Rare pygmy cormorants may soon be here for our tiddlers

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A bird long rare in Europe may soon be breeding in Britain, ornithologists believe. The pygmy cormorant, a half-size version of the common cormorant now thriving here, is moving rapidly westwards from its normal haunts in eastern Europe and western Asia.

A bird long rare in Europe may soon be breeding in Britain, ornithologists believe. The pygmy cormorant, a half-size version of the common cormorant now thriving here, is moving rapidly westwards from its normal haunts in eastern Europe and western Asia.

The freshwater fish-eaters – scientific name Phalacrocorax pygmeus – did not venture beyond Yugoslavia for most of the 20th century. Their population declined so much it was feared they could become extinct.

But conservation has helped revive their numbers, and since 1990 there has been a steady increase in sightings west of their range, a trend that has accelerated in the past two years.

Steve Gantlett, the co-author of Rare Birds in Britain and Ireland, said: "Pygmy cormorants have been recorded increasingly closer to Britain, so it would not be too great a surprise if one turned up in a UK location with suitable habitat, such as the Norfolk Broads. British anglers are well known for disliking great cormorants but they need not worry. It is very unlikely an arrival would involve more than a few birds. In any case, pygmy cormorants are strictly tiddler-eaters."

His report describes the last year of sightings as a "flood". Belgium had its first recording, last December, the Netherlands had its third (the others were in 1999) and France recorded a third and fourth appearance. More appeared in Austria, Germany, Poland and Switzerland. In western Europe, the pygmy cormorant sighted in the Rhône delta in the south of France in 1990 was the first since one was seen in Sweden in 1913. In the 77 intervening years, numbers declined so much they were included in BirdLife International's publication Threatened Birds of the World.

Mr Gantlett believes reasons for their survival, as well as conservation, could include a change to habitat and more small fish in the Danube delta, their principal haunt. In Italy, where they used to be rare, up to 270 were present last winter. In Hungary, where none had bred for more than 100 years, a few began nesting in the early Nineties and there are now 200 pairs.

Gerard Gorman, a Budapest expert on eastern Europe birds, said: "They are good flyers and seem robust, tolerating tough eastern European winters. But colonisation would require several birds to get to the UK at around the same time, meet and find a suitable breeding place."

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