Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Friday, March 23, 2007


On August 23, 1976, researchers in a cloud forest in the Andes of Northern Peru mist-netted a tiny owl with naked legs and extremely long facial whiskers. The bird was unlike anything they had seen, and within a few months it was assigned to its own genus: Xenoglaux, or “strange owlet.” Over the next two decades, two more of these birds were trapped in the same area, but next to nothing was known about their natural history. I became fascinated with the Long-whiskered Owlet (X. loweryi), as the species became known, and traveled to the region in 1997, hoping to catch a glimpse it, or, more likely, hear its call. I experienced neither, but “La Lechucita Bigotona” retained its grip on my consciousness. The cloud forests of the northern Peruvian Yunga are very humid. Because of the altitude, the gnarled trees are not particularly dense or tall, so despite the rich growth of moss everywhere, there is a look of harshness about the place. Long-whiskered Owlets don't appear to be powerful fliers, and are thought to prefer clambering among the branches in search of insect prey. In 1999 I painted the above piece, based upon descriptions of study skins, showing X. loweryi scrambling beneath a towering Brassia orchid.

In the past few years, a bit more has been learned about Long-whiskered Owlets. The 1,500 ha Reserva Privada de Abra Patricia, in the Peruvian province of Bongara, was set aside two years ago to protect their imperiled and interesting ecosystem, and last month, David Geale and Juvenal Ccahuana, who have been monitoring the reserve, observed the birds in the wild for the first time. On three different occasions, the two encountered them during the day, and they've managed to record their calls many times. Geale and Ccahuana mist-netted the above individual, and took several good photographs of it. Judging from these photos, the eyes on my painting are not nearly red enough, the feet should be pinker, and the bill a bit longer. Aside from that, I feel okay about the piece. Hopefully, more information on the bird's behavior will be forthcoming. (Hat-tip: Suzanne Grow)
(UPDATE:) Filipe has a great post about Xenoglaux on Cais de Gaia, including excerpts (translated into Portuguese) from the original 1977 Auk paper by O'Neill & Graves. You may have trouble reading the Portuguese (as I did), but check out the B&W photos and the John O'Neill watercolor!
upper: LONG-WHISKERED OWLET (1999) acrylic 13" x 5"
lower: Photo of Xenoglaux loweryi by Asociación Ecosistemas Andinos (ECOAN)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fantastic painting. Thanks also for the amazing new photos. I wasn't aware of them.

From this bird I remembered the black and white photos from the 1977 Auk paper by O'Neill and Graves, and that in the watercolor by O'Neill its eyes were quite redish.

The local name is more colorful, "Mochuelo Peludo", the hairy owlet.

8:02 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Thanks, Filipe. I didn't remember that there was a watercolor in the Auk paper. I'll have to look it up again.

10:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just looked at it again to check the photos. I found something odd with the photo in your post, it looked very different from what I remembered. The one in the 1976 pictures looked fierce, this one looks shy and unhappy. Those were probably better times for these creatures.

6:05 PM  

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