Shelley’s eagle-owl shows its face in Atewa Forest after 150 years

The Shelley’s eagle-owl was sighted in Atewa Forest on 16 October by Joseph Tobias, a biologist from Imperial College London, and the freelance ecologist Robert Williams

A giant owl that has not 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 Atewa Forest on 16 October by the biologist Joseph Tobias of Imperial College London and the freelance ecologist Robert Williams.

Last definitively seen in Ghana in the 1870s – the same decade it was first described in Western published guides – the nocturnal owl has become something of a “Holy Grail” for birdwatchers in Africa.

Although 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 the grainy images taken of a captive specimen kept behind bars at Antwerp Zoo in Belgium back in 1975. Some have claimed that a 2005 photograph taken in Congo shows a more recent specimen, but the image is said to be too pixellated to be sure.

Disturbed in the daytime

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.

A giant owl that hasn't been sighted in the wild in 150 years has been spotted in a rainforest in Ghana — raising hopes for the vulnerable species' survival. Pictured: the Shelley's eagle-owl

Shelley’s eagle-owl

Formal name:  Bubo shelleyi
Locality Central and Western Africa
Body size:  21–24 inches
Wing chord (length):  16.5–19.4 inches
Weight > 2.7lbs

The researchers, who are in Ghana studying the biological impact of agricultural development in Africa under 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,” 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.”

Although the owl perched still for just 10-15 seconds before flying away, the pair succeeded in taking 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 the biodiversity expert Nathaniel Annorbah of the University of Environment and Sustainable Development in Ghana. “We’ve been searching for this mysterious bird for years in the western lowlands, so to find it here in the ridgetop forests of the Eastern Region is a huge surprise.”

Shelley’s eagle-owl was first described in 1872 by the noted British ornithologist Richard Bowdler Sharpe, the then curator of the London Natural History Museum’s bird collection, after he acquired a specimen from a hunter.

Environmental groups, including the “Friends of Atewa”, have called for the forest to be designated as a national park so 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 still support large areas of evergreen forest at present.

“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,” he said.

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