Dr. John P. O’Neill, who is a member of GCBO’s Board of Directors, and who is a pioneering researcher and expert on the birds of Peru (and former Director of the LSU Museum of Natural History), recently sent this interesting email to us. It was a response to a query about the first in-life sightings of the Long-whiskered Owlet (which he described), detailed in this American Bird Conservancy press release:
“One of the primary missions of my 46 years of work in Peru has always been to get to the unknown parts of the country to survey them, get a good, well-documented collection from the areas, and study as much of the ecology of the avifauna as possible. In 1976 we decided to go north to the town of Chiclayo and on to Olmos and then go east over the Andes into the isolated desert of the Rio Marañón. After working in some of the desert areas briefly we ventured up a fairly new road that ascended the valley of the Rio Utcubamba and on to the town of Chachapoyas. Some distance before Chachapoyas there was a turnoff to the east on a new road that would cross a pass called Abra Patricia and then wind down, reaching about 1800 meters where it ended because it was still under construction. At about 2400 m we found an abandoned road camp that had a nice flat area and a good stream (good water is one of the important items in selecting a campsite!). We set up a camp and began to put up some mist nest, as well as cut simple trails to allow access to the dense and somewhat stunted forest. This was cloudforest, with every surface coated with ferns, mosses, bromeliads, and other epiphytic plants. It is truly an enchanted forest.
After about three days we woke up to find a dense, heavy fog that only allowed a sight distance of about 25 feet! We caught a few birds in nets and managed to collect specimens of some interesting things, but it was almost impossible to move around much and we always feared really getting lost - we were in the middle of a wilderness that was hundreds of square miles in extent and in some instances you might actually be able to walk for more than a thousand miles without coming across a person or village. Needless to say we stayed pretty close to camp. On day three of the fog we decided that we had had enough and if it did not clear by the next morning we would pack up and leave. We did not have a lot of time and didn't want to sit in the fog doing nothing for days on end. The next morning it was still foggy. Our assistant (now of close to 30 years!) Manuel Sanchez, checked the nets, but when he returned his wife Marta had breakfast ready and besides he said all that we caught in about 15 nets was a couple of tiny owls. Andean Pygmy-Owl was fairly common at the site, so we did not even bother to look at them until we finished breakfast. Finally I opened one of the cloth bags and carefully looked down into it, but what I saw was astonishing - it was no Pygmy-Owl. This bird was even smaller than a Pygmy-Owl and somewhat resembled a tiny Crested Owl, but with bristly whisker-like tufts of filmy feathers on the side of the face rather than "horns." I immediately knew it was something undescribed and that it likely represented a new genus - a remarkable event. All of us pondered what it could be and finally decided it must be totally new.
Our mentor, George H. Lowery, Jr. at LSU was going to retire in a couple of years, so we decided right there at the camp that we would name the new owl in his honor. After all he couldn't care less about gold watches and such! On the same trip we collected the first specimens of the Ochre-faced Antpitta, another new species, and also collected specimens of Lulu's Tody-Tyrant, which was already known and being described by Ned Johnson at Berkeley (actually it was not formally described for another 15 years or so!) We spent about three weeks at the site (and the fog did go away!) and even worked down to 1800 meters in the elevational heart of tanagers. We finished out the expedition d returned to Lima, got the export permits for specimens and returned to LSU. All this time we never said a word to Lowery, but worked hard to get the description written, I painted a frontispiece to accompany the description, and we even sent the partial skeletons off to a researcher in Arizona. based on external anatomy we made the decision that the new owl was related to both Elf Owls and Pygmy -Owls, but certainly belonged in it's own new genus - using the Greek "Xeno" for strange and "glaux" for owl, we named it Xenoglaux loweryi (in honor of George H. Lowery). I even asked for space to be reserved in the AUK for the description. However, Lowery always said no manuscript should be submitted without his getting at least a quick reading of it. So, we planned a party, I think it was for someone's birthday and Alice Fogg the wonderful secretary of the Museum made a cake (she knew what was going on) and after we congratulated the person actually having the birthday, we turned the entire event to Lowery and presented him with the specimens, the description, and the painting. That was one time he was speechless! He was really thrilled and excited and we know he appreciated the gesture more than any other "gift" we could have given him. He died in 1978, but his owl lives on.
The connections continue as Conoco-Phillips recently helped purchase land to add to the protected area that has the bulk of the population of the owl. The recent article that started all this resulted from the owl recently being found "in the wild" and photographed. etc. Until now it was known from only three areas in the basin of the Nieva and Mayo rivers. Only a couple of years ago Dan Lane of LSU (and now a leader for Field Guides) was able to determine the voice and tape record it. Previously there had been only one possible sighting that was not confirmed. As with many of the "new" species, it certainly has a restricted range, but it lives in a huge area and 95% or more of that area has never had anyone in it and thus no chance to see if the owl is there. Habitat modeling shows that it should be expected to be scattered across much of the valley, but these models are not totally reliable. There is really no real threat other than habitat clearing, and even today that is restricted mainly to areas close to the paved road that runs down the valley. Personally I believe that the tiny owl is just about as common today as ever, but forest destruction can occur rapidly and thus forest protection is very important. The new reserve is a private one, which means that it will get the highest level of protection.
Peru still has many areas that are totally unknown and many new species surely remain. There have been about 55 in the past 50 years -probably more than for any country in the world in that same time period. I have had the good fortune to discover and describe 4 new species since 1961 - and the most amazing thing is that the latest is a new cryptic species of robin of the genus Turdus that I actually collected in 1961 on my very first trip to Peru. Only recently did we begin to realize that there are two "brown" robins living together in western Amazonia and that they differ in vocalizations as well s in subtle coloration. We are working on the description! Our book on the birds of Peru should be out in August, so the next group that goes to Peru will have a really good book! - John O (I forgot to add that recent DNA studies show that the little Xenoglaux is indeed closely related to both Pygmy and Elf Owls-it's nice to be right!!)”