Twitchers flock to Orkney as rare owl sighted

A RARE owl has flown hundreds of miles off course and into Orkney, prompting global birdwatchers to flock to the islands.
Scops owls are very rare with very few sightings occuring in Britain over the last 100 years.  Picture: Neil HannaScops owls are very rare with very few sightings occuring in Britain over the last 100 years.  Picture: Neil Hanna
Scops owls are very rare with very few sightings occuring in Britain over the last 100 years. Picture: Neil Hanna

The Eurasian scops owl normally locates itself in the Mediterranean in the spring, but has somehow overshot the landing and touched down in Orkney for only the second time ever, with the last visit being more than 120 years ago.

The species is usually found in southern and eastern Europe and north Africa, but birdwatchers from far and wide have been arriving on the islands since it was spotted.

It was first seen on North Ronaldsay on Saturday.

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The North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory said the only previous record of the species on the island was well over a century ago, when one was captured at the lighthouse on 2 June, 1892.

It is one of the few times in over a century that a live scops owl has been recorded in Britain in a “watchable position”, according to experts.

Most of the other ten sightings since 2000 have either been brief or of dead birds.

However, in 2004, a scops owl turned up on an oil platform in the Forties field.

It was captured and later released at the Loch of Strathbeg in Aberdeenshire.

At North Ronaldsay observatory a spokesman said: “The phones were ringing just after 6:30am when a magnificent scops owl was disturbed from its roost in Holland House gardens.”

He said it returned to the gardens’ sycamore trees and was left in peace, hidden from view because of its colouring, which is similar to the tree trunks.

The spokesman added: “We last saw the owl overnight on Sunday and it was feeding on insects, mainly beetles and moths. We assume it is back roosting. They blend in very well with the tree trunks.”

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He added: “It’s been a great spring on the island and this fantastic little bird puts the icing on a very fine chocolate cake.

“We get a lot of migrant birds and this is a spring overshot, moving north through Africa. Normally it would have been heading to the Med.

“He basically flew too far. We had southerly winds recently. Once he was lost over the North Sea, the first piece of land they see is where they drop.”

He said birdwatchers from around the globe have been in touch since news broke and many were now arriving on the islands.

There have been 81 recordings of scops owls in Britain, and 53 of these have been since 1900 – only ten since 2000.

The most recent accepted record is from St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly, in March 2012. And the most-watched bird of recent years was at Thrupp, Oxfordshire, which was present in 2006 and returned in 2007.

The only other “gettable” scops owl this century, according to experts, was in 2002 in Cornwall. All the other recent birds have been brief or dead and at inaccessible locations.

The European scops owl, otus scops, also known as the Eurasian scops owl or just scops owl, is a small owl.

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The species is a part of the larger grouping of owls known as typical owls, strigidae, which contains most species of owl. The other grouping is the barn owls, tytonidae.

The scops owl breeds in southern Europe eastwards into western and central Asia.

It is migratory, wintering in southernmost Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. It is rare any distance north of its breeding range, usually occurring as a spring overshoot.