Saturday, July 20, 2019


Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin at the Sea of Tranquility. Photo by Neil Armstrong
Fifty years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history as the first humans to set foot on the moon. It was one of those pivotal moments—the kind of earth-shaking event about which people ask for decades after: "Where were you when...?" Fill in the blank.

I've often tried to skirt around my answer when someone asked me about the moon landing. You see, I was eighteen and a few months earlier had been convicted of possessing a small amount of marijuana—at a time when this was considered a serious crime and well worth destroying someone's life over. (Now recreational marijuana possession and use is perfectly legal in California.) I'd never previously been arrested for anything, and yet here I was, serving a 5-month sentence in a maximum-security county jail facility. I was in a classic cell-block with two tiers of cells—P Tank above and O Tank below—with a bullet-proof-glass-enclosed catwalk where the guards would randomly walk past, at any hour of day or night. The prisoners in P Tank were usually in transit to other places. They'd stay a few days then get transferred to a branch jail or to the honor farm. In O Tank, we were more permanent. The county jail authorities didn't like to send druggies to the farm or to let them participate in any kind of work-release program. In O Tank, the days went slowly. We didn't have television or even playing cards to entertain ourselves.

But a few weeks after I began my sentence, a curious thing happened. The guards gathered all the inmates from O Tank, marched us upstairs, and we crammed into the cells of P Tank, where the prisoners had a television in every cell. Together we watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land the first spacecraft on the moon. I've never heard of anything like that happening before or since at a jail. I suppose someone made a decision that this was too historic an occasion not to share with us, and for that I'm grateful.

Many years later  I was at an Explorers Club banquet in New York City, receiving a conservation award, when I met Buzz Aldrin. We had a nice conversation, but I never told him I'd been watching the moon walk from a jail cell on that historic day, half a century ago. I wrote about these and other experiences in my memoir, Falcon Fever (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008).

With Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin (right); astronaut (and first American woman to walk on the moon) Kathryn Sullivan (left); and famed marine biologist Sylvia Earle at the Explorers Club Awards Banquet, New York City. Photo by Bobby Harrison

Remembering Mike Connolly

I was saddened hear that my old friend Mike Connolly passed away last Sunday. Mike began training hawks in the 1960s in the San Diego area and quickly excelled as a game hawker—first hunting cottontails and other game with his great Cooper's Hawk, Shadow, and later flying Peregrines (most notably Orchid and Witch) at ducks for years. He became a legendary figure in California falconry, and deservedly so. He was always generous with his time. He brought his peregrines to every California Hawking Club field meet for years and always let everyone tag along to watch his falcons catch ducks. He had very high standards and inspired a generation of young falconers to follow in his footsteps. I spoke with him on the phone just a couple of weeks ago when his hospice care began. I still thought he might bounce back one more time. Mike was such a powerful presence, it's difficult to accept the fact that he's gone. He will be greatly missed.

                                                                 Mike Connolly with his peregrine falcon, Orchid.                                                  Photo by Omar White

Mike Connolly (left) and Scott Francis (right) came to see me when I gave a talk in Missoula, Montana, during my book tour for Falcon Fever. They were two great California falconers who are now both gone. Rest in Peace, my old friends. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Fielding Lewis and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

                   Fielding Lewis's controversial 1971 photo of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. 

One mystery I always hoped to sort out was the identity of a hunter who had taken two snapshots of a male ivory-bill in 1971 and sent them to George Lowery, a famed ornithologist at Louisiana State University. When the man had initially reported seeing a pair of ivory-bills, Lowery assumed he had seen pileated woodpeckers and encouraged him to try to get a picture. When he subsequently shot some pictures, Lowery was convinced and went immediately to the Atchafalaya Swamp of southern Louisiana, where the man had seen the birds. Although Lowery never saw the ivory-bills, he did see an excavation the birds had started in a tree.

The man asked that his identity and the exact location of the place he’d taken the pictures not be revealed. Like many southerners, he had a visceral fear that the feds would come in and impound the land, so he couldn't hunt there anymore. Lowery respected his wishes and never divulged the information.

That summer, Lowery took the pictures to the annual meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union, expecting all the scientists to be excited by this amazing physical proof of the continued existence of this species, even at that early date long thought extinct. Instead, he was met with immediate withering skepticism. One of the first things the other ornithologists did was to peer at the snapshots through an electron microscope. Their verdict: obviously a fraud—a taxidermied bird hung in two different trees. Some of them laughed at Lowery behind his back, jeering at his gullibility. Some darkly suggested he may have been in on the hoax. But no one who knew him could ever have believed that.

Lowery kept quiet about the affair after that, and a few years later he passed away. The story of the hunter who gave him the pictures grew from that point on until he became a legendary figure, shrouded in mystery—an old Choctaw living far out in the swamp; a greasy-haired hermit who only came to town once or twice a year to sell his beaver pelts. People speculated wildly in books and magazine articles about who he might be and where in the vast Atchafalaya Swamp he saw the birds. I had no idea who he was. I just knew that I wanted to talk with him, to look him in the eye and decide for myself whether I believed his story.

I did hear about a man named Fielding Lewis who supposedly had seen ivory-bills somewhere in the Atchafalaya in the 1970s. I wondered if there was any possibility that he could be the mystery man. One day I did an Internet search for his name and got only one hit in the entire state of Louisiana. And this Fielding Lewis did live in the southern Atchafalaya. Could it really be this easy? As I was getting ready to call him on my cell phone, I got the wicked thought: maybe I should pretend that I know he took the pictures and see what he says.

“This is Tim Gallagher from Cornell University,” I said as the man answered the phone. I’m interviewing people who have seen ivory-billed woodpeckers, and I’d like to ask you about the pictures you gave to George Lowery in 1971.”

Without a pause he said, “Okay.” Then he told me he lived out in the woods and I’d never be able to find his place. He suggested that Bobby Harrison and I meet him in front of a Cajun restaurant not far from his home. When I called my wife and told her this, she said: “Don’t do it! It’s the South. We’ll never hear from you again.” I assured her everything would be fine. Bobby is with me. What could go wrong? But to be honest, it did seem a little strange.

We ended up getting to the restaurant a couple of hours earlier than we’d planned, so I called Lewis again. A woman answered and told me he wasn’t home; he had gone to his office. His office? All my fantasies about this guy immediately imploded—the stringy-haired swamp rat living in a shack perched precariously on wobbly stilts above the swamp; the trapper poling along in his hand-hewn pirogue—all gone. And I missed that image. So who was this guy? What would he really be like?

By this time, Bobby and I were too excited to go inside the restaurant. We hung around outside, peering at every car that passed. Finally a big white Chrysler New Yorker pulled into the parking lot, driven by a portly man in his seventies, puffing on the biggest cigar I’ve ever seen.

“Fielding Lewis?” I said as he stepped outside. He nodded and we shook hands. He looked like a character from Tennessee Williams—like Big Daddy, larger than life, with a booming voice and a bone-crushing handshake.

As we drove behind, following him to his office, I noticed the frame around his license plate said “Louisiana State Boxing Commission.” I asked him about this as he opened his office door, and he told us he was the state commissioner of boxing and had been a boxer himself years earlier. Stepping into his office, we were hit by a wall of choking cigar smoke. It was like going through a time warp, passing into the 1940s. On the wall hung a black-and-white World War II era cigarette ad of a Hollywood starlet puffing a Chesterfield. Framed pictures of boxers stood on every available desk or table, including a nice autographed shot of Mohammad Ali as a teenager, when he was still called Cassius Clay.

Lewis was a great storyteller and he regaled us with endless anecdotes about his many exploits over the years and the numerous fascinating characters he’d encountered in his life. We finally got him talking about ivory-bills. He spoke about George Lowery—how he was the nicest person he’d ever met. They had become close friends, he said, and he had a picture of him posing with his grandkids. Then I hit him with the big question: “Did you know that those pictures you took caused a huge controversy with ornithologists and that some of them think the bird was taxidermied?”

He stared at me, visually stunned for moment, and then bellowed with laughter. “Now where the hell would I get a stuffed ivory-bill?”

Bobby and I came away believing his story. And when we visited the spot where he had reportedly seen the birds, we found numerous huge cypresses, but most of them were dead—victims of salt-water incursion back around the time he had seen the birds, which was interesting. Slowly dying trees like that would have been a natural magnet for infestation by wood-boring beetles and species that feed on their larvae, such as ivory-billed woodpeckers.

[excerpted from The Grail Bird by Tim Gallagher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt]

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Remembering Tom Cade

Tom Cade passed away yesterday at the age of 91. Considering his age and the state of his health, I know I shouldn't be surprised, but I'm still having a hard time imaging a world without Tom. He was such an inspiring figure to me for so long. I first heard about him in my teens, and it was such a proud moment when I first met him and got to know him. What can you say about Tom Cade? Of course, he was a renowned biologist, a raptor conservationist, an Ivy League professor, and a lifelong falconer—but he was so much more.

Tom Cade (left) and Jim Weaver

Tom was a dynamo who poured all of his energy and leadership skills into a valiant attempt to turn around the Peregrine Falcon's perilous population decline. By the mid-1960s, most of the Peregrine eyries across the United States had been abandoned and the species was no longer breeding east of the Mississippi River. Tom strongly believed he could breed Peregrines in captivity and release them to the wild in sufficient numbers to have a massive positive impact on the dwindling falcon population.

Tom's enthusiasm was contagious. Many falconers contributed their own birds to use in the captive-breeding program at Cornell. And many of them also volunteered their time and provided initial funding for the project. No falconer could imagine losing the Peregrine Falcon. Tom and The Peregrine Fund—an organization he founded in 1970—released some 4,000 captive-produced Peregrine Falcons in the space of 28 years in what became one of the most successful endangered species recovery efforts ever attempted. I'll never forget attending the event in August 1999 at the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho, when Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt officially removed the Peregrine Falcon from the Endangered Species List. What an amazing accomplishment. And what a great way to end the Twentieth Century.

Uummannaq, Greenland, 2000.                                                                       (c) Tim Gallagher

I had the great privilege the following year of accompanying Tom Cade, Bill Burnham, Kurt Burnham, and Jack Stephens on an expedition to Greenland—actually a follow-up to research conducted nearly a century earlier by Danish ornithologist Alfred Bertelsen, who had extensively mapped out numerous nest sites and breeding colonies of birds in the Uummannaq region of Greenland. When Tom was a young graduate student at UCLA in the early 1950s, he had read a paper Bertelsen had published in a Danish ornithological journal in 1921, and he decided he would someday retrace Bertelsen's route and see how much the bird numbers and species makeup had changed in the intervening years. And he did it, decades later at the age of 72—traveling countless miles up iceberg-choked fjords in an open boat; camping out on the frozen ground as frigid Arctic winds tried to rip the tents to shreds. I'm still impressed by Tom's determination and stoicism in the face of hardship. I'll always remember that. Rest in Peace, my old friend.

(Left to right) Bill Burnham, Kurt Burnham, and Tom Cade in Greenland.          (c) Tim Gallagher

Tom Cade and Kurt Burnham in Greenland.                                                  (c) Tim Gallagher

Tom Cade in a helicopter in Greenland.                               (c) Tim Gallagher

With Tom Cade in 2015 at a celebration in his honor at Cornell.

 Tom Cade and his wife Renetta at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.    (c) Tim Gallagher

Tom Cade with Phyllis Dague, who worked with him for many years.  (c) Tim Gallagher