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

Rowlett is considered by fellow birdwatchers to be one of the best of the callers and squeakers. Yesterday, while he was squeaking in a roadside pine grove, a Cooper's hawk came in at him, wings stooped, and banked away at the very last instant, just a few feet from his face - a great flare of wings as the hawk turned. John can vary his squeak, and what had brought in the hawk was the sound of a bird in distress. Over the years he has squeaked in foxes, a lot of barred owls, which are especially responsive, and on February 11, 1973, in Starr County, Texas, he squeaked up a rufous-capped warbler, a new species to the United States, though the birds are fairly common breeders only 50 miles south over the Mexican border. He has squeaked up a wild pony (which he did on the island of Assateague off the Virginia coast), and there are admirers who insist that he squeaked up a pod of whales on a pelagic birding trip off Maryland.

We are also using Victor's tape recorder to bring in birds--using a cassette tape on which an ornithologist named Fletcher Sillick introduces each birdcall. The call of the coppery-tailed trogon has been particularly effective, bringing in those spectacular birds, which seem to close their wings in midflight as they come down off the ridges to inspect us with great flickerlike swoops through the pines--such an arresting sight that in our excitement the tape often runs on to Sillick introducing the next birdcall. His voice booms out into the pines, quite prissy and every syllable pronounced with care, as if he were introducing a bird waiting backstage to an auditorium audience: "The pygmy owl!"

Victor was reminded of a birding group on Point Pelee, Lake Erie, which hoped to see the king rail, a bird known for being furtive and prone to crouching in the reeds and letting everyone pass by. The group hoped to flush it out with the same sort of cassette tape we had--each birdcall announced not only with the name of the bird but also with the appropriate page number in the bird guide so that the birder could refer to the text. The recorder was turned on near a promising patch of reeds, but the tape was not advanced quite far enough, so that the voice of the announcer crackled out sharply: "The king rail, page 58," upon which, as if prompted by a master of ceremonies, the bird dashed out in full view before the tape ever reached its call!

Apparently, a certain amount of controversy exists over the use of tape recorders, one opinion being that the birds may desert their territory on hearing the voices of their kind. Nevertheless, the tapes are so effective in calling out secretive birds that they are widely used. Indeed, the practice is so universal that inevitably a birdwatcher successfully calling in a bird with his cassette, the answering call getting closer and closer, suddenly hears from the other side of a bush, "The barred owl, page 98," and realizes that he's called up another tape recorder. Very little can match the shamefacedness of two birdwatchers carrying cassette recorders coming into view of each other from around a bush.

Of course, we have no recording of the imperial woodpecker's call, but we do have the American ivorybill's, which some observers think is similar. Sometimes we play it from the machine, but it is weak and scratchy. We rely more on John's imitation. He tries at every dawn to call up the imperial. Standing on a boulder, with his hands cupped to his mouth, he calls down into the canyons a mournful, quite nasal honk--four or five of these in succession--and then he listens. But we have not heard anything in reply but the faint echoes. He is indomitable about it, poised on the boulder for a half-hour at a time. His only pair of shorts has worn away in the rear. Through two half-moon rips his buttocks shine, more so every day, which somehow symbolizes the tentative nature of our mission--his clothes disintegrating as he honks his forlorn cries to a long-lost bird.

The night was restless. Victor and John worried about bears. What turned out to be a branch thumped loudly against their tent during the night; inside, the boom was like being in a kettledrum. Neither of them felt like prowling around the camp to see what had caused it.

A chilly north wind this morning soughing through the pines, but there is interesting news. Saul hiked down to Pescados during the night where he heard of a boy who had seen the imperial just eight days before. He had seen it by a hole in a high dead pine on the other side of town.

While everyone crowded around Victor and Saul to hear this report, a flight of thick-billed parrots came over the ridge behind us, calling loudly to each other and Victor cried out "Guacas! Guacas!" (Guacamayo in Spanish means macaw, and guaca is the local name in Mexico for the related thick-billed parrot.) The thick-billed parrot was a lifer for John Rowlett. He gazed up into the sky with the beatific expression of a man who has seen a vision. "Yip! Yip! Yip!" he shouted. "Look at those long tails!" We watched the flight, very high, the parrots twisting as if they were being tossed in a funnel of wind; they were seemingly looking for an opening to drop into the forest canopy, but they were over the ridge before they could decide. John and Victor shook hands. "Guacas!" John was having a hard time winding down. Calm would descend, but then his whole body would jump, as if jerked by a puppeteer's strings; his arms would stretch aloft, his face shining with excitement, and he would wheel about in his own dervish whirl.

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