Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Sasquatch Stalkers

There was a great article published in the December issue of Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine featuring three of my fellow TBRC members. The article is titled "Sasquatch Stalkers" and was written by Russell A. Graves.

The article features TBRC members Chris Buntenbah, Jerry Hestand, and Lyle Blackburn. Graves questions each of them as to how they became interested in the sasquatch phenomenon and shares an unusual sighting he had of his own with them. Together the group travels to the woods of northern Fannin County, Texas to the spot where Graves had his encounter back in 1986.

The article is well-written and an interesting look into the different ways people get interested in what would be considered a fringe subject, at best, by most. It is refreshing to see a piece that is written in a straight-forward manner about the subject of the sasquatch and the people that are attempting to document the species.

Check it out at the Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine site or at the TBRC site. Additionally, Russell Graves has a terrific blog site of his own. Check it out here.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The White River Monster

What would cryptozoology be without lake monsters? These creatures, real or not, are well known to the public. Names like Ogopogo, Champ, and, of course, Nessie, possibly the most famous cryptid creature in the world, have stirred the imaginations of people for generations. The three cryptids mentioned above make up a sort of “who’s who” of lake monsters but are far from alone in the world. There are numerous less well-known lake monsters that allegedly haunt bodies of water of varying sizes across the globe. One of these lesser-known beasts is said to swim the waters of an unassuming river in Arkansas.

The White River monster or “Whitey,” as it is referred to by locals, has been periodically reported for more than 100 years. The monster is very well-known regionally and accepted as being real by a surprisingly high number of Arkansas residents. There are rumors that the White River monster first reared its head during the Civil War. Legend has it that the monster played a part in the sinking of a supply boat during the conflict. Details are extremely vague, however, and while I found many references to this story, I could never determine whether the vessel that was supposedly lost belonged to the Union or the Confederacy.

What is more clear is that sightings began to pick up in 1912 when timber workers, who were floating rafts of cedar down the river below Branson, Missouri, reported seeing something highly unusual. The workers said they saw something very large on the bottom of the river that they, at first, mistook for a boulder. When it moved, however, they realized it was something else altogether. They estimated the size of the creature to be at least 300 lbs. The witnesses described the monster as a turtle of enormous size. As one might imagine, the sighting caused quite a stir and local fishermen and hunters quickly organized a monster hunt. The results of this monster hunt have been lost to history. That being the case, it is probably safe to assume the monster hunters returned empty handed without ever seeing anything out of the ordinary.

In 1924, “Whitey” showed up further downstream in Arkansas. A woman reported seeing the monster surface and emit a loud “blowing noise.” She described the animal as gray in color with a “strange kind of hide.”

The monster of the White River received a boat load of publicity in 1937 after a farmer named Bramlett Bateman reported that some of his workers had seen something strange in a deep eddy just six miles downstream from Newport, Arkansas. Bateman, not simply taking the word of his workers, went to the river to take a look for himself and also sighted the beast. He described an animal that was a car-length in width and three car-lengths in length with the hide of an elephant. The story spread like wildfire across the nation as newspaper editors from coast-to-coast published Bateman’s account. It should be mentioned here that this intense interest in the White River monster by newspapers might have been fueled by the intense interest shown by the public when the first real wave of Loch Ness monster sighting coverage occurred just four years previously.

The hunt for “Whitey” received intense publicity. Newport residents fashioned a huge rope net they hoped would suffice to bag the monster. The net was 40-feet long and 15-feet wide and the plan was for a small armada of boats to sweep the eddy area with it in the hopes of catching the monster. Adding to the circus-like atmosphere was the fact that a fence was erected by the Newport Chamber of Commerce on the banks of the river overlooking the eddy where the monster had been seen. For a mere quarter locals could come and gawk as the monster hunters plied the waters in search of the creature. Alas, nothing was ever found.

The White River monster was spotted periodically over the years after the 1937 flap but didn’t really receive much in the way of attention again until 1971. That is the year Newport resident David Jenks reported seeing a huge animal in the river that he described as being gray and long with a “pointy bone” protruding from its head. He estimated the weight of the creature at 1,000 lbs. On June 28th of that same year, a man named Cloyce Warrren snapped a photograph that he said showed the monster. The photo was a bit blurry but seemed to show a hump of some sort floating in the river. These two sightings put the search for “Whitey” back into high gear. On July 5th, a county sheriff reported finding unusual footprints on Towhead Island just north of Bateman Eddy. The prints were 14” long and 8” wide with three long toes. The prints appeared to show a spur of some sort that projected from the heel. Periodic sightings continued over the summer of 1971. Foremost among them was a report filed by a fisherman and his grandson who claimed something had come up from the depths of the river and bumped their boat from below.

The Arkansas legislature designated a stretch of the White River between Newport and Possum Grape as the "White River Monster Refuge" in 1973. The resolution made it illegal to kill, harass, or otherwise harm the monster within the boundaries of the refuge. Whether this was done in jest or not I cannot say with any degree of certainty. I can think of only one law anywhere else in the country that is similar and that is the ordinance originally passed by Skamania County, Washington in 1969, which made it illegal to kill or harm a sasquatch. Most considered Skamania County’s actions to be a tongue-in-cheek jest meant to capitalize on tourist dollars. Having visited the county, I can assure you that the people of rural Washington take the sasquatch a lot more seriously than you might think. From what I can tell, longtime residents living along the White River feel the same way about their monster.

What could the White River monster be? Several theories have been advanced. Two have gained the most traction over the years. Many believe “Whitey” to be nothing more than a giant alligator snapping turtle. These turtles can grow to some truly impressive sizes. The largest ever caught was in excess of 400 lbs and they do inhabit the rivers, swamps, lakes, and reservoirs of the south. Descriptions of an animal with a large hump with spikes, a pointed head, and dark gray in color could describe a snapping turtle. Remember, too, that the lumber men working the river in 1912 initially described what they saw as a giant turtle. In addition, these turtles are believed to live up to 150 years. One excessively large specimen could be responsible for decades of sightings. There are problems with this theory though. Very few witnesses describe the White River monster as being in the 300-500 lb. range. Some, to the contrary, report the creature to be truly enormous and in excess of 1,000 lbs. Snapping turtles have never been known to get this big. In addition, most people living in rural bottom-lands are very familiar with what a snapping turtle looks like. For these folks to mistake a turtle for a monster seems unlikely.

Biologist Roy P. Mackal has put forth what has become another popular theory; mainly, the White River monster is nothing but an incredibly lost bull elephant seal. Mackal theorizes that the elephant seal ended up in the White River after traveling up the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico. Elephant seals are truly enormous creatures. Males can reach lengths in excess of 16-feet and weigh in at 6,600 lbs. The bulls are known for their large trunk-like proboscis from whence they get their name. The bulls use this “trunk” to help them make extraordinarily loud roaring noises, especially important during mating season. Some of the descriptions given for the White River monster would seem to be a good match for a bull elephant seal. The “horn” that some have described protruding from the head of the creature could be nothing more than an elephant seal’s large trunk-like proboscis. The size of an elephant seal matches up to several of the descriptions of an animal the “size of a boxcar.” Also, some witnesses have described an odd type of skin on the White River monster that matches up well to what elephant seals look like during molting. It seems like a good match but, again, there are issues with this theory. The main problem is that no self-respecting elephant seal would be anywhere near the Gulf of Mexico. The northern elephant seal ranges from Alaska to Mexico but are always found on the Pacific side of the North American continent. Southern elephant seals are found much farther south on the islands surround Antarctica and only occasionally near Australia and New Zealand. This makes the southern elephant seal an unlikely candidate to have ventured up the Mississippi River. Finally, elephant seals typically live only about 15 years. A wayward bull could not possibly account for the sightings over so many years.

Personally, I don’t put much stock into the snapping turtle or elephant seal theories. I do feel that the most likely explanation is that a known animal has ventured outside its known range (though not as far as an elephant seal would have to roam) and is being seen by the locals. I think it is entirely possible that what people have seen, and continue to see periodically, is a Gulf sturgeon. Sturgeon are an ancient group of fishes that have remained virtually unchanged since the age of the dinosaurs. Some types of sturgeon can reach massive sizes. The Gulf sturgeon can be in excess of 8-feet in length and weigh more than 200 lbs. They are covered in scutes (modified scales) that form a very effective protective armor for the fish. Some of these scutes do appear raised and give the sturgeon a “razorback” look (appropriate for a river in Arkansas). This could account for reports of the White River Monster having spike-like projections on its back. These scutes also give the sturgeon an appearance very different than that of other fish. They would appear prehistoric and alien to someone not familiar with them. The head of the Gulf sturgeon features an extended snout with four tactile barbels on the chin in front of the mouth. The unique design of the sturgeon’s head further adds to the odd appearance of the fish. The Gulf sturgeon is anadromous. In other words, it lives in marine environments but migrates to freshwater rives to spawn. The Gulf sturgeon's spawning habits have not been well studied but it does appear that the species is a “home stream spawner.” Basically, this means that individuals return to the rivers where they were born to carry out their own reproductive efforts. The Gulf sturgeon is a long-lived species. Scientists conservatively estimate the average lifespan of the species to be 25-30 years with the females living longer than the males. Some have speculated the females of the species might be capable of living for 100 years or more. These fish do occasionally jump and have actually struck and injured swimmers and boater when doing so.

I posit that at some point in the past a Gulf sturgeon, or a small group of them, ventured farther up the Mississippi River than would be typical in order to spawn. They found their way into the White River and reproduced. The fact that they live a long time could account for sightings over the decades. In addition, the fact that sturgeon return to the rivers where they were spawned would mean that a small number of these fish would continue to return to the White River year after year. That being the case, sightings of the White River monster could continue in perpetuity.

The fact that Gulf sturgeon are anadromous, are home stream spawners, live for a very long time, reach truly large sizes, do occasionally breach or jump from the water, are known to inhabit the Mississippi River for several months of the year, and are very unique and “prehistoric looking” in appearance make them my number one suspect in the mystery of the White River Monster.

There is no definitive answer as to what the White River monster might be. One thing is for sure, however, and that is many locals continue to believe it is there, somewhere in the river, waiting to be discovered.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

I just wanted to take a moment and wish all of you a very happy Thanksgiving.

It is easy to get caught up in the trials and tribulations that are a part of our everyday lives. I hope that on this day, at least, we will all pause to remember and dwell upon our blessings.

My best to you all.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Operation Endurance Presentation

I have received several emails over the last few months asking about the TBRC's Operation Endurance. I haven't posted much about the operation for a couple of reasons. One, I wanted to wait until the operation was complete. Second, the group was planning a detailed presentation on Operation Endurance to be given at the annual conference in October. It seemed appropriate to wait until after the conference before posting on the subject. The TBRC, recognizing the fact that many could not attend the conference, has now made this presentation available to the public.

Brian Brown did a terrific job presenting the details of Operation Endurance. That being the case, there is no real need for me to do a detailed post. You can simply listen to the presentation yourself at the TBRC website here. At some point, we hope to get the video of the presentation up on the site. In the meantime, you don't want to miss the audio of Brian's presentation.

Some amazing things occurred during Operation Endurance and some very intriguing evidence was obtained. I plan on commenting more about it in the future but, until then, take a listen to this presentation.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Rare Sighting of a Long-Eared Owl on Texas Coast

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time at all you know that I am interested in all manner of wildlife. While I have a unique interest in animals that would be thought of as cryptids, I am not one of those people obsessed only with animals that might exist. Certainly, mysterious creatures like bigfoot, black panthers, and the like intrigue me. If they didn’t I would have come up with a different name for the site. While I have devoted many posts to cryptozoological topics, I have also written many posts on known animals like alligators, bears, cougars, sharks, wolves, coyotes, and, well, you get the idea. Sometimes, a known animal showing up somewhere it generally isn’t seen or just flat out does not belong interests me as much as anything else. This post sort of falls under that umbrella.

A friend of mine emailed me these photos of a Long-eared owl (Asia otus). This species of owl would not be considered uncommon in anyone’s book. What’s unusual about these photos is where they were taken. These images were captured in the Sabine Woods on the Texas Coast just outside of Sabine Pass. The Sabine Woods (formerly known as Grim’s Woods) is a bird sanctuary owned by the Texas Ornithological Society. It is a significant tract of woods consisting mostly of live oaks and features a natural slough/wetlands area. The area is only about a quarter of a mile from the Gulf of Mexico and serves as one of the most important migratory stops in the region for neo-tropical birds. All that being said, spotting a pair of Long-eared owls there qualifies as very unusual.

The Long-eared owl is very striking in appearance as you can see. It is considered a medium-sized owl averaging 12-17 inches in length. The most noticeable physical features of these owls are the erect blackish ear-tufts. It is theorized that the ear-tufts are designed to make the owl appear larger and more intimidating than it really is.

The Long-eared owl usually breeds between February and July. This owl is considered to be partially migratory as it does fly south from the northern parts of its temperate range to winter. However, as you can see from the map below, the Texas coast is considerably farther south than where you would expect to find these owls. In addition, it usually prefers coniferous forests in which to nest. The Sabine Woods, being made up mostly of hardwoods, doesn’t fit that particular bill. This owl will gladly use the abandoned stick-style nests of other birds like crows and hawks as well as man-made nesting baskets. Often these owls will roost communally during winter months though only two of these birds have been spotted in the Sabine Woods to this point.

I’ve always thought owls were really awesome birds. Their nocturnal habits always made them seem somehow more mysterious than other birds of prey. Many nights spent in the woods of Texas, listening to the calls of Barred owls (Strix varia) have done nothing to change my opinion. These Long-eared owls may not be cryptids but I think they do qualify as an out of place animal in this instance. Even if that is a stretch, I just enjoyed the photos too much not to post them.

I hope you enjoyed them too.

Monday, November 14, 2011

TBRC Report #01110076

I just completed an investigation into a fascinating sasquatch sighting that allegedly took place on Bergstrom Air Force Base in May of 1981. The witness's original report and my write-up of the incident are below. I think you'll agree it is a pretty interesting account.

Airman reports night-time encounter on Bergstrom AFB.
Report# 01110076
Occurred May 1981 (Submitted November 1, 2011)

Witness Observation
I was in the Air Force (Security Police or now Security Forces). I was also a member of the base SWAT team and involved in the martial arts. I had just gotten off duty but was asked to respond to a call about a baby crying in base dump. I only went with them because we had to discuss an upcoming base SWAT team training exercise. This was at Bergstrom AFB (now Austin-Bergstrom International Airport).

I responded with three other guys. One was a black belt and SWAT team leader armed with a .38 caliber pistol. Another companion was a 3rd degree black belt armed with a .38 caliber pistol too. The third was a K-9 handler, with his dog. The dog was a holdover from those bred for duty in Vietnam. He was considered to be so dangerous that they had clipped and tattooed his ears to ensure no one accidentally handled this dog.

The call came from a general’s wife, so it had to be checked out.

We went to the dump area. I was then a very remote area of the base. There was a maze of deep creeks and natural drainages in this area. The closest civilization was Bastrop, Texas, and a small prison. The dump was fenced on three sides by a six foot fence with (I believe a 12" "Y" outrigger on it). The fourth side of the dump was a four foot high barbed wire fence. Beyond the fence was a freshly plowed field.

The area was maybe two acres in size, in the shape of a triangle. We arrived and entered through a gate on one of the short sides of the triangle. To our right were several large trailer sized dumpsters (maybe 8), and about 10-12 smaller (Dipsy Dumpster) on our left.

The K-9 unit went first. As he approached to dumpsters on the right, we heard the sound of a baby squeal. The cries seemed to move from one dumpster to another; moving further away from us. This was weird, but then the K-9 handler told us that he thought it was just a baby rabbit. He said he has heard them squeal like that.

After he got down to about the 5th dumpster, the sound came back towards us at the gate. We got a little creeped out by this so the senior Sergeant told us to just do a quick walk through so we could get out of there.

As we started back towards the vehicles, we heard the noise coming from the dumpster on our left, so we started checking them. When we finally got down to the 7th or 8th dumpster, we heard what sounded like a very large bodied impact against the end dumpster. Now these dumpsters were about 4 to 4.5 feet tall and maybe 6 feet by 6 feet wide. There was about 10-12 feet of space between them.

When we heard the banging sound against the end dumpster, we let the dog handler order (what we thought was maybe) a person to come out.

He gave them the order; there was no response. He then long leashed his dog and gave the order again. By now the dog was pulling and tugging to get to where the sound came from. The winds were blowing away from us, so all we could smell was the stench of the dump.

The dog handler gave a final command for the person to come out or he would release the dog. There was no response. The dog was going nuts now to get to the sound. The handler pulled the dog back, unclipped it from the leash and sent him towards the sound in attack mode.
Just as he reached the end dumpster, preparing to run around it, this huge creature leaped from behind the dumpster running. We all had our flashlights trained on the dumpster at about human height. This thing was huge. About 7-8 feet tall; covered with long dark brownish black (matted) fur. It did not turn towards us, but ran out and across the field.

It took two steps and stepped right over the barbed wire fence in as it ran off. Our flash light hit it about the shoulders. This was not a man. The stride covered the 10-12 feet in two steps, and then over the barbed wire fence without jumping.

Most importantly, this killer K-9, was frightened so badly, that he locked up all fours and abandoned his full out charge towards this creature and started screaming as if he had been hurt. He was looking up at the creature, and started backing up even as his momentum caused him to continue sliding forward. When he finally got his traction, he turned and ran past us back towards his kennel truck with his tail tucked between his legs. He was screaming in terror and was pissing himself looking over his shoulders to ensure the creature was not following him.

I would have doubted my own eyes, but this dog's behavior was one of pure terror. The dog was trained to attack on command without fear. I had never seen him behave in this manner, so I feared for my life. I knew he was responding to something real, so I was terrified too. We were no more than 15 or 20 feet away when this happened. The creature could be seen running across the field (in silhouette) disappearing into the woods.

Since we had to report this in an official government document, we delayed and discussed what we would put in the blotter until about 3:00am. Had we told the desk sergeant what we saw, we thought we could have lost our security clearances, so we simply said it was a rabbit or something.

I do not know if the report is public information now or not but it will validate the response if nothing else.

Time and Conditions
10:00 pm - It was a dark night, but there was enough natural light to see the silhouette.

Investigator's Comments
This investigation was conducted as a result of an incident that allegedly occurred in May of 1981 on Bergstrom Air Force Base in Travis County, Texas.

I spoke to the witness at length on the evening of 11 November 2011. The witness was serving in the United States Air Force at the time and was stationed at Bergstrom Air Force Base, which lies roughly twelve miles southeast of Austin, Texas. The witness worked security detail for the base and was also a sniper on the SWAT team. He was technically off duty but was visiting with three men who were on duty when a call came in that night—at approximately 22:00—reporting what sounded like a crying baby coming from the area of the base dump. The call came in from the wife of a General, whose living quarters were about one-half mile away from the dump area; despite their suspicion it was nothing, the men traveled to this remote part of the base to investigate. According to the witness, the dump was an irregularly-shaped, roughly triangular piece of property, approximately two acres in size. Three sides of the dump were protected by a six-foot high chain link fence featuring what the witness described as a twelve-foot “Y” outrigger on top. The fourth side of the dump marked the property boundary between the base and private farm land and was delineated by a simple barbed wire fence about four feet high.

The witness decided to tag along on the response to this call even though he had just gotten off duty. He accompanied three other airmen who were working security that night. The witness described his companions that night as fearless men who were armed with .38 caliber handguns, the standard weapon for the Air Force at the time (the witness was not armed as he was off duty). In addition, one of the men was a SWAT team leader and another was a K-9 handler who had his sentry dog with him. The sentry dog was described as being a German Shepherd weighing somewhere between 75-100 pounds. The witness, as noted in the original report, described the dog as extremely dangerous; the dog’s ears had been clipped and tattooed so that there would be no confusion between it and some of the younger sentry dogs that had been trained in a different manner and were not considered as dangerous and difficult to handle.

The four men arrived at the dump and entered the gate. To their right was a row of approximately eight large trailer-sized dumpsters, and on their left was a row of ten or so smaller dumpsters of the sort one might see outside restaurants or convenience stores. The men advanced with the K-9 unit leading the way. As they approached the dumpsters on the right, they heard a sound not unlike a baby squealing. The strange cry was repeated several times and seemed to be moving down the row of long dumpsters away from them. The K-9 handler told the others he thought the squealer was nothing more than a baby rabbit. One of the men suggested that the group do a simple walk-through and leave so as not to waste time investigating what seemed a frivolous report. The group proceeded with their walk-through, but their mood changed a bit when the squealing sound was repeated. The squealer had somehow doubled back and was behind one of the smaller dumpsters on the opposite side of the yard, much closer to them than before. As the men walked the line of dumpsters toward the sound, they suddenly heard a very loud and heavy impact against one of the dumpsters. The witness described it as sounding like a very large and heavy body striking the backside of the dumpster. He said it was very loud and powerful enough to shift one of the heavy dumpsters slightly. The men were now on high alert.

The men had walked up the middle of the dump property between the long dumpsters and the smaller ones on their initial reconnaissance. On the way back they were positioned in the narrow 10-12 foot alley between the row of smaller dumpsters and the barbed wire fence separating the base property from private farmland. The K-9 handler immediately ordered whomever was hiding behind the dumpster to show himself or he would release the dog. There was no response. The handler repeated the order and “long-leashed” the dog that was now tugging at his restraint and barking furiously. The handler gave the order one final time. When there was no response, he released the sentry dog and gave the attack command.

The men all had their flashlights trained on the dumpster and watched as the sentry dog bounded forward. The witness reported that just as the dog reached the corner of the dumpster, a huge creature stood up and leaped or ran toward the barbed wire fence. He described the figure as being of massive proportions, seven to eight feet tall and covered in dark, matted-looking hair or fur. The sentry dog attempted to stop and began backpedaling wildly once it sighted the figure. The dog’s momentum caused it to continue to slide forward to the point that it almost bumped into the creature despite its attempts to stop. According to the witness, the dog began “screaming” and, once it regained its footing, turned and sprinted past the men, away from the creature, with its tail tucked between its legs. The witness recalled that the dog was so terrified that it was “pissing all over” as it retreated. The witness said that he had never seen that dog, or any dog, for that matter, act so completely terrified.

The creature took approximately two steps, clearing the 4-foot high barbed wire fence without seeming to jump, and ran across the open farmland toward a wooded area. The witness said that no person could have run as fast as the creature he saw that night did. He said the movement was smooth and fluid. That fact, along with the sheer size of the creature, convinced the witness this could not be a person in an ape suit or costume. The witness stated that while it was dark, there was enough moonlight to see the creature in silhouette until it made it to the wood line.

The stunned and rattled men returned to their vehicles and discussed what to do. They decided that it would be detrimental to their careers if they reported what they had seen and decided to say it was only a rabbit. The men discussed their experience periodically and always tried to find an “acceptable fit” to what they had seen. They all considered themselves to be rational men and wanted to find an explanation they could accept. The witness said that they never could come up with that more rational explanation and eventually had to agree they had seen a sasquatch that night.

I asked the witness if the squealing sound he heard that night would have been loud enough to be heard from the General’s quarters, approximately ½-mile away. He stated that he did not think so and said that thought had puzzled him as well. I also asked him if he felt that the creature he saw was the source of the squealing. He said that he didn’t know but the noise was not heard again once the creature was spotted. He added that he has since heard a rabbit squealing and the noise he heard that night in 1981 would be a very close match. He speculated that the creature he saw might have been attempting to catch a rabbit, causing it to scream in fear. He felt it more than possible that the creature he saw never vocalized at all.

The witness has lost touch with the other three men over the years, so I was not able to follow up with them. Having said that, I found this witness’s account compelling and could detect no signs of deception. He related his account in a calm but very intense manner. He remains convinced that what he saw that night in 1981 was not a person and that he encountered a sasquatch.

*Bergstrom Air Force Base was closed in 1993. The Austin-Bergstrom International Airport now occupies the site.

This and many other reports can be found on the TBRC website at

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Wisdom from Berkeley

"People should feel more entitled to go out and investigate things that scientists might say don't exist. The broader purpose of science is to find out what's going on in the world. What I'm saying is that the lay public can actually help science, and has a right, even a responsibility, to do so."

-Berkeley associate Professor of Philosophy Sherrilyn Roush.

Typically, I don't agree with much that comes out of Berkeley but I think Professor Roush is dead on with this statement.

What do you think?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Footage of Extinct Imperial Woodpecker Released

Most people with even a passing interest in nature have heard of the plight of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The sad tale of how this magnificent bird became extinct, due mainly to loss of suitable habitat, is well known. What is not as well known is the story of an equally magnificent, and even bigger, woodpecker that once thrived in the Sierra Madre Occidental – a rugged mountain range stretching 900 miles, or so, south from the U.S.-Mexico border – and in the mountains of central Mexico.

The Imperial Woodpecker (Campephilus imperialis) was truly a magnificent bird. It was (is?) the biggest woodpecker in the world. Males could grow up to 24 inches long. They were strikingly colored. Males had a red-sided crest but were mostly black in color with the exception of inner primary feathers, secondary feathers, and a scapular stripe, which were white. Females were similarly colored but the crest was solid black and recurved at the top. It had obvious similarities to the more famous Ivory-billed Woodpecker and was actually sometimes called the “Mexican Ivory-bill.”

The Imperial Woodpecker was common up until the mid 1950’s when habitat loss began to take it’s toll. The last confirmed sighting of this species occurred in 1956. Amateur ornithologist William Rhein, now deceased, captured 85-seconds of film of an Imperial Woodpecker foraging for insects on old growth pine trees and flying from one spot to another. The footage, a bit jumpy due to the fact that Rhein was riding on a mule as he shot it, is considered to be 85 seconds of pure gold by the birding world. The film has now been made available to the public for the first time. You can view it here.

The film had been in the hands of the Rhein family for years before it was tracked down by Martjan Lammertink of Cornell University. Lammertink became aware of the existence of the footage only after he came across an old letter that mentioned the film in the University’s archives. He tracked down William Rhein 10 years ago at his home in Pennsylvania and was able to view the film. Rhein’s nephew donated the film to Cornell upon his Uncle’s death in 2006.

Living Bird magazine editor Tim Gallagher said, “ It’s amazing that the bird does so many different things in 85 seconds. It’s a gold mine of information about this bird.”

Lammertink, who authored a paper about the footage published in the November issue of The Auk said, “It is stunning to look back through time and see the magnificent Imperial Woodpecker moving through its old growth forest environment. It is heartbreaking to know that both the bird and the forest are gone."

Gallagher and Lammertink traveled to the spot where the film was shot just a year or so ago but, not surprisingly, found no trace of the bird. Nearly all of the old growth forest had been cleared and the area is now the territory of drug cartels.

“It’s a very dangerous place,” Gallagher said. “There were a lot of people with AK-47s.”

As I watched the footage of the Imperial Woodpecker I found myself overtaken with a powerful melancholy. To know that this most magnificent of all woodpeckers is likely gone forever is sickening. To view the Rhein footage is both an incredible gift, as we can see exactly how the bird moved, flew, and went about it’s daily business, and a terrible reminder of just how badly we humans have failed at being good stewards of the natural world. I hope that we learn our lesson soon.

There are no second chances.


Cornell University. "Study analyzes only known footage of the largest woodpecker that ever lived." ScienceDaily, 26 Oct. 2011. Web. 7 Nov. 2011.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Giant Python Killed in Florida

It has been a while since I have discussed the threat that invasive species pose to North American ecosystems. In particular, I have a concern regarding the threat posed by large exotic snakes like pythons, boas, and anacondas to the bottom-lands and marshes of the American south. A recent news story brought my attention back to the issue just this week.

The Huffington Post is reporting that Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission officials captured and killed a 16-foot long Burmese python in the Everglades that had just devoured an adult deer. The deer is estimated to have weighed 75 lbs. You can read the story and see some pretty amazing photos of this snake at the link above. The giant serpent weighed in at a whopping 215.4 pounds with the deer in its belly and 139.1 pounds without it. The snake’s stomach had stretched out to an astounding 44.1-inches to accommodate the deer carcass.

Scott Hardin, the exotic species coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, is reported to have said that workers found the snake last Thursday and it has turned out to be one of the largest exotic snakes ever found in South Florida. Hardin touted the killing of this enormous snake as an important victory in the efforts of wildlife officials to stop the spread of these giants northward.

Burmese pythons are native to Southeast Asia but have become very popular as pets here in North America. The problem is that the snakes grow quickly and become too much for their owners to handle. A 20-inch baby python can grow to be 8-feet long in only one year. Owners often become overwhelmed and often release them into the wild where they can wreak havoc on native ecosystems. They are very comfortable in southern wetlands and are reproducing quickly. According to the University of Florida , no fewer than 418 Burmese pythons were found dead or killed in Everglades National Park between 2006 and 2007.

The marshes, swamps, bayous, and bottom-lands of Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana are near perfect habitat for invasive tropical constrictors like anacondas, boas, and pythons. I particularly worry about the Big Thicket area of Texas. These invaders would do quite well there. Indeed, there is evidence that the invasion has already started.

So, the next time you hear a tale about a giant snake haunting some lonely swamp in the Lone Star State you might want to think twice before blowing it off. It could simply mean that the invaders have arrived.