A new owl recently found in Oman seems to also be a lovebird: It sings a tune that sounds a lot like the song “Here Comes the Bride.”
The small owl, with orange eyes and gray and tan mottled feathers, is tentatively named Strix omanensis, according to Magnus Robb, one of the owl’s discoverers.
Robb and his colleagues are with The Sound Approach, a British company founded by Lush Cosmetics CEO Mark Constantine that is devoted to “turning bird watchers into bird listeners.”
The group was in the Al Hajar Mountains in northeastern Oman in late March to record songs of existing owls for a CD to accompany an upcoming book on the owls of Europe, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula (also known as the Western Palearctic).
One of the last birds they needed to record was the pallid scops-owl, Otus brucei. After five nights of searching, they finally scored a high-quality recording of the animal. Robb walked over to the tree where he had hidden the microphone when he heard something in the distance. (Watch owl videos.)
“I had put on the headphones to check the recording and heard this mystery bird for the first time. I was really taken by surprise. I couldn’t even tell where the owl was,” Robb said.
“Like Nothing Else in Arabia”
The initial song Robb captured was faint and not the high-quality recording he knew he would need to make a definitive identification. So his team returned to the same wadi in Oman where they first heard the call over the following months. Finally, with the right equipment in the right location, Robb caught the call clearly. (See a picture of a strange owl.)
It sounded a bit like the tune from “Here Comes the Bride,” he said: who … who … whowho.
“It’s a distinctive sound, like nothing else in Arabia.”
This unusual song was an indication that he was listening to a new species. The songs and calls of owls, Robb explained, are innate. Unlike songbirds, which learn their calls by copying other birds and even “borrowing” parts from other species, an owl’s song is inbred.
“Any major variation from the known is likely to indicate a new or unknown species,” he said. (See National Geographic’s birds of prey pictures.)
In nocturnal species like owls, identifying a unique song or call is often crucial to the discovery of a new species, since it’s often difficult to visually spot the bird.
Robb, who prefers to study nocturnal birds, knows the challenge well. Although his team at the Sound Approach had recorded the potentially new species, they had never seen it.
When they tried to spot it using flashlights, the owl usually flew off before they could snap its photo. Finally, after many nights, they caught it on film.
If the discovery holds up, the owl will be the first new bird species discovered on the Arabian Peninsula in more than three-quarters of a century.
Tell us: Does it sound like “Here Comes the Bride?”