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The Tengmalm's Owl in Tumblin

by Brydon Thomason -

Opening their curtains on the morning of 19th February, Jackie and Erik Moar were pleasantly surprised to see a small owl, roosting in a conifer outside a window at the rear of their home in Tumblin, Bixter. Little did they know just how significant their garden visitor would transpire to be...

Intrigued by their unusual visitor they took a photograph and posted it on Jackie's Facebook page where it was soon seen by John Coutts. Barely believing his eyes he forwarded the picture to his father, veteran Shetland bird lister, Dennis Coutts who agreed and confirmed the ID as Tengmalm's.

Whilst this was going on, the posting had also been picked up and passed on to a Facebook group sightings page where it was received with the similar excitement and a request to take the post down, presumably until they could verify it and make arrangements for access and news being released to the nation.

Thankfully the owl was still there, just outside their kitchen window roosting in the same branch (where it remained the entire day- till dusk!). The Moars very kindly and cooperatively welcomed and allowed access, for which everyone is immensely grateful. News was released and the excitement of the first potentially 'twitchable' Tengmalm's in several decades, set the birding nation in chaos!

This was the first record in Shetland in over 100 years - the last being in February 1912. The last two British records he last two British records were both in Orkney, last year and in 1986 - neither were twitchable, nor was the record preceding that so this bird was at last the chance for UK listers to see a species that has tantalized the birding nation for many decades.

Now for me personally, I am well known and often the source of banter amongst friends and colleagues that I don't twitch rarities or keep a list of species I have seen in Shetland or UK - not to ever mock those that do however, far from it. Its just not for me, work, family and life commitments are things I enjoy to prioritize - and also the hunt and the find- that's the buzz I crave and the one I cant get enough of! But, for a Tengmalm's Owl- too right!! Within three minutes of the news being released I'd already made a call to my good friend and fellow Unst birder Dave Cooper- we were off, Bixter bound!

Asides from the beautiful little owl, (obviously) Jackie and Erik Moar are the real stars of the show here. Had they not put the photo on social media and there after been as generous and cooperative with the access they allowed to their garden, we'd all still be none the wiser and never know Shetland had been paid a visit by this fabulous bird.

Testament to the appreciation and gratitude of local and visiting birders, donations were made to an on site charity collection for Wastview Day Care Centre Hansel Fund and at the time of writing upwards of £400 had already been raised.

Any owl other than Long-eared and Short-eared are rare visitors to the isles. Snowy Owl, despite their breeding history here is now a very rare visitor, along with Barn, Scops and Hawk Owl's are the only species actually on the Shetland list. Ask around and I'm sure next on the wish-list for any local birder now will be Hawk Owl- the last one being in 1983! This species shares a similar breeding and indeed wintering range to that of Tengmalm's Owl, and are prone to similar movements out of breeding season- hoping for one to arrive is perhaps not all that far fetched. If there's one thing we birders are good at, its dreaming...

About Brydon Thomason

Naturalist, birder, photographer & otter addict. Owner and guide of Shetland Nature. Co-author of 'Otters in Shetland'.
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