In Search of the Imperial Woodpecker

In Search of the Imperial Woodpecker

A famous author and a renowned birder team up to seek the world's largest woodpecker, the legendary pitoreal.

By George Plimpton
Published: November-December 1977

There have been two especially interesting reports--one from a boy reporting that his mother, a Senora Salvador, only a month before, had seen a pitoreal while walking on a ridge above a settlement to the north called Yahuirachic. She was with two of her children at the time. The other sighting was described by Antonio Marquez, the superintendent of sawmill operations around Tutuaca. He told us that the year before he had seen two pitoreals in the top of dead pines on a ridge above a ranch called Cebadilla. He suspected they were a pair--a matrimonio. Before that it had been six years since he had last seen an imperial woodpecker. He took a comb out of his shirt pocket and whisked it through his hair. This last time he had watched the two pitoreals for a half-hour. They were working for insects in dead trees, but he never saw them alight on the same tree together. He seemed convincing. Victor wanted to know what their cry sounded like. Antonio looked around made a few tentative sounds in his throat; his eyes glazed, and then he cried: Oowhaa! Oowhaa! He seemed surprised at the sound that had erupted from him, and somewhat embarrassed. Victor looked skeptical. He asked about the bird's flight. Antonio flopped his arms without any distinctive rhythm, but he said he had not seen the birds fly far. Just to a nearby tree. He had got within 50 meters of them.

Victor's Spanish is sufficient to get through discussions of this sort. From time to time he turns and translates to keep the rest of us abreast of developments. "Antonio says that the woodcutters in the village of Pitoreal--about 50 miles across the mountains--have seen six imperial woodpeckers in recent months."

"Six pitoreals in Pitoreal!" John exclaims.

Antonio is a pleasant-faced man. We cannot imagine he has any reason to be devious except to try to brighten our countenances. Of course, any word of the Great Bird does that with alarming swiftness--a quick flush of enthusiasm, a "Yip! Yip!" from John, a "Wow!" or two from Victor, and I have cultivated a small brandish of the fist to indicate that I am not immune to the excitement of the search. But I have noticed that Antonio wears a curious belt buckle--a quartered design with an ace of spades, a hypodermic needle, a pair of dice, and cigarettes in the squares--which one hopes does not represent his particular set of values. We will be traveling in his truck, which is 20 years old, cantankerous with a leaky radiator.

Just as we are about to depart, Antonio comes to tell us that he can't go. Obviously crestfallen, he explains that word has just come in that personnel trouble at one of the sawmills requires his presence. He is sending his cousins Gilberta and Saul in his stead.

We set off for the mountains to the north in Antonio's truck, painted a bright red, white, and blue to disguise its age. A cloth stopper flaps out of the gas pipe. The road is excellent so far--the pines enormous along the roadside, Douglas fir among them as we climb. The loveliest and strangest of the trees is an occasional madrone, a Japanese-looking tree with a rust-red redskin shade of bark; indeed, in Texas the tree is called "the naked Indian."

John and Victor stand in the back of the truck and call out the names of the birds--however common--as we pass. One of the pleasures (if somewhat exhausting) of birding with Victor and John is that they level the shotgun blasts of their enthusiasm at whatever bird we spot. They have inherited this excellent practice from Edgar Kincaid, who feels that the true bird lover must take an abiding interest in every species; he himself has no difficulty studying a meadowlark hour on hour simply for the pleasures of observation. The only aspect of birdlife that Kincaid deplores is the "introduced bird" (red-whiskered bulbul, blue-gray tanager, monk parakeet, et al.). He gives those "damned exotics" no more than a passing glance. But I am not sure that either John or Victor would draw that tough a line. It would be easy to imagine them crouching in a henhouse and observing a Rhode Island Red if there were nothing else around. As we climb into the mountains John calls out, "Junco! Junco!"--perhaps the most common bird along the road. This morning, during a halt to fill our leaking radiator with water from a roadside stream, he spent a number of minutes admiring the junco's yellow eye.

Of course, such enthusiasm seems to be a universal phenomenon among those who enjoy birding. During a tea break along the road, Victor described what a friend of his had remembered of the great crowds that had turned up at Newburyport, Massachusetts, to try to spot Ross' gull (a single bird had been seen on the beaches, the first sighting of the species in the lower United States). A crowd of over a thousand, all of them outfitted with binoculars--a thousand pairs of binoculars, literally a wall of lenses--unsuccessfully scanned the beaches. Then someone reported that the bird had been spotted on the other side of the bay. A tremendous rush for cars. A long honking procession started around the perimeter of the bay, and once there, the watchers abandoned their cars and began to rush across a tidal flat to get into position, a lemminglike, blind stampede, with some of them moving in great gazellelike leaps, their binoculars flying, and others miscalculating and pitching forward into the mud and having to haul themselves or each other out of the ooze. But they kept pressing forward, so that in their wild-eyed determination to move toward waters of the bay it seemed as if the crowds were hastening from some awful creature behind them.

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