When Dr. Joseph Tobias saw how big the bird which had just flown over his head was, he had just assumed it was an eagle. After all, no other bird in Ghana could be so large.
He was wrong. The Imperial College researcher and his colleague were the first to see a Shelley’s eagle owl in the wilds of Ghana since the 1870s—and the first ever to produce a clear photograph of one of the world’s largest owls.
Dr. Tobias said of the special moment, “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. Robert Williams, a freelance ecologist, was with Tobias in the moment, and the two took photographs of the bird which remained only for 10-15 seconds.
Fortunately the photos clearly displayed its yellow beak, huge stature, and black eyes—a combination which ruled out all other African forest owls.
Listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN, the Shelley’s eagle owl is estimated to exist in numbers of only around 1,500 to 7,000—it’s difficult to get exact figures as it’s notoriously reclusive.
Dr. Nathaniel Annorbah, University of Environment and Sustainable Development of Ghana, celebrated the sighting. “This is a sensational discovery,” he was quoted as saying. “We’ve been searching for this mysterious bird for years in the western lowlands, so to find it here in ridge top forests of Eastern Region is a huge surprise.”
Tobias and Williams found the bird in the Atewa Forest Reserve, a biodiverse area that is now receiving calls to be turned into a national park after the sighting.
“We hope this sighting draws attention to Atewa forest and its importance for conserving local biodiversity,” Dr. Williams said in a 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.”