Britain’s next?!

Pygmy Owl: heading in the direction of the UK.

by Nils

Less than 10 years ago, Pygmy Owl was a dream-on-babe-bird in the Netherlands. Although the species was known to breed increasingly closer and numerous to the border in Germany, many Dutch birders where still surprised when the first one for their country was reported. That probable window victim was picked up, presumed to be a Little Owl and photographed. It recovered in minutes and flew away; months later it was re-indentified as Pygmy Owl on the pics… intriguingly it was in the north of the country.

Nearly juvenile Pygmy Owl, Friesland, Netherlands, 2nd August 2012. photo by Ruurd Jelle van der Leij.

After that first record things goes fast with Pygmy Owls in the Netherlands and last Thursday the 2nd of August, the 7th Dutch record was a fact. And a bizarre record it was! Ruurd Jelle van der Leij and Mark de Vries were busy on a bird-photography-day along the north coast of Friesland. At the end of the day they returned to the pier of Holwerd to try on Little Terns again. While driving over the road, which is actually situated IN the Waddensee, they passed a tiny piece of ‘something’ at the roadside. It could be anything; a piece of paper, a cola tin, even a bird. So they stopped, looked back with their bins and saw… a Pygmy Owl! This dead end road in the Waddensee is surrounded by salt-marsh land, a land-winning project (land-winning from the sea is so typical Dutch; give them the job, and they drain the North Sea between the UK and the Netherlands…). Trees are far away and very few on the neighbouring mainland too. The bird looked weakened and could be approached very closely until it flew off surprisingly healthy, to the dead end of the road. Thorough searches did not result in the re-finding of the bird.

I think it is fair to say that our Pygmy Owls are most likely come from the expanding German population, and not (directly) from Scandinavia. According to BWP and the EBCC Atlas of European Breeding Birds, first year birds are prone to dispersing. Nevertheless a youngster in August on a place still far from the known breeding range and away from any trees along the edge of the sea is still a great surprise! It also gives rise to the speculation if the species is actually already breeding much closer, even IN the Netherlands?? If not yet, it would not surprise me if it will do in the near future.

Nearly juvenile Pygmy Owl, Friesland, Netherlands, 2nd August 2012. photo by Ruurd Jelle van der Leij.

This little fellow looks indeed right for a youngster with its pure brown and fluffy nature of most of the plumage, lack of clear barring on the flank and only very few pale spots on the crown. Note that it has started to moult the inner coverts which are clearly more grey.

Six out of seven of our records are now in the (far) north and last Oct one was even found in the northern tip of Texel. Quite hilarious the Texel-bird was accidently photographed by someone at one of the islands hotspots for vagrants, during a busy day with birders. Later that day the photographer met some of the birders and asked him, showing the back of his camera: ‘I guess this is a Little Owl I photographed this morning…?’ The bird was never seen again. Several birders had passed the place where the owl was photographed that morning. One of my best birding-friends told me that he had stopped by a bush were he dreamt: ‘how should a Pygmy Owl look like here…’. We now know, that was THE bush, so perhaps the bird was looking at him at that moment!

That Texel-bird had only to jump over the North Sea to reach Norfolk…, but is it capable of that? Anyway, if the expanding of the population from east to west continued, more individuals will arrive and stop or not(!) on our north(west)-coast. Our lesson: watch out for claims of extremely fearless ‘Little Owls’ on strange places, or quotes on the internet like: ‘funny confiding tiny owl photographed’….

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4 Responses to Britain’s next?!

  1. Jan Bisschop says:

    ‘and not (directly) from Scandinavia’… Actually, the Texel bird (14/10/2011) was seen in the week with an all-time record of caught Pygmy Owls in the southern tip of Norway (Lista): !
    who knows what Pygmy Owls are capable of doing……

  2. Hans Pohlmann says:

    Three years ago, a few members of the Dutch Tengmalm Owl Study Group visited the Luneburger Heide, Germany (just south of Hamburg) ts see Tengmalms, but we also swa Pygmy Owls. I still recall the remarks of the German birders saying ” We now have 75 pairs in this area, but three years before we didn’t know they were here”. Due to the secretive nature of this species (which nutcase goes into the woods at dusk on a freezing February-day?) they were overlooked. This behaviour, the sightings in the north of the Netherlands and the confirmed breeding records just 25 km east of the border, got me convinced Pygmy Owls breed in the Netherlands. Despite quite intensive searching we havent’n been able to find them, but I think this is just a matter of time. And if our story is similar to that of the German birders, the UK isn’t that far…..

  3. Thanks guys, I think the UK birders will take the post much more serious now!

  4. Paul Doherty says:

    The records from Lista are interesting, but it is on the mainland. The bird observatories at Utsira (8 km off the coast of SW Norway) and Helgoland (40 km off the German coast) have never had a single record of Pygmy Owl in a combined total of over 200 years of observations.

    Both Utsira and Helgoland have had multiple occurences of Tengmalm’s Owl, which is itself a very rare bird in the UK. That seems to suggest that Pygmy Owls are significantly less likely to make a sea crossing than Tengmalm’s Owl. So it would be a pleasant surprise to find a Pygmy Owl in the UK, but they are much less likely to occur than Tengmalm’s Owl (which is a major rarity here).

    Ringing records might provide some interesting information, but getting a reply from the ringing schemes might not be quick.

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