Ornithologists working in Oman say an owl discovered in a remote, mountainous region could be a new species. Wildlife sound-recordist Magnus Robb told BBC News that he heard the bird’s call whilst trying to record the call of another type of owl.
After repeated trips to the remote site, he and a colleague – naturalist and photographer Arnoud van den Berg – captured photographs of the bird. They have published their observations in the journal Dutch Birding.
Mr Robb’s first recordings of the bird’s unfamiliar hoot were a serendipitous discovery in March of this year. “I was listening through my headphones, when I suddenly heard something completely different [to the owl species I was there to record],” he told BBC News.
“I know the other Arabian owl sounds quite well, and this was clearly something that didn’t fit.” The bird call expert said he had a “good inkling straight away that this could be something new”. “I even phoned a colleague a few minutes later and said, ‘I think I’ve just discovered a new species of owl.”
Mr Robb, who is involved in an international project called the Sound Approach, which aims to catalogue and understand bird sound, analysed the owls’ call in detail. This revealed that the bird was most likely to belong to a genus, or group of species, known as Strix.
Dr Wesley Hochachka from Cornell University’s lab of ornithology commented that, in the last few decades, it had become “more accepted by ornithologists, particularly in tropical areas, that new species are being discovered based on distinctively different vocalisations”.
The team plans to gather DNA evidence from the owl’s feathers in order to confirm their find genetically. But Prof Ian Newton, a bird expert from the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said he found the evidence that the team had already provided convincing.
“Based on the recordings of songs and calls and on the good-quality photographs, I was also convinced that it should be placed within the genus Strix, which also contains the Tawny Owl of Britain and Europe,” he told BBC News.
Mr Robb said he hoped eventually to name the new species the Omani owl, in honour of the Omani people. “One of the reasons we’ve gone through this process of describing and confirming this as a new species so quickly is to get conservation for this owl as soon as possible,” he explained to BBC News.
“Conservation can only start when this species is accepted and given some official status.” He hopes to return to Oman later this year in to learn more about the owl, its habitat and its behaviour.
So far, he and and his colleagues have found only seven of the birds in a single wadi in the remote, mountainous area of Oman. “This suggests that it’s a very rare creature indeed,” he told BBC News.
This article was written by Victoria Gill for BBC News.