Enormous Owl Finally Photographed After Eluding Ecologists for 150 Years

An enormous owl that has eluded researchers for around 150 years has finally been photographed in the wild in Ghana.

The owl in question is a Shelley's Eagle Owl—an animal desperately sought after by birdwatchers since reports of sightings have often been unconfirmed.

No such confirmed reports have emerged from Ghana since the 1870s when it was first described, and only glimpses have been caught elsewhere, according to Imperial College London (ICL).

This changed last week, when two researchers snapped a crystal-clear shot of the bird perched on a branch in Ghana's Atewa forest.

It was found by Joseph Tobias from the Department of Life Sciences at ICL and Robert Williams, a freelance ecologist.

"There is no other owl in Africa's rainforests that big," said Tobias in a press release, adding that the two researchers' jaws dropped when they lifted their binoculars to spot the elusive owl.

Luckily they gathered themselves together in time to take a photo, since the bird took off a mere 10 to 15 seconds later.

It shows the bird with its head rotated around 180 degrees, appearing to look directly at the camera. The photo can be seen below.

Shelley's Eagle Owl
A photo of the Shelley's Eagle Owl taken by the ecologists. Credit to Dr Robert Williams. Dr Robert Williams

The clarity of the photo is significant according to ICL. It described a previous image, taken in 1975 at Antwerp zoo, as "grainy," and another "from Congo in 2005 as certainly not the right species."

Other times people claim to have seen or heard a Shelley's Eagle Owl in various locations across Africa, but these reports tend to be unconfirmed, ICL added.

The bird is one of the most poorly known owls in Africa. Its ecology and behavior, for example, are largely unknown according to Bird Life International.

What researchers do know is that the bird is huge, with dark eyes and dark brown upper parts, according to eBird.

In an ICL press release, Nathaniel Annorbah from the University of Environment and Sustainable Development in Ghana said Tobias and Williams' discovery was "sensational," adding: "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."

According to Bird Life International, Shelley's Eagle Owl is listed as vulnerable with its decline in part due to the clearance of its habitat by humans. It's thought there are less than 10,000 individuals in the wild.

ICL states that environmental groups are lobbying for the Atewa forest in Ghana, where the owl was recently pictured, to be turned into a national park and protected.

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."

UPDATE 10/25/21 7:06 a.m. ET: This article was updated to include a new photo.