A scops-owl (Otus) discovered in the forests of Príncipe Island (Gulf of Guinea)

21 Jul 2016 - 13:00 -- José Luis Copete

In July 2016, an exploration in search of Otus owls on Príncipe Island by Philippe Verbelen confirmed the existence of what seems to be an undescribed species. Its possible existence on Príncipe was discussed previously by Melo and Dallimer in 2009 (Is there an undiscovered endemic scops owl Otus sp. on Principe Island? Malimbus 31: 109–115). They recorded the calls of what was probably a scops-owl, having the same frequency as the calls of other scops-owls, while being distinct from any known species. This, together with reports from parrot harvesters who saw, in tree holes, a bird whose description seemed like a small scops-owl Otus sp., suggested the presence of an undescribed species on Príncipe. However, it had not been observed by ornithologists, until now.
Verbelen saw at least two different birds, and was able to photograph both. He explored the same forest where Melo and Dallimer obtained their first recordings. With hard work and patience, Verbelen obtained good sound recordings of the scops-owl. Using his own recordings to lure the bird, he was fortunate to attract two birds, at very close range, only 3 m from him. The calls were heard at various locations indicating that the scops-owl is not uncommon in undisturbed forests.
This is the first confirmation of the presence of a scops-owl on Príncipe. The difference in vocalizations, when compared with those of the São Tomé Scops-owl (Otus hartlaubi), suggests it could be an undescribed species. Work is currently in progress to confirm, and eventually formally describe the bird, by a team comprising Philippe Verbelen, Martim Melo and George Sangster.