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Former Malibu mayor seeks to photograph Cuban woodpecker

This photo of a tiny bee hummingbird was taken by Larry Wan in Cuba in 2012. Photo by Larry Wan
Former Malibu mayor and wildlife conservationist Larry Wan is in search of photographing wild Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers in Cuba, shown here in a taxidermy diorama. Photo Submitted
Suzanne Guldimann, Freelance Reporter
2:32 pm PDT September 14, 2015

Malibu resident, former mayor, wildlife photographer and conservationist Larry Wan is in search of a legend — and he’s heading for Cuba to find it.

The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker’s spectacular black and white feathers, dramatic crest and 30-inch wingspan inspired its folk name, the “Good Lord Bird,” for the exclamation allegedly made by those who encountered this species. But its appearance also made it a target for hunters and collectors. The ivory-billed woodpecker has been considered extinct in the U.S. since 1938, despite occasional reports of sightings—the most recent in 2005. However, the species also lived in Cuba, where it was spotted as recently as 2009.

Wan, the chairman of the Western Alliance for Nature, has announced that his organization is launching a series of full scale scientific expeditions to look for this long-lost species in Cuba. 

Wan will be discussing the project and the evidence that supports the theory that the Cuban population of Ivory-billed woodpeckers is not extinct at a special presentation at King Gillette Ranch on September 27, 3-6 p.m. He took time this week to give the Malibu Surfside News an overview of the project.

“In 2012, the Western Alliance for Nature sponsored an expedition to Cuba,” Wan said. “We didn’t find the bird but we found evidence.”

That evidence was enough to prompt the new series of five expeditions, which will incorporate current technology, including GPS and remote cameras.

“We’re going to be looking for other species as well,” Wan said. “The Cuban kite hasn’t been seen since 2009. And then there’s the blue-headed quail and the bee hummingbird. It’s the smallest bird in the world, the smallest warm-blooded vertebrate, and its endemic to Cuba.”

Wan explained that the conservation community is concerned that growing development pressures in Cuba may result in loss of key habitat before there is the opportunity to identify the species that are at risk.

“We are losing biodiversity so rapidly, that’s why it’s so important to preserve critical habitat,” he said, adding that identifying and documenting critically threatened ecological resources — like the legendary ivory-billed woodpecker — can help generate ways to ensure that habitat is protected.

Wan, who will present a talk titled In Search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Cuba, will be joined by guest speaker Tom Smith,  director of the UCLA Center for Tropical Research, who will discuss “biology of hook-billed kites and why the Cuban kite is important.” 

The event is free, but donations to support the expedition are welcome. Participants are asked to RSVP by calling (310) 999-5477 by Sept. 19. 

For more information, visit www.wanconservancy.org.