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Imperial Dreams: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker Through the Wild Sierra Madre

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Overview

Explorer and naturalist Tim Gallagher is obsessed with rare birds. A decade ago, Gallagher was one of the rediscoverers of the legendary ivory-billed woodpecker, which most scientists believed had been extinct for more than half a century—an event that caused an international stir. Now, in Imperial Dreams, Gallagher once again hits the trail, journeying deep into Mexico’s savagely beautiful Sierra Madre Occidental, home to rich wildlife, as well as to Mexican drug cartels, in a perilous quest to locate the most ...

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Imperial Dreams: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker Through the Wild Sierra Madre

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Overview

Explorer and naturalist Tim Gallagher is obsessed with rare birds. A decade ago, Gallagher was one of the rediscoverers of the legendary ivory-billed woodpecker, which most scientists believed had been extinct for more than half a century—an event that caused an international stir. Now, in Imperial Dreams, Gallagher once again hits the trail, journeying deep into Mexico’s savagely beautiful Sierra Madre Occidental, home to rich wildlife, as well as to Mexican drug cartels, in a perilous quest to locate the most elusive bird in the world—the imperial woodpecker, a giant among its clan.

The imperial woodpecker’s trumpetlike calls and distinctive hammering on massive pines once echoed through the high forests. Two feet tall, with deep black plumage, a brilliant snow-white shield on its back, and a crimson crest, the imperial woodpecker had largely disappeared fifty years ago, though reports persist of the bird still flying through remote mountain stands. In an attempt to find and protect the imperial woodpecker in its last habitat, Gallagher is guided by a map of sightings of this natural treasure of the Sierra Madre, bestowed on him by a friend on his deathbed. Charged with continuing the quest of a line of distinguished naturalists, including the great Aldo Leopold, Gallagher treks through this mysterious, historically untamed and untamable territory. Here, where an ancient petroglyph of the imperial can still be found, Geronimo led Apaches in their last stand, William Randolph Hearst held a storied million-acre ranch, and Pancho Villa once roamed, today ruthless drug lords terrorize residents and steal and strip the land.

Gallagher’s passionate quest takes a harrowing turn as he encounters armed drug traffickers, burning houses, and fleeing villagers. His mission becomes a life-and-death drama that will keep armchair adventurers enthralled as he chases truth in the most dangerous of habitats.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
After taking part in the sensational 2005 discovery of the rare Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Arkansas, Cornell ornithologist Gallagher (The Grail Bird) sets his sight on an even bigger prize: the legendary Imperial Woodpecker, a giant, elaborately crested species thought to be long extinct. Led by a decades-old map and film footage of the majestic bird, Gallagher travels to Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental range, where drug traffickers rule with impunity and horrific acts of violence—including kidnapping, arson, murder—are part of everyday life. The book recounts the natural and political history of the region, weaving in stories about Gallagher’s encounters with birds, locals, bird-watchers, and scientific experts. Although questing for technically extinct birds like the Imperial Woodpecker is “generally akin to believing in Sasquatch or claiming to have been abducted by a UFO,” Gallagher embarks on a risky trek past poppy farms, burned out houses, and terrified villagers to the wilderness area of the two-foot-long creature’s last definitive sighting in the 1950s. Although the book’s regional focus may be narrow, its tragic tales of environmental degradation, epic violence, and human foolhardiness have implications that will resonate well beyond the dangerous forests and valleys of Northern Mexico. Agent: Russell Galen, Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency. (Apr.)
George Butler
"If you get to know Tim, as I have, you will learn that this most American of all men is actually British and part of a long tradition of explorers who step unselfconsciously where lesser men fear to tread. He also loves birds and is an expert on all aspects of birdlife. One day soon, I hope, the Queen will recognize Tim's contributions to top-flight ornithology and put him on her Honours List..."
starred review Booklist
A Top 10 Science & Health Book of 2013 “Gallagher has set a gold standard for nature writing. A triumph.”
From the Publisher
“The best birding book that’s been written in years”

“Popular science writing at its best. This engaging book draws readers in from page 1… A gem.”

“The most delightful and fascinating magpie of a memoir, told with panache, verve, and honesty.”

“Gallagher is a wonderful storyteller with the brain of an ornithologist and the nerve of a spelunker. Every time I put this book down, I picked it up again to take in just one more chapter, lured onward by the same tantalizing shards of evidence that kept Gallagher in the game, aghast at the risks he took, immersed in the cold, forbidding landscape; enthralled by the scimitar-clawed grip of the world’s largest woodpecker on his—and my— imagination.”

"Tim Gallagher's Imperial Dreams is unique, a blend of natural and tragic human history and Indiana Jones-style adventure. Imagine venturing into the mountainous heart of Mexico's narcotraficante country armed only with pictures of a great bird that may or may not be extinct. This is Tim Gallagher's most exciting book, and may be his best."

"If you get to know Tim, as I have, you will learn that this most American of all men is actually British and part of a long tradition of explorers who step unselfconsciously where lesser men fear to tread. He also loves birds and is an expert on all aspects of birdlife. One day soon, I hope, the Queen will recognize Tim's contributions to top-flight ornithology and put him on her Honours List..."

magazine of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology - Living Bird

"Imperial Dreams by Tim Gallagher is a natural history of the world’s most spectacular woodpecker and a mystery... It starts as a lighthearted adventure and becomes a tragedy and a tale of terror.... one to excite adventure travelers ...an unforgettable tale of loss... Excellent adventure."
Audubon Magazine
"Gallagher combines an in-depth, extensively researched historical account of the region with an equally impressive detailed account of his own experiences there."
Stephen Bodio
"Tim Gallagher's Imperial Dreams is unique, a blend of natural and tragic human history and Indiana Jones-style adventure. Imagine venturing into the mountainous heart of Mexico's narcotraficante country armed only with pictures of a great bird that may or may not be extinct. This is Tim Gallagher's most exciting book, and may be his best."
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“The best birding book that’s been written in years”
Booklist
“This is popular science writing at its best.”
David Allen Sibley
“A unique and personal perspective on what could be one of the most significant ornithological events of the last hundred years.”
Tony Huston
“The most delightful and fascinating magpie of a memoir, told with panache, verve, and honesty.”
Starred Review Booklist

“This engaging book draws readers in from page 1… A gem.”
Julie Zickefoose

“Gallagher is a wonderful storyteller with the brain of an ornithologist and the nerve of a spelunker. Every time I put this book down, I picked it up again to take in just one more chapter, lured onward by the same tantalizing shards of evidence that kept Gallagher in the game, aghast at the risks he took, immersed in the cold, forbidding landscape; enthralled by the scimitar-clawed grip of the world’s largest woodpecker on his—and my— imagination.”
Kirkus Reviews
A quest to find the legendary imperial woodpecker takes ornithologist Gallagher (Falcon Fever: A Falconer in the Twenty-first Century, 2008 etc.) on a trek through the dangerous byways of Mexico's Sierra Madre. Since his earlier discovery of the related ivory-billed woodpecker, also thought to be extinct, the author was hopeful of tracking its cousin. Their impressive plumage and loud "trumpetlike toot" made them easily identifiable, and part of their vulnerability came from their social nature, as the animals clustered in groups to protect wounded birds. Considered a pest by farmers (including opium producers) and loggers who cleared the land, it was ruthlessly hunted while its habitat was destroyed. Reportedly, some also considered it a delicacy. By 2008, Gallagher was convinced that it was imperative to make the attempt to locate and protect any of these great birds that remained alive. His problem was not only the dangers inherent in trekking through steep mountain trails, but the fact that the region was controlled by ruthless drug lords and lower-level kidnappers who took advantage of the lawless environment to extort money from local inhabitants and luckless visitors. Gallagher chronicles his own trips to the area, where he was befriended by Mormon ranchers and guided by a member of the drug cartel, as well as the hair-raising adventures of others. The author sets his tale against the historical backdrop of the region, which was home to the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and provided sanctuary to Apache Indians fleeing American troops. Finally having relinquished his quest, he compares himself to the prospectors and treasure hunters who once scoured the area, and he concludes that he would have had "a far better chance of getting killed in the Sierra Madre" than succeeding. An exciting adventure story set against a sobering picture of the Mexican political scene.
Library Journal
Gallagher (editor in chief, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's Living Bird magazine; The Grail Bird) presents a riveting narrative about his recent, dangerous search in Mexico for the world's largest woodpecker, the possibly extinct imperial woodpecker. His adventures took him to the Sierra Madre Occidental, the fabled mountain range extending hundreds of miles along the western edge of Mexico. The dangers there are in the rugged, remote terrain and, even more so, the ubiquitous, ruthless drug cartels, the narcotraficantes. Employing local guides, some of whom had seen the woodpecker years ago, Gallagher ranged widely by foot, with off-road vehicles, and on horseback. Throughout, he describes vividly the history of this region, weaving in stories of Pancho Villa, Geronimo and the Apaches (some of whom survived there into the 1930s), indigenous peoples, Mormons (including the Romney family), Mennonites, two Norwegian explorers, and, of course, the area's natural history. He skillfully interviews residents on the Sierra Madre's past and current conditions. Gallagher did not find any woodpeckers, but he believes they may still exist. VERDICT The hardships Gallagher and his cohorts endured and the unforgettable people they encountered make this a splendid story. Highly recommended for those interested in nature, rare birds, Mexican history, and travel.—Henry T. Armistead, formerly with Free Lib. of Philadelphia
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781439191521
  • Publisher: Atria Books
  • Publication date: 4/16/2013
  • Pages: 277
  • Sales rank: 460,731
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Tim Gallagher is an author, wildlife photographer, and magazine editor, currently editor-in-chief of Living Bird, the magazine of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. He lives in Freeville, New York. He helped bring to light the only living images of an Imperial ever taken; when Cornell released the recently rediscovered 1950’s footage, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q0OCd6b1aXU, it drew over 100,000 viewers in a few days.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 28, 2013

    Excellent Father's Day gift for someone who wants to be an armch

    Excellent Father's Day gift for someone who wants to be an armchair explorer through a frightening part of Mexico.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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