Monday, August 26, 2013

George Plimpton and the Imperial Woodpecker

                          (Illustration by Don Eckelberry, from the Audubon article.)

One of my favorite popular articles about the Imperial Woodpecker was written by famed author George Plimpton for the November-December 1977 issue of Audubon. Plimpton had gone searching for the bird in Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental with his friend Victor Emanuel, the legendary birder and founder of Victor Emanuel Nature Tours.  The article was titled "Un Gran Pedazo de Carne"—which literally translates "A Great Piece of Meat" and is how a man Plimpton interviewed in the Sierra Madre described an Imperial Woodpecker he had killed and eaten fourteen years earlier.

Unfortunately, Plimpton introduced some apocryphal information in this article. When he mentioned William Rhein (the man who had taken 16mm footage of a female imperial—the only photographic documentation in existence of a living Imperial Woodpecker) he misspelled his name as "Rheim." But worse, he wrote, "On Rheim's next trip into the area in 1958, he met an Indian on the trail carrying a dead imperial he had shot: that was probably one of the pair Rheim had seen in 1954. That expired bird in the Indian's hand is the last authoritative sighting [of an Imperial Woodpecker].

This information is wrong on several counts. Rhein went to Mexico not twice but three times—in 1953, '54, and '56—and never in 1958. And Rhein did not run into someone carrying a fresh-killed Imperial Woodpecker. What Plimpton may have been inaccurately reporting was something Rhein wrote in a March 1, 1962, letter to Ivory-billed Woodpecker researcher James Tanner: "In 1955 when I was unable to return to Mexico the local Indian shot the parent birds that I had localized in the previous year. When we returned in 1956 there was one lone female flying about. I obtained some poor pictures of this bird." This 1956 bird was the one that Rhein filmed and was truly the last authoritative (and only photographically documented) sighting of an Imperial Woodpecker. Plimpton repeated his error in a book review he wrote for the New York Review of Books in March 1993.

I am a great admirer of George Plimpton's writing and would not criticize him except that these errors have found their way into the scientific literature and need to be corrected. (But the Audubon article is still well worth reading.)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

On the death of my friend and mentor, Jack Hagan

In Memoriam
John W. Hagan
(1930 – 2013)

I just heard that my old friend Jack Hagan passed away earlier this week, on Monday, August 19. I first met Jack at a meeting of a newly formed club, the Santa Ana Valley Falconers Association, when I was in my early teens, and he became a great mentor to me in falconry as well as in wildlife photography. The club met weekly at Jack’s home in Santa Ana, California, and later at Jeff Sipple’s house in Cypress. Recently divorced, Jack was a professional photographer and also a collector of various reptiles and amphibians (which might explain the divorce). I remember he kept live rattlesnakes in aquariums in his garage and rare turtles in his bathtub. His house was often sweltering inside, to accommodate the tropical turtles.

Jack took some amazing photographs in the late 1940s of a Peregrine Falcon nest in Laguna Canyon. When he came back from the Korean War, though, the nest was empty, and the peregrines never nested there again. This was but one of the California peregrine nests he knew off that had been abandoned during the DDT era.

Jack was in his mid-thirties when the club formed, with thinning dark-brown hair and a pipe he puffed on constantly. He had the most calm, unflappable nature of anyone I’ve ever met. The younger guys in the club called him the “Old Man,” which always made him smile. He had certain catch phrases he would use in conversation. If you asked him a complex question, he would puff thoughtfully on his pipe and say, “This I do not know,” but would then go on to expound in great detail his theory on the topic at hand. He drove a classic Mercedez 300 SL sports car with gull-wing doors and usually flew goshawks.

Jack had an extensive collection of old falconry books, as well as some beautiful framed 19th-century falconry prints on the walls of his house. He told me I was welcome to come over anytime and read his books, which I often did.

Jack would later become the first president of the California Hawking Club, which, in some ways, sprang from the ashes of the Santa Ana Valley group, using the same logo, which artist Jeff Sipple designed.

The last time I saw Jack was in 2001 at the 30th annual field meet of the California Hawking Club, which was held that year in Bakersfield. I had moved to Upstate New York about a decade earlier and didnt get to California much anymore. We—and several other charter members of the club, such as Jeff Sipple, Bob Winslow, and Mike Arnold—came to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the clubs founding. 

It was great to see Jack. He hadn’t changed much. His hair had gone gray, and somewhere along the way he had given up the pipe, but he was the same affable, good-natured Jack. I will truly miss him.