A SHORT-EARED Owl, fitted with a satellite tag while breeding in Scotland, has been tracked to Morocco, revealing significant new information for researchers.

The species is something of a nomad, appearing in an area to breed in large numbers one year and then absent the next. Such changes in distribution and abundance are driven by the availability of the small mammal species on which the owls depend. The Short-eared Owl’s nomadic nature makes it a difficult bird to study and regular movements across country borders make it difficult to deliver effective conservation action.

Researchers from British Trust for Ornithology Scotland have been working to improve understanding, developing methods for surveying Short-eared Owls in their breeding haunts and tracking the movements of individuals across the year. Even though only a handful of birds have been fitted with tracking devices so far – the aim is to track 20 individuals from sites across their UK breeding range – they have already recorded some amazing movements.

The most exciting tale is that of a breeding female, tagged at her nest site on Arran on June 11 this year, which is currently wintering near Oualidia in Morocco. The bird left Arran to visit Bute and Kintyre in July, returned to Arran for 10 days and then moving to mainland Ayrshire. She remained near Dalmellington until the end of October, then moved to Devon, where she was stayed til early November November, then with the help of a strong tail wind, travelled 495 km into France in just six hours, then continued south, crossing the Pyrenees and the Strait of Gibraltar to reach Morocco.

BTO research ecologist, John Calladine, who is leading the project, commented: "This is only the second UK Short-eared Owl to be reported from Morocco, and what makes this record all the more amazing is that it involves a breeding female. Our tracking work has revealed the huge distances these birds can cover; in addition to this bird wintering in Morocco, we have had birds move to Norway, with some individuals seemingly making two breeding attempts in one season, one in Scotland and one in Norway."