Extremely Rare Shelley’s Eagle Owl Photographed in Wild for First Time

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The Shelley’s eagle owl (Bubo shelleyi) was photographed by Imperial College London researcher Joseph Tobias and freelance ecologist Robert Williams on October 16, 2021 in Ghana.

The Shelley’s eagle owl (Bubo shelleyi). Image credit: Robert Williams.

The Shelley’s eagle owl (Bubo shelleyi). Image credit: Robert Williams.

The Shelley’s eagle owl is a large species of owl found in the rainforests of Central and Western Africa.

This nocturnal bird is among the largest owls and the less studied bird species in the world.

It measures between 53 and 61 cm (21-24 inches) in length and weighs over 1 kg.

The Shelley’s eagle owl was first described in 1872 from a specimen obtained from a local hunter in Ghana by Richard Bowdler Sharpe, curator of the bird collection at the Natural History Museum in London and founder of the British Ornithologists’ Club.

There have been no confirmed sightings from Ghana since the 1870s, and very few glimpses elsewhere.

The only photographs in existence were grainy images taken in 1975 of a captive individual behind bars at Antwerp Zoo and a pixelated blob from Congo in 2005 that is not certainly the right species.

There have been occasional reports over recent decades from people believing they have heard or briefly seen Shelley’s Eagle Owl from a few different localities across West and Central Africa from Liberia to Angola.

Most of these sightings are unconfirmed, and the species has become a holy grail for birdwatchers in Africa and beyond.

This all changed on October 16, 2021, when Dr. Tobias and Dr. Williams visited Atewa forest in Ghana and disturbed a huge bird from its daytime roost.

“It was so large, at first we thought it was an eagle. 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,” Dr. Tobias said.

The researchers only saw the Shelley’s eagle owl perched for 10-15 seconds but in that time managed to take photographs that confirm the identification due to its distinctive black eyes, yellow bill, and huge size, which in combination rule out all other African forest owls.

The fact that a predator of such massive size had become essentially invisible over a large swathe of Africa fuelled speculation as to its current whereabouts and reasons for its apparent rarity.

“This is a sensational discovery. 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,” said Dr. Nathaniel Annorbah, a researcher at the University of Environment and Sustainable Development in Ghana.

“We hope this sighting draws attention to Atewa forest and its importance for conserving local biodiversity,” Dr. Williams said.

“Hopefully, the discovery of such a rare and magnificent owl will boost these efforts to save one of the last wild forests in Ghana.”

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