Rajah Scops Owl: Malaysian Mega

Steve BrennerBird Sightings, Rarities, ScienceLeave a Comment

Rare birds are cool. This much we know. But what happens when a rare bird transitions from a neat stroke of birding luck to a downright biological discovery? That’s when the real fun begins and we get to go beyond birding.

When migratory birds turn up in places they are not supposed to be, everyone gets jazzed to see it and you have a limited time to chase it before it bails on you. What about rare, potentially unknown resident birds? Does such a species still exist? Well, the tropics are just a place for crazy species, and every so often a bird turns up that is essentially ‘new’ to an area or ‘new’ to our knowledge base (despite the fact that a population has probably been there all along).

On May 4th, 2016, researchers from the University of Montana found such a crazy-cool tropical bird. Keegan Tranquillo discovered a live Rajah Scops Owl (Otus brooki brooki) in Mount Kinabalu Park in Bornean Malaysia. The ID was confirmed by Andy Boyce, and then he also got the first confirmed photos of a live individual in Borneo. The history of this species in Borneo is crazy, and also rather scant. Enjoy this rare glimpse of a wonderful organism.

Rajah Scops Owl. First confirmed photo of this species alive in Borneo. Photo by Andy Boyce (Kinabalu Park, May 2016).

Rajah Scops Owl. First confirmed photo of this species alive in Borneo. Photo by Andy Boyce (Kinabalu Park, May 2016).

Rajah Scops Owl. Photo by Andy Boyce (Kinabalu Park, May 2016)

Rajah Scops Owl. Orange iris, grey bill, and white edged tufts distinguish this bird from other scops owls that could occur at this elevation. Photo by Andy Boyce (Kinabalu Park, May 2016)

More from Andy Boyce:

The last confirmed live bird was collected in 1892 at 2000m on G. Dulit, and there was a dead bird found at Kinabalu (~1900m) in 1986. There is a photo from 2014, but with no location or date provided. This is the first confirmed live sighting since the 1890s, and only the third or fourth confirmed record for the whole island ever. This species is likely very rare to begin with, and also likely to occur at elevations that are rarely accessible to birders (1100m – 1400m, 2000m-3000m).

And for those taxonomist buffs out there:

“The big upshot is that given that most sister taxa that occur in montane areas of Sumatra and Borneo are separate species, the Bornean taxon of Rajah Scops is likely a good species and a new Bornean endemic.”

For those keeping score at home: First confirmed photo, first confirmed live sighting in 100 years, and likely a new endemic for the island. Rock on, Rajah Scops, rock on.