Monday, September 30, 2013

Imperial Woodpeckers

The Imperial Woodpecker (Campephilus imperialus). Goache and pencil.
In recent years, I have spent a considerable amount of time living in the mountainous highlands of central Mexico, particularly in the region of Iztaccihuatl in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, where austere, stony peaks soar into the sky at such heights that they are crowned with windswept glaciers. The altitude of this region -while far enough south on the continent- creates a climate that is both unique and surprising -cool, rainy for much of the year, and broadly similar to ecosystems you would expect to find further north.

Dark, moss-hung conifer forests proliferate on the mountainsides and sometimes open up into hushed, misty glades. Icy waterfalls cascade down from the sky, the forest is full of the flute-like songs of thrushes, and the fruiting bodies of mushrooms provide generous fare during the rainy season. Overall, the shoulders of Iztaccihuatl hide secret, pristine places whose very essence is both timeless and a far cry from the relative chaos of the nearby city. It is a forest whose organic splendor could hardly be matched by the forests of our most elaborate fantasies, it is more than magical...

And yet, there is the reality of human impact also at work, and as expansive and rugged as the timbered ridges are, the Mexican White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus mexicanus) has been locally extinct in the area for at least 20 to 30 years due to over-harvesting and a virtually non-existent wildlife management program... And while there is reasonable hope to assume that stags may one day return to haunt the ferny shadows, there are some creatures that, save from paintings and the most animate imaginations, cannot be retrieved from the past at all...

Verily, it was this very mountain -Iztaccihuatl- which once marked the southernmost range of one of Mexico's most striking birds, and it is the ghost-like presence that I felt among the bright, open parklands near timberline (a place where they likely nested) that inspired me to paint this magnificent animal, the Imperial Woodpecker.


Iztaccihautl

Popocatepetl

Wild, edible mushrooms

Since the year 1956, this spectacular bird has not been seen and the nature of its disappearance has almost perfectly mirrored that of its counterpart the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), which also disappeared from continental North American during the late 1950’s. The Imperial Woodpecker (Campephilus imperialus), in many ways the ‘quintessential’ woodpecker, was the largest of all woodpeckers (measuring 20-24 inches –the size of a Raven) and was of splendid coloration, the male was black, had a brilliant red crest on his head, white wing patches, and a white V on the back; females lacked the brilliant red crest, but almost as ornately, their crest was black and curled forward like some whimsical character from a Doctor Seuss book. These birds lived in high-altitude pine-oak woodlands throughout much of central Mexico (a distribution map detailing the former range of Campephilus imperialus can be found at the IUCN's Redlist, click here). It is thought that fragmentation of once continuous habitat due to development and logging was the primary cause of its recent and very unfortunate extinction, but they were also once sought for as a food source.

For a long time since its last confirmed sighting, it was believed that the species vanished without ever being filmed or recorded on audio. Much to the delight of the ornithological world, the recent discovery of this forgotten footage captured several birds foraging in their native habitat in the state of Durango in 1956. Ironically, this was the last year that the birds were recorded in the wild and they have not been seen since. Their disappearance -like that of their counterpart the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker- was a great disappointment and mystery to naturalists and ornithologists across the world. Here is a link to the William L. Rhein footage.