(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.