Imperial Woodpecker found on 1956 film but not on surveys to film location.

By Adrian Long, Thu, 27/10/2011 - 08:13
The largest woodpecker that ever lived and the closest relative of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker probably went extinct in Mexico in the late 20th century concludes a paper just published in the October 2011 issue of The Auk, the scientific journal of the American Ornithologists' Union. It was thought that no photos or film of the two-foot-tall, flamboyantly crested bird existed, until a biologist from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology tracked down a 16-mm film shot in 1956 by a dentist from Pennsylvania. The footage captures the last ever confirmed sighting of an Imperial Woodpecker. Original 85-second clip of a female Imperial Woodpecker.   For more clips (including image stabilised clips)  click here The researchers not only restored the film to use it to describe the species' behavior but also to study the habitat of the woodpecker by tracking down the exact filming location during a 2010 expedition to the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains, in Mexico.  This 'lost species' survey, was co-funded by The British Birdwatching Fair - Founding Global Sponsor of the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme. Pronatura (BirdLife in Mexico) helped with the expedition logistics. “It is stunning to look back through time with this film and see the magnificent Imperial Woodpecker moving through its old-growth forest environment, and it is heartbreaking to know that both the bird and the forest are gone,” said Martjan Lammertink, lead author of the paper. In the color film,  a female Imperial Woodpecker hitches up and forages on the trunks of large Durango pines. The bird's extraordinary crest of black feathers curves up over her head, shaking as she hitches up the tree and chips at bark with her long, pale bill. As she launches into flight, the bird shows a long pointed tail, long wings, and a powerful, fast flight. The film was shot by William L. Rhein, a dentist and amateur ornithologist from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who went to Mexico in 1953, 1954, and 1956 specifically to film and record the sounds of the Imperial Woodpecker. He finally succeeded in filming the bird in 1956, shooting the footage hand-held from the back of a mule, while camping in a remote location in the Sierra Madre Occidental in Durango state. No sound recordings were obtained of the species by Rhein or any other recordist. Rhein died in 1999 at age 89. During the 2010 expedition local residents were interviewed about the Imperial Woodpecker and explored a few remaining old-growth forests in areas inaccessible to logging. The survey found no evidence that Imperial Woodpeckers are still alive. Only residents in their late 60s or older remembered it, and no one reported seeing any of the birds after the 1950s. “Even in the rare remnants of uncut forest, we found evidence of hunting and saw old-growth forests being cut and burned and planted with marijuana and opium poppies,” said Tim Gallagher, a member of the expedition. The entire range of the Imperial Woodpecker lay in the high country of the Sierra Madre Occidental—a rugged mountain range stretching some 900 miles south from the U.S.-Mexico border—and the Transvolcanic mountains of central Mexico. The species largely vanished in the late 1940s and 1950s as logging destroyed their old-growth pine forest habitat. Imperial Woodpeckers were also frequently shot for food, to use in folk remedies, or out of curiosity. One interviewee reported that logging interests in the 1950s actively encouraged the extermination of these birds, saying that they were destructive to valuable timber, and actually supplied poison to smear on the birds' foraging trees. Similar poisoning campaigns had been waged against the Mexican wolves and grizzly bears in these mountains, and both of these subspecies are now gone. The article in the Auk—"Film documentation of the probably extinct Imperial Woodpecker (Campephilus imperialis)"—by Martjan Lammertink, Tim Gallagher, Ken Rosenberg, John Fitzpatrick, and Eric Liner of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Jorge Rojas-Tomé of Organización Vida Silvestre and Patricia Escalante of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM)—analyzes the film and provides details about the 1950s expeditions of William L. Rhein and the 2010 Cornell Lab follow-up expedition.



Outstanding! If an amateur ornithologist could obtain footage of Imperial Woodpecker with a hand held movie camera, on a quite modest expedition in 1956, makes you wonder why leading professional ornithologists with access to high tech equipment and large research budgets could not obtain any evidence for the continued existence of Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the first decade of the 21st Century.

Jonathan, Good question. Rhein’s filming of the Imperial Woodpecker was achieved not after one modest expedition but after three expeditions in 1953, 1954, and 1956, totaling 18 weeks of effort. In the first two years, multiple individuals of Imperial Woodpecker were seen multiple times, including perched birds, but could not be filmed. In 1956 Rhein finally filmed an Imperial Woodpecker, in nine takes that all start with a perched bird. In comparison, in Arkansas in spring 2004 over a period of 12 weeks by a relatively small, ad-hoc response team, 6 brief sighting were made of a bird in flight, and one poor video was made. Certainly if perched birds were seen during that time, better documentation could have been obtained. The larger, organized effort you refer to demonstrated that from early 2005 no Ivory-billed Woodpecker remained resident in the sightings area, but that does not disprove the validity of the 2004 sightings. There is a significant difference in ease of observing and filming between inundated Arkansas swamp forest and dry open pine-oak parkland of the Sierra Madre Occidental. Finally, it is of note that after successfully filming the Imperial Woodpecker, Rhein in 1959 observed an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Florida panhandle (Jackson 2002, Birds of North America), but did not obtain film documentation of that sighting.

Martjan, Well done on locating the place where the film was taken.Important that we have a timeline from the habitat from then to present. I would expect this bird to go extinct before the ivory bill due to range and ease of finding and as mentioned the deliberate killing.The fact Rhein saw an IvoryBill in Florida in 59 is the most important thing.Its pretty obvious birds were breeding in the panhandle,and from 59 until present plenty of forest remained,logging had fell off and trophy hunting stopped.If IvoryBills do persist (i think its probable,just)then the panhandle must at the least of been/is the last stronghold. The main point i always think is the idea the singer tract was the only place left,yet Khun saw 3 birds miles from the singer flying away from it.Plus over 20 fledgelings left the tract over 7 years.They dispersed somewhere,but where?.

I read this article yesterday after seeing it on msn.com, It reminded me of some pictures I took on my last trip to Mexico in the fall of 2009. I believe that I have 4 pictures of an Imperial Woodpecker that I took of a bird that caught my eye because of it's large size. Not sure if I will get a response but I know where I was and what I was doing when I spotted the bird. I can even point out the exact tree that the bird was foraging on at the time of the pic. I was unaware of its rarity until now.

If you have images, please email them to us so that we can have a look.

"...makes you wonder why leading professional ornithologists with access to high tech equipment and large research budgets could not obtain any evidence for the continued existence of Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the first decade of the 21st Century." Because, unfortunately, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is also [almost surely] extinct.

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