It has been an elusive creature, in Oman at least, since it was first identified two years ago.
But now it seems that the Omani Owl is not a new species after all but a descendant of a strain of bird first discovered 135 years ago.
To help solve the tawny mystery and arrive at the conclusion announced this week, some skillful ornithological detective work and clever technology was needed.
It all began back in 2013 when British ornithologist Magnus Robb first discovered the Omani Owl during a trip to Jebel Akhdar to record bird song. An unfamiliar hoot, something he had never heard before, reached his ears.
“I know the other Arabian owls’ sounds quite well and this was clearly something that didn’t fit. I had a good inkling straight away that this could be something new,” Robb said at the time. Using only sound recordings and photographs, the experts concluded that they had found a new species, a bird the size of a barn owl, and named it strix omanensis.
Their find – and the extraordinary thought that such a large bird had evaded discovery for so long – created quite a stir among bird experts and biologists.
But to be sure, Robb and his colleagues from The Sound Approach, a UK independent publishing company set up to popularise bird song, needed to examine the bird’s DNA and for that, they needed a live specimen.
The team struck lucky. On March 2 this year, they finally caught an Omani Owl on the Green Mountain using a special net, recordings of several CD tracks of an owl hoot and a decoy owl. After taking measurements, feathers, blood samples, photographs and more sound recordings, the bird was set free.
What their data proved is that strix omanensis is not a new species but is, in fact, a “rediscovery” of an owl species known as strix butleri, which was said to be from Pakistan with the only known example being a rather tatty old specimen in the Natural History Museum at Tring in the UK. Furthermore, it seems the “Omani Owl” has a bigger range than first thought.
A bird trapped in Mashhad in northeast Iran in January this year is the same species, while the same owl was also discovered in mountains in the UAE on March 8 this year.
“Robb is delighted that his discovery in 2013 has led to a great increase in knowledge,” said George Sangster, a colleague from The Sound Approach who co-wrote a paper on the latest find. “Indeed, more has been learned about the Omani Owl during the last two to three years than in the 130 years preceding it. We hope this continues to snowball and leads to further discoveries.”