Earlier this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service formally declared the ivory-billed woodpecker officially extinct. The ivory-bill is one of the most notorious birds in North America due to the mystical lore surrounding its very existence.
The decision was heavily scrutinized, and many bird aficionados were curious as to why the species was not declared extinct until 2021, even though the last confirmed sighting of the bird took place in 1944.
Well, the answer to that question is perfectly exemplified by the Shelley’s eagle owl.
No one had seen this owl species in more than 150 years until it was recently rediscovered and photographed by some British wildlife scientists. Now granted the deep, dark rainforests of Ghana are far more remote and inaccessible than even the most remote parts of the ivory-bill’s historical range, it’s still a great example of mother nature’s resilient secrecy.
According to Phys.org, the bird was rediscovered by Dr. Joseph Tobias, who works for the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College in London, and freelance ecologists Dr. Robert Williams. The two men are working together to study the ecological impacts of agricultural development in Africa.
Shelley’s eagle owl was first officially described as a unique species 1872 by Richard Bowdler Sharpe, who worked for the London Natural History Museum and founded the British Ornithologist’s Club. There have been no confirmed sightings of the bird since the 1870s and only a few unconfirmed sightings ever.
A captive-bred Shelley’s eagle owl persisted at the Antwerp Zoo into the 1970s. A grainy, pixelated photo from the Congo in 2005 led to speculation that the species was clinging to life in the most rugged wilds of Africa.
Much like the ivory-billed woodpecker, random reports over the last few decades would pop up, and people would report catching a glimpse of the birds across Africa from Liberia to Angola. However, none of the sightings were ever confirmed, and the Shelley’s eagle owl came to be considered the “holy grail” for bird watchers in Africa.
That all changed on October 16th, though, when Dr. Tobias and Dr. Williams were exploring the Atewa forest in Ghana. While hiking, they disturbed a bird off its roost and were immediately enthralled by its size. It was so big they thought it had to be an eagle.
But then, a better look revealed that it was actually a mystical eagle owl.
“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.
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 ridge-top forests of Eastern Region is a huge surprise.”
Even though they only saw the bird for about 10-15 seconds, they were able to get clear enough photographs to confirm the bird’s identity thanks to its distinctive yellow bill and huge size, which in combination rule out all other African forest owls.
Because so little is known about the bird, it’s officially classified as vulnerable to extinction, and although there are an estimated few thousand of the birds left in the wild, no one really knew for sure if they still existed until the recent photographs were taken.
The men who spotted the bird are hopeful that its rediscovery will improve wildlife conservation efforts in the Atewa forest and Ghana at large.
“We hope this sighting draws attention to Atewa forest and its importance for conserving local biodiversity. Hopefully, the discovery of such a rare and magnificent owl will boost these efforts to save one of the last wild forests in Ghana.”