Eurasian Scops Owl on Fair Isle: 30th July 2003

Eurasian Scops Owl: Fair Isle, Shetland. (Photo: Deryk Shaw) Eurasian Scops Owl: Fair Isle, Shetland. (Photo: Deryk Shaw)

The routine midsummer early afternoon trap round by the Fair Isle wardening staff on 30th July instantly became anything but routine with the discovery of a Eurasian Scops Owl at the Plantation. Being late summer, with few other migrants evident apart from a few passage waders in the southwesterly winds, this was most unexpected to say the least. The bird was trapped in the Heligoland trap at the Plantation and taken back to the observatory for processing, whereupon it was aged as an adult, probably an adult male from measurements. As the photos of the bird show it was a typical red rather than grey adult (as almost all recent ones in Britain have been). It was released safely back into the Plantation where it remained throughout the rest of the afternoon but it could not be located there in the evening and was not present during a subsequent search on the morning of the 31st.

This was, somewhat surprisingly, the first record for Fair Isle of the species and was perhaps long overdue there with most British records being from the Northern Isles as well as from southwest England. The unusual date of occurrence (possibly only the second one ever found in July in Britain) could perhaps be explained away by the fact that this spring one was at Northdale on Unst (Shetland) on 23rd-25th May – could it have gone undetected as it spent the summer somewhere else on Shetland? This theory that the two Shetland records this year could relate to the same bird is perhaps not as far-fetched as it may first appear when the pattern of occurrence of the species in Britain is analysed and when previous Northern Isles records are also considered.

There are 91 accepted records of Eurasian Scops Owl in Britain and Ireland up to the end of 2001. Most of these (65 records) occurred prior to 1958, with the decline in records coinciding with the species contracting range within Europe. There are two peaks of occurrence: in spring from March-May and in the autumn from September-November. Most records are assumed to result from southern populations, especially in spring, despite the fact that eastern populations are very long-distance migrants. The two Shetland records this year are the 26th and 27th records for Scotland with 16 of the previous 25 having been on the Northern Isles (nine on Shetland and seven on Orkney). In line with possible over-summering this year, one attempted to over-summer on Orkney on Papa Westray in 1985. This bird was present from 24th June-11th July before being found dead on the 12th. The Orkney individual was one of the very few 'twitchable' birds in Britain. Others were singles in Cornwall in 1995 and 2002, the famously released bird in Renfrewshire in 1998 and the most famous one of all, in Hampshire in 1980. The latter was a calling male in Dummer from 12th May–14th July and this is the one that resides on most "old" twitchers' lists despite somewhat unfounded rumours that it may have been an escape.

Written by: Angus Murray