Saturday, October 11, 2014

Rest in Peace, Stephen Frank

I was saddened to hear about the death of legendary British falconer Stephen Frank (at right, above), who passed away last Saturday morning. Steve was one of the most interesting people I've met in a lifetime of falconry. He lived for decades in a battered old crofter's cottage on a lonely grouse moor in the Scottish Highlands, above the Dornoch Firth. He was one of a handful of British falconer who kept the sport alived in the years after the Second World War. Steve cut quite a figure in the field in his youth, always racing full speed over the moors like a wild stag, clad in sneakers and a bright-red sweater (which he hoped his falcon would key in on) as his falcon circled high above him. And he was constantly shouting encouragements to his falcon and his dog, his voice echoing across the moors. He was always a picture of vigor, exuberance, and boundless optimism. When I visited him a few years ago, we sat together drinking tea in front of his old cottage, basking in one of those rare Scottish days when the sun is shining. His old pointer, Handel, lay curled nearby on a battered easy chair with stuffing sticking out of torn seams in the tweed. We spoke endlessly about hawking and about bird dogs—which he loved as much as his falcons. The last time I saw him, he was already well into his 70s, and he'd had a hip replacement, but he was in no way ready to give up the sport he loved. He was training a new eyas tiercel Peregrine and a pointer pup. This was his answer to creeping old age and its accompanying infirmities. He will be greatly missed.

Early Falconry Art in Portugal

I saw an interesting Roman mosaic last week at an archaeological site in southern Portugal. It depicts a falconer on horseback carrying a raptor on his gauntleted fist. It's difficult to determine the exact species, but the bird's long, barred tail suggests that it might be a Eurasian Sparrowhawk or perhaps a Goshawk. The tail is far too long for a falcon. There's also another bird flying above him. As far as I know, no evidence exists that the Romans ever practiced falconry—although Pliny the Elder once wrote about seeing people in Thrace (what is now Bulgaria) flushing birds for their trained hawks to catch. The mosaic dates from the 5th or 6th century A.D. and is inset in the floor along with several other mosaic illustrations in an area where people would walk to a baptismal font. (This is an early Christian site.) Later, when the Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula, they built a village over the site. These mosaics had been buried for centuries. 

I also saw a falconry-related ceramic bowl in a small museum of Islamic art in Mertola, Portugal. It depicts a raptor grabbing the head of a gazelle as a dog attacks its body. Arab falconers used to train Saker falcons to chase gazelles, striking them repeatedly in the head, slowing them enough so their salukis could catch them. This piece is probably at least 1,000 years old.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Imperial Woodpecker talk in Kentucky

I'll be giving the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Kentucky Ornithological Society on Saturday, September 20, 2014, at 7:00 p.m. at Lake Barkley State Resort Park in Cadiz, Kentucky.  The meeting is open to everyone. I'll be talking about my search for the Imperial Woodpecker in the mountains of northwestern Mexico. I hope my friends from Kentucky and nearby states will join me. My old Ivory-billed Woodpecker searching friend Bobby Harrison—who joined me on one of the expeditions to Mexico and on many trips through the southern swamps—has promised to be there, so it should be an interesting evening. For more information, send an email to or visit the KOS website.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Rest in Peace, Ron Austing

I was very sorry to hear about the death of Ron Austing (1931-2014). He was a childhood hero of mine as an author, wildlife photographer, and falconer. His books include his memoir, I Went to the Woods, and the raptor natural history books, The World of the Red-tailed Hawk, and The World of the Great Horned Owl. His photographs appeared often in Living Bird and a number of other national magazines over the years. I finally got to meet Ron several years ago, and we became friends. Here's a link to a blogpost about Ron by Rich Wagner.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Ten Years After

February 27, 2004; Bayou de View, Arkansas—It is shortly after one o'clock on a clear afternoon in late winter as we paddle our canoe down the bayou, me in the bow and Bobby Harrison in the stern. Gene Sparling is up ahead somewhere in his kayak, looking for the place where, less than two weeks earlier, he'd seen a huge black-and-white woodpecker that fit the description of an Ivory-bill.

From left to right, Gene Sparling, Bobby Harrison, and Tim Gallagher at Bayou de View on February 27, 2004, shortly after the Ivory-bill sighting.

As we move slowly with the current, transfixed by the movement of the murky brown swamp water, we both catch sight of a large bird flying up a side slough toward us. It's one of those things you pick up in your peripheral vision and without even thinking about it your mind runs through the possibilities—large, swift flying, black and white. 

Ivory-billed Woodpecker by Larry Chandler.

And then it bursts into full view right in front of you, exposing the
deepest, darkest black coloration, but what really catches your eye are the snow-white trailing edges of its wings, the unmistakeable field marks of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. And just as it pulls up to land on the trunk of a tupelo less than 100 feet away, you both shout simultaneously, "Ivory-bill!" And the bird veers away into the woods, landing a couple of times on the backs of tupelo trunks and then continuing on as you ram your canoe into the side of the bayou, jumping out and abandoning it while you struggle to move as fast as you can through the muck and mire, scrambling over huge fallen logs, tearing your clothes on broken branches and shrubbery. And fifteen minutes later, practically in cardiac arrest from the excitement and sheer exertion of the chase, you collapse against a massive fallen tree as Bobby sobs, "I saw an Ivory-bill...I saw an Ivory-bill."

And all these years later, on the 10th anniversary of this sighting, the moment is still so vivid, so amazing, so unlike anything you've ever experienced, your heart still races whenever you think about it.

At the very spot we saw the Ivory-bill, 10 years to the minute later,   I drink a toast with Bobby—unfortunately it's Mountain Dew, not Champagne. (Photo by Clara Gallagher)

Bobby Harrison discusses the February 27, 2004, Ivory-bill sighting in George Butler's documentary, The Lord God Bird. Here's a link to an 8-minute clip from the film that has interviews with Gene Sparling, Bobby Harrison, and Tim Gallagher.

Ed Bradley of "60 Minutes" interviews Tim Gallagher and Bobby Harrison for a segment that aired in 2005. Here's a link to the archived program. (Photo by Ron Rohrbaugh)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Imperial Dreams makes Top 10 Science & Health Books of 2013 list

I just heard that my latest book, Imperial Dreams, was one of the books chosen for Booklist's Top 10 Science & Health Books of 2013 list. I was honored to be on the same list as E. O. Wilson and the other authors. The reviewer said, "Gallagher sets the gold standard for nature writing in this chronicle of his search for the possibly extinct imperial woodpecker in Mexican territory held by drug traffickers."