A giant owl that hasn’t been seen in the wild in 150 years has finally been spotted in a rainforest in Ghana — raising hopes for the survival of the vulnerable species.
The Shelley’s eagle-owl was sighted in the Atewa forest on October 16 by Imperial College London biologist Joseph Tobias and freelance ecologist Robert Williams.
Last definitively seen in Ghana in the 1870s — the same year it was first described — the nocturnal owl has become something of a ‘Holy Grail’ for birdwatchers in Africa.
While there have been many alleged sightings in the past few decades in Central and West Africa and as far afield as Angola and Liberia, all have been unconfirmed.
More often reported as being heard than seen, the Shelley’s eagle-owl is said to make a distinctive ‘kooouw’ sound that is higher in pitch that the calls of similar owls.
The only known certain photographs of the bird are grainy images taken of a captive specimen kept behind bars in Belgium’s Antwerp Zoo back in 1975.
Meanwhile, some have claimed a 2005 photograph taken in the Congo shows a more recent specimen — but the image is said to be too pixelated to be sure.
Given its scarcity — with an estimated population of only a few thousand individuals — the Shelley’s Eagle Owl is considered to be vulnerable to extinction.
Formal name: Bubo shelleyi
Locality: Central & Western Africa
Body size: 21–24 inches
Wing chord (length): 16.5–19.4 inches
Weight: in excess of 2.7 lbs
The researchers — who are in Ghana studying the biological impacts of agricultural development in Africa as part of a UK Government-funded project — spotted the owl when they accidentally disturbed the bird from its daytime roost.
‘It was so large, at first we thought it was an eagle,’ said Dr Tobias said.
‘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.’
While the owl only perched still for 10–15 seconds before flying away, the pair succeeded in take photographs from which the species could be confirmed.
They can be sure that the bird was indeed Shelley’s eagle-owl thanks to its distinguishing combination of distinctive black eyes, yellow bill, large size and barred patterning.
‘This is a sensational discovery,’ said biodiversity expert Nathaniel Annorbah of Ghana’s University of Environment and Sustainable Development.
‘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 Shelley’s eagle-owl was first described in 1872 by noted British ornithologist Richard Bowdler Sharpe — curator of the Natural History Museum in London’s bird collection — after acquiring a specimen from a local hunter in Ghana.
Environmental groups including the ‘Friends of Atewa’ have called for the forest to be designated as a national park, as to ensure its protection.
Atewa is threatened by both illegal logging and mining for bauxite — used in the production of aluminium — although areas at higher elevations presently still support large areas of evergreen forest.
‘We hope this sighting draws attention to Atewa forest and its importance for conserving local biodiversity,’ said Dr Williams.
‘Hopefully, the discovery of such a rare and magnificent owl will boost these efforts to save one of the last wild forests in Ghana,’ he concluded.