on the wall outside. It was obviously from an Acorn Woodpecker granary tree, where the birds stash their acorns. Pedro told me the limb came in a cord of firewood he had bought several years earlier. He liked the look of it, so he hung it outside his saddle shop.

In the old days when he traveled frequently on horseback in the mountains, Pedro had often seen carpinteros like the ones that bored holes in the limb, and he enjoyed their antics. He talked about his experiences, and it quickly became clear what an excellent observer he was, so I switched my line of questioning from Apaches to woodpeckers. I was eager to find out whether he had ever seen an Imperial Woodpecker or heard anyone talk about them, but I didn’t want to lead the interview or drop any hints about what I was looking for.

I pulled out my woodpecker illustrations and invited him to look through them, asking him if he remembered ever seeing any of them. The first one in the stack was the Acorn Woodpecker.

Si, si,” he said, pointing at the granary log on his wall and talking animatedly. “El poquito carpintero.”

He paused for a moment when he flipped to the picture of the Lineated Woodpecker, then shook his head. But when he looked at the Imperial Woodpecker, his face lit up. “Ah, si, si. El pitoreal. Carpintero gigante,” he said in an excited singsong voice. He obviously knew the bird well and was genuinely enthusiastic. Pitoreal,” he said again, holding the illustration gleefully. “Muy bonito carpintero.” He gushed about the bird, telling us how beautiful and amazing it was. He had often run across them when he was younger, he said, but only in the high country, in the great mesa pine forests.

They were never common, he said. He sometimes went weeks without seeing any but would then run across a group of five or six or more. They were difficult to miss because they were so noisy, their trumpet-like calls echoing through the forest. And they were very approachable. One time he was traveling on horseback with another man when they came across a group of them. The man told him he had heard that the birds have a diamond bill, and he wanted to shoot one to see if it was true. Pulling out his saddle gun, the man shot one of the woodpeckers, shattering its shoulder and bringing it tumbling to the ground, shrieking loudly in distress. As the two men went to pick up the bird, the other pitoreales flew in, chattering excitedly, just a few feet away. The man wanted to shoot more of them, but Pedro wouldn’t allow it. He could see no point in it.

I was in shock. Not only had I found someone with an intimate knowledge of the Imperial Woodpecker, he had once even held a wounded one in his hands and prevented some others from being shot. He was so lucid and his observations so detailed, providing the kind of scientific data so lacking with this species. He told me these groups of pitoreales were usually about twenty kilometers apart, which gave me a better idea than anything else I’ve read about their population density and how far they ranged in their foraging. And then he told me about how he’d watched some Imperial Woodpeckers raid the granary of some Acorn Woodpeckers. The huge woodpeckers would pry off the bark of the tree with their massive pearl-white bills, he said, sending acorns raining to the ground, then drop down to eat them as the tiny Acorn Woodpeckers flew around, furiously protesting the theft.

And it was clear his testimony was real. These mountains are so isolated. Few people living in the Sierra Madre have read anything about birds. All they have is their own observations. This made it all the more clear to me how important it was to continue my interviews. The Imperial Woodpecker was never adequately studied by science. Anything that can be found out now, while a few of these witnesses to the Imperial Woodpecker still live, adds vital data to our knowledge of this species. And if by some miracle these interviews led me to a pair of the birds, still nesting in some remote corner of the Sierra Madre, I thought, perhaps the species could yet be rescued from extinction.