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Searching For A Ghost Bird


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Birding. Birding doesn't seem like a risky pastime, does it? What's the worst that could happen? Sunburn, a little rain, a little cold, lost binoculars. Well, not always. In 2010, Tim Gallagher, editor of Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Living Bird magazine, went in search of a rare woodpecker and was lucky to make it back alive.

Our multimedia editor Flora Lichtman talked to Gallagher about it and has this story.

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: The imperial woodpecker is two feet tall. That's huge.

TIM GALLAGHER: As far as we've been able to determine from the fossil record, there's never been a bigger woodpecker.

LICHTMAN: Its closet relation is the ivory-billed woodpecker, and like its cousin, the imperial is critically endangered if not extinct. The last credible sightings were in the '90s. But Tim Gallagher thought there's a chance a few still may exist, which is what drew him to the remote mountain range in Mexico where the woodpecker lives.

GALLAGHER: The Sierra Madre's always been a rugged, ungovernable place.

LICHTMAN: And that's where the story turns.


LICHTMAN: An ordinary birding expedition this was not.

GALLAGHER: It's heavy drug-growing country, holding AK-47s. The guy was trembling and all white as a sheet. It just got crazier and crazier. It's like unbelievable.

LICHTMAN: That's basically how the story ends, but it really begins 50 years ago with the late William Rhein.

GALLAGHER: William Rhein was a dentist who lived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and he was also an amateur ornithologist. He was basically a bird fanatic. And he was really obsessed with the imperial woodpecker.

LICHTMAN: Tim Gallagher, by the way, is also really obsessed with the imperial woodpecker.

GALLAGHER: They're just so huge and powerful, swift-flying, and their crests. I just get real pleasure from seeing them.

LICHTMAN: Rhein must have felt similarly. Back in the '50s, he made several self-funded trips to the mountains of Mexico to look for this bird, and he's the only one known to have captured the bird on film. But for many years he kept the footage kind of under wraps.

GALLAGHER: The only opportunity he had to film this bird, he was o the back of a mule. So it was kind of jerky. So I think he was embarrassed by it, and he never really told many people about it.

LICHTMAN: Until an ornithologist by the name of Martjan Lammertink found a reference to the footage in some old letters and tracked Rhein down.

GALLAGHER: So he went there not knowing if this would be any good. He thought at best maybe there'll be an identifiable image of this bird, which will be nice.

LICHTMAN: When he got to the house, Rhein loads the reel on his 16-millimeter projector.


WALTER RHEIN: We're all set to go. Cross your fingers. I haven't looked at this for years and years and years.

GALLAGHER: That was recorded - that's when Martjan first saw that film. He turned this tape recorder on when the guy was playing it, and...

RHEIN: And right here is where the - this is the (unintelligible) right here.

GALLAGHER: They started rolling this film, I mean it was incredible. I mean, this bird pitching up the tree.

RHEIN: Now this is back in the woods.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There it is, there it is. You see it?

RHEIN: There it is, yeah.

GALLAGHER: Chipping off chunks of bark, throwing pieces of bark away (unintelligible); it even takes off and flies three different times. And so in an 85-second film, it's just an incredible amount of stuff going on.

RHEIN: Well, I thought that was lousy, but I'd forgotten about those shots.

GALLAGHER: It was just such a tangible thing, something you could almost reach out and touch, you know. It was just like seeing a ghost.


GALLAGHER: Watching that movie in many ways inspired me. I just want to go there and save that bird.

LICHTMAN: And that's what they tried to do. Gallagher and the ornithologist Lammertink got together an expedition to go to the Sierra Madre Occidental, to the exact same spot where that footage was shot 50 years ago.

GALLAGHER: Martjan knew a forester in the city of Durango in Mexico, which is about a five-hour drive from where we were going to go in the mountains, and he was real familiar with that area. It's heavy drug-growing country, opium and marijuana, which we didn't fully realize when we first went up there.

Before we'd gone, a couple of months earlier, communicating with the forester, he'd said it's still pretty safe in this part of Mexico, so you should be OK. But when we finally got down there, he said, you know, there's really like a wave of violence starting to sweep through here.

And then - and actually, we had some pretty scary things happen right from the start.

LICHTMAN: Like for instance, the night before they were supposed to leave Durango.

GALLAGHER: We got a call from the forester, and he said he'd received an anonymous call from someone who knew exactly what we were doing and when we were going and was really furious about it. In fact, one of the Mexican scientists who was going to go with us, he dropped out of the expedition at that point.

And so suddenly it was, like, should we not go? Or what's happening?


GALLAGHER: You know, we were so close. It was like our excitement level was so high, I just, I knew if we left no one would go to check that area in our lifetimes. And I just thought we've got to go. And we decided we were going to go.


GALLAGHER: But we had our first bad encounter the next day as we were driving up there. This dark truck came up behind us and then came racing by, and all the guys in it were holding AK-47s, and they matched the description of some people who had murdered someone in another village about a week ago.

By the time we left, it felt more like the mountains of Afghanistan than Mexico, and you know, three houses were burned, and a man was abducted by - you know, from a little village, and all of the villagers had to put their money together to buy this guy back. And it's just insane.

You know, I mean, what are they going to do the next time someone gets grabbed?

LICHTMAN: How did you guys stay safe? What was your strategy?

GALLAGHER: We didn't really have a strategy. We just tried not to bother anyone and went with our business.

LICHTMAN: Which remember, started out, at least, as a mission to find a woodpecker. So that's what they tried to do. And one of their tricks was this.


GALLAGHER: And we'd play these recordings of an ivory bill woodpecker because their voice is supposed to be just like an ivory bill. It sounds like a loud toot of a child's toy horn.

LICHTMAN: And they were hoping for a toot in return.

GALLAGHER: Rumors still do come out of there of, you know, lone imperial woodpeckers. But in all the places we went, we didn't get any response.

LICHTMAN: They never did spot the bird on that trip. Gallagher says logging has destroyed much of the imperial's habitat, and he heard from people who live there that 50 years ago there were extermination campaigns by loggers who thought the birds threatened the timber. Since then, new threats have emerged.

GALLAGHER: I'll tell you one of the worst moments for me. You know, we were warned against crossing this - the Rio Tuxacoringa(ph), and on the other side, the Setas control that, which is one of the worst drug cartels. And one day we're on the top of this cliff looking across the canyon, and there were people out there burning these old-growth trees, and they were going to destroy that forest so they could, you know, plant more opium poppies, and there was nothing we could do about it.

It wouldn't have mattered if there were imperial woodpeckers over there. I'm almost glad I didn't see one because it would have just made me sick. You wouldn't know what to do. The government, the Mexican government can't go up there. It's too dangerous, you know.

And I'm a real optimistic person about just about everything I do, and it just became so depressing. You know, at the end, we really did not know if we were going to get out of there. I even took the memory cards out of my cameras and my voice recorders and things, and I put them in my - the little hip pocket on my jeans just in case, you know, we got robbed or murdered. At least what I'd gotten would exist, you know.


LICHTMAN: What started out as a quest to save a bird became a trip about Gallagher's own survival.

GALLAGHER: Luckily, luckily we made it out of there, but then the next day we arranged to meet the forester in the city of Durango out in the park, and we were going to have breakfast together, and he walks up to us, and he's just - he's shaking like - and he just hugs us both tightly.

And he said, you know, if anything would have happened to you, I never would have forgiven myself. And he said that night before we drove out, he and his wife got down on their knees and, you know, prayed to God for our safety and everything.

By that time, we were all just standing in that park crying, you know, but it was awful.


GALLAGHER: Gallagher isn't planning to go back anytime soon, he says, but he didn't know that right away. After all, he'd spent years researching this bird. He'd made half-a-dozen trips to Mexico in the last two years.

It was hard to back away from it. I was really, really interested in the work, and I loved interviewing the people, and I think about the bird. It - it's just, it's too dangerous. You know, I've got kids at home that I need to raise.


LICHTMAN: Which for Gallagher may mean being haunted indefinitely by a ghost bird 3,000 miles away. For SCIENCE FRIDAY, I'm Flora Lichtman.

FLATOW: If you want to see the only documented footage of the Imperial Woodpecker, check out our video pick from a few weeks ago. It's on our website at sciencefriday.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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