An extremely rare owl with bright orange eyes that hadn’t been seen in more than a hundred years has been rediscovered in Malaysia. Named Otus brookii brookii, it is a Bornean subspecies of the Rajah scops owl. Scientists last witnessed this owl back in 1892 and nobody knows what type of songs or sounds/calls it makes.
The rediscovery of the owl occurred in May of 2016 but the study was just recently published in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology. It was witnessed and photographed in Sabah, Malaysia by Andy Boyce who is an ecologist from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. He worked with locals, people from several Indigenous communities, and officials from Sabah Park.
The owl was found in the forests of Mount Kinabalu as explained by Keegan Tranquillo, who is now a field biologist at Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico, “Out of this dark corner where there was a lot of vegetation, this owl flew out and it landed.” It ended up flying away but amazingly, it returned to the exact same spot so it could be photographed. “If we didn’t document it right then and there, this bird could disappear again for who knows how long,” Boyce stated.
While observing it, Boyce noticed that the Otus brookii brookii is approximately 25% bigger than other owls that live around the same area. Another major difference is that this specific species has gray, black, and dark brown coloring (quite different in comparison to the reddish color that other local owls have). Additionally, it has piercing-bright orange eyes. Since Boyce couldn’t get too close to it, he couldn’t get exact measurements, but based on data collected on its closest relatives, the owl could weigh about 100 grams (3.5 ounces).
Boyce returned to the area where he made the sighting each day for nearly two weeks (and some nights) but he didn’t see the owl again. It’s still unclear as to how many of these owls are around because nobody had documented it in over a century except for Boyce and his colleagues but that was only one time. And the fact that they are nocturnal creatures and their sounds are unknown makes it even harder to spot them.
Ornithologist John Mittermeier, who is the director of the threatened species outreach at the American Bird Conservancy, noted, “[It] makes you wonder what’s going on here. What is the bird? Perhaps it’s an elevational migrant and it’s not usually found in this area, or it happened to be wandering around and just showed up in this spot.”
The fact that the owl was seen and photographed means that it still exists which is very exciting and incredibly important. The photo that Boyce took of the Otus brookii brookii can be seen here.