In fact, there have been no confirmed photographs of the species taken in the wild since scientists first catalogued its existence 150 years ago. Until now. British scientists snapped a photo of the elusive bird on October 16, Imperial College London announced in a press release.
“It was so large, at first we thought it was an eagle,” Dr. Joseph Tobias of Imperial College London said in the press release. “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.”
Tobias was working with freelance ecologist Dr. Robert Williams when the pair startled the bird in Ghana’s Atewa forest. They only saw the bird for 10 to 15 seconds, but the photographs were enough to confirm its identity. The sighting is a big deal because the owl has rarely been spotted since it was first described in 1872 by Natural History Museum in London curator Richard Bowdler Sharpe. Sharpe described the bird based on a specimen from a local hunter in Ghana. However, until now, it had not been conclusively spotted in the West African nation since the 1870s.
There have been some sightings in other countries, and, in recent decades, there have been reports from people claiming to have seen or heard the bird in West or Central Africa. There have also only been a few poor-quality photographs of the bird ever taken.
Some grainy photographs of a captive Shelley’s eagle owl were snapped at an Antwerp zoo in 1975. A very pixelated photograph was also taken of a bird that might be Shelley’s eagle owl in Congo in 2005.
“This is a sensational discovery,” Dr. Nathaniel Annorbah of the University of Environment and Sustainable Development, Ghana said in the press release. “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.”
Shelley’s eagle owl can grow to be around two feet, according to HuffPost. It has a distinct physical appearance, with black eyes and a yellow bill, the press release described. The rare species is considered vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, which estimates that there are between 1,500 and 7,000 adult individuals in the wild. The species’ population is decreasing, and the main threat to its survival is the deforestation of its forest habitat for logging and agriculture. Hunting may also reduce the food sources available to it.
The bird’s vulnerable status means the new photograph could be important from a conservation perspective. Atewa Range Forest Reserve, where the bird was photographed, is an important biodiversity hotspot but is also under threat from illegal logging and bauxite mining, according to the press release. The bird’s presence there could boost calls from groups like Friends of Atewa to turn it into a national park.
“We hope this sighting draws attention to Atewa forest and its importance for conserving local biodiversity,” Williams said in the release. “Hopefully, the discovery of such a rare and magnificent owl will boost these efforts to save one of the last wild forests in Ghana.”