An easy way to find and identify a bird species is to listen to their unique calls. But Otus Brookii has not been observed by scientists since 1892, and its cry is unknown, making it harder to find. Researchers first documented Otus Brookii in a study published last month in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology.
Andy Boyce, an ecologist at the Smithsonian Center for Migratory Birds, looks at and photographs the owl in Sabah, Malaysia, in May 2016. Boyce was studying for a Ph.D. at the University of Montana to study the performance of different birds at different altitudes. The phenomenon was rediscovered during a 10-year study of bird evolution in the Kinabalu Mountains forest, in collaboration with residents, Sabah Park officials, and several people from the Indigenous community.
Boyce received a text message from Keegan Tranquillo, now a field biologist at the Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico, while safely capturing and measuring songbirds. Tranquillo first spotted the bird and quickly alerted Boyce to a strange owl with orange eyes.
In this dark corner with a lot of vegetation, the owl flew out and landed, Tranquillo said. When he was watching the owl, it flew away but soon returned to the shadows.
Although Boyce did not actively search for the owl during the study, he immediately thought of Otus Brookii after reading the information. Boyce hurried along a path to where the owls lived.
“If we hadn’t recorded it right away, the bird might have disappeared again, and no one knows how long it would have disappeared, ” says Boyce. It was a very rapid emotional development. When I tried to get there, there was nervousness and anticipation, hoping that the bird was still there. When I first saw the bird and realized what it was, I was very excited and a little disbelieving.
Boyce suspects Otus Brookii hasn’t been around for a long time because of its low population density. Researchers aren’t sure where the bird’s core habitat is, leaving them with little idea where to find the owl. Even if scientists knew where to look, the owl’s tendency to go nocturnal could make the animal harder to spot. Since the bird was never caught, researchers were unable to conduct long-term observational studies or collect blood samples for genetic analysis.
While trying not to disturb or scare the owl, Boyce and other researchers meticulously filmed and recorded the wonderful sight. According to Boyce, the owl itself is about 25 percent larger than the average owl found in the area. Although a living specimen will help determine its size, scientists believe Otus Brookii weighs about 100 grams, based on the circumstances of his next of kin.
Boyce went to see the owl several nights a week for nearly two weeks, but he could no longer find it. It is especially challenging not to be able to call it with the sound of a bird. The standard procedure is to get researchers to listen to it at night in potential habitats. Understanding the sound of an owl can also help researchers understand whether the owl is a unique species.