[Update: IFLScience was contacted by Dr Alex Kirschel regarding the sighting from the Congo in 2005 who says that a positive ID of a Shelley's eagle owl was made by the expert in African ornithology, along with a team of international ornithologists, but they could not get a high quality photo.]
The Shelley’s eagle owl (Bubo shelleyi) swooped back into the public eye this week after a 150-year hiatus, making its long-awaited appearance in Ghana. The species, dubbed the “holy grail” of giant owls, has evidently been lurking in the shadows of African rainforests for the last 150 years, having not been formally sighted since the 1870s. While this isn’t to say it hasn’t been spotted by human eyes in that time, this particular sighting is of significance as it gave scientists the opportunity to conduct an impromptu photoshoot with glowing results.
Though large, these birds are well camouflaged for arboreal life and so it would still have been easy to miss. Thankfully, this particular individual didn’t go unnoticed by Dr Joseph Tobias from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, and freelance ecologist Dr Robert Williams, who managed to secure a fitting profile shot.
“It was so large, at first we thought it was an eagle,” Dr Tobias said in a statement. “Luckily it perched on a low branch and when we lifted our binoculars our jaws dropped. There is no other owl in Africa’s rainforests that big.”
The only photographs known to have been obtained of the species other than this one include some grainy shots of a captive bird taken in 1975 at Antwerp Zoo, and a blurry photo captured in Congo back in 2005.
The bird's enormous size stands in stark contrast to the stack of data surrounding the species, which is very small indeed. First described in 1872, there have been a sparse number of unconfirmed sightings, as well as some suspecting they’d heard the bird’s call, but this latest appearance will no doubt be considered a very exciting sighting among the birding community.
“This is a sensational discovery,” said Dr Nathaniel Annorbah of the University of Environment and Sustainable Development, Ghana. “We’ve been searching for this mysterious bird for years in the western lowlands, so to find it here in ridgetop forests of Eastern Region is a huge surprise.”
The photo was able to confirm the Shelley’s eagle owl’s identity owing to the bird exhibiting its characteristic features, which include distinctive black eyes, a yellow bill, and its enormous size. The species is currently considered to be vulnerable to extinction, with its key threats including habitat degradation due to human activity. With a population that’s estimated to sit at just a few thousand members, conservationists hope the owl’s latest appearance will motivate fresh efforts to save the species.
On the subject of big owls, did you hear about Gladys, the escapee Eurasian eagle owl, who broke out of Minnesota Zoo?