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Man With a Mission

By Tim Gallagher
Photograph by R. C. Heintzelman

William Rhein, photo courtesy Ronald Thorpe

It's hard to say what motivates people to do extraordinary things. William Rhein was certainly someone who made things happen. A dentist by trade, he was also an avid amateur ornithologist, filmmaker, and photographer, who got it into his head that he wanted to study and document the Imperial Woodpecker of Mexico.

Rhein launched three self-funded expeditions to the Sierra Madre Occidental—in 1953, '54, and ’56—all with the primary objective of filming Imperial Woodpeckers. Before his initial journey to Mexico, he visited Cornell Lab founder Arthur Allen, who had seen an Imperial Woodpecker during a 1947 expedition in the Mexican state of Durango. Allen generously provided him with advice and contacts in Mexico and also loaned him a recorder and a parabolic microphone in case he found some of the birds.

Unfortunately, the area Allen had visited a few years earlier had since been logged, and the birds were gone, but Rhein and his friends went deeper into the Sierra Madre and eventually found Imperial Woodpeckers near a new logging camp called Los Laureles.

Although it took Rhein three separate six-week expeditions to the area in three different years, on his final journey to the Sierra Madre in 1956, he filmed an adult female Imperial Woodpecker flying, foraging, and hitching up trees. Not only is this the first and only film footage, it is the only photographic documentation of any kind ever taken of a living Imperial Woodpecker.

It is truly amazing what you can accomplish when you set your mind to it.