Funny that. My old mate Neil Kirby who is an absolute authority on the birding areas of the lower Blue Mountains told me for years he has been watching his local patches of tall growth forests come to life with the trills of juvenile Powerful Owls and Southern Boobooks as both species raise a nest of owlets most years. In fact, I saw my first Boobook fledglings in the beginning of 2009 whilst spotlighting a spot on a NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service organized outing, which was the catalyst for my nocturnal spotlighting obsessions.
2008 was a good year for Neil as he saw a Powerful Owl pair nest from beginning to end, but 2009 was fruitless as he could not get a view of where the Powerful Owls nested. Knowing the owls’ loyalty for the same nest hollow year after year, he was baffled as to why he was not getting any results from his dozens of outings, listening and observations. In the late autumn of this year, he once again, started to look, listen and feel his way through his forest to find out more about the secretive Powerful Owl nesting progress but had no clues as the birds were not indicative of much, except calling at the same time most nights, indicating their presence in their forest territory. But Neil struck gold about two weeks ago when he was visiting the area again and heard a lot of loud screeching made by Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, that Powerful Owls love to eat by the way, and the birds were screaming down the hollow of a Eucalyptus deanei - a common, tall gum tree which usually at certain size may offer suitable hollows for owls to nest in. The cockatoos made some terrible noises, almost sounding as if they were panicking and trying to scare something away. Then came a hoot, a single note from the male Powerful Owl sitting in a Melaleuca styphelioides (paperbark tree) in which he was roosting, waiting for nightfall. The female inside the hollow responded and slowly made her way to the edge of the opening. Neil contacted me the same day and said “Bingo! I got the Powerful Owl nest!” and I was jumping out of my skin knowing that the first opportunity I will get to visit will be six nights later on the following Saturday.
As the day drew nearer, Neil and I spent a fair bit of time planning out what we will do. He said we could get up on a slope near the nest tree, but we would need secateurs to cut some sort of a path as the bush is almost impenetrable. We decided to hit off at 16:00, giving us an hour and a half of clearing time before any owls would be calling around dusk. The important note here is that we were very careful to not reveal the site we would be sitting at, or where we would be cutting a path to the average bushwalker who may go past the area. Fortunately, our clearing began about 50 meters from the normal bush track and we had to walk through a small area densely covered with paperbark trees and a jump over small creek that flows through here.
It was hard work too, cutting some ferns and other vegetation. Naturally, we wanted to cause minimal disturbance to any owl, especially nesting owls so we did the best possible. The clearing took us two hours, instead of one and a half and we finally settled on a ledge about 15 meters above the main track, 30 meters away from the nest hollow, but the best bit was that we were at eye level with the hollow. Glad to be there, I said. Tripod set, camera fixed, remote cable release set, flash set, beamer set, exposure checked, all good! Now all we had to do was wait. And we waited.
And we waited….
And we waited….
And we waited….
A Southern Boobook was calling in the distance, then another. Small mammals were rustling through the undergrowth nearby. The heavy stomps by Swamp Wallabies as they hopped around the forest floor. The yapping of Sugar Gliders, one of the CUTEST marsupials in my country. Another Boobook. Then more Sugaries, then still no Powerful Owl. In all this time, I have planned the shot I wanted to take. I used a bare 300mm lens with the hollow in the left quarter of the frame, giving me enough space from a composition perspective to allow a big forest owl (the biggest in Australia) to almost land with the wings spread. I had the vision of the shot, I composed anticipating the event and nothing happened. In four hours we had no Powerful Owl. So we called it a night and headed back. As we got back to the main track once we crossed over the creek, I narrowed in on the yapping of another Sugar Glider and luckily I could clearly see it high in the tree. A small consolation prize, or is it a booby prize? You decide.
We spoke of the owls’ silent behavior and Neil said in the forty years he studied the owls as a bird observer he often had these nights. He said for a few nights there is activity before nightfall and a lot of action after dark – immediately after dark. Yet, he said, there were also lots of times when the exact same thing happened. A big, fat nothing. we had a three-quarter full moon and he said a lot of times, on brighter nights the owls were often silent.
We have been walking some fifteen minutes out of the valley listening to a distant Boobook when the hoot came. One hoot, that’s all. We joked that it was the male telling his mate that the two idiots left for home and it’s back to business as usual. We did wonder if that is what he meant. As the Boobook’s call got stronger, I said I’d try to track down the little owl and get a photo. Of course, Boobooks are shy at night and will instantly flee when a light is shone opon them. This little guy was not even 20 meters from me, a little above head height, calling the beautiful little boo-book calls that they carry on for hours. I loved watching its head bobbing up and down as he sang his notes. It was musical, maybe monotonous, but a treat to my ears. He flew, then flew again, just staying outside the range of comfort.
Then came another hoot and silence.
Neil and I looked at each other and said “To hell with this! Let’s go home.” and we walked to the car.
We talked ad nauseum about why they were not behaving as normal. Besides the decades of knowledge Neil picked up as a respectful and keen observer – almost a guardian of his forest – we agreed that the fact we were making some noise clearing may also have helped contribute to our failure to see anything and why the owls shied away. In any case, the post script addendum will shed more good news.
I got some great shots of a hollow with no owl. So we will be back hopefully the following weekend. In the meantime, enjoy these few images of my favorite* owls in Australia.
All owls are my favorites. I don’t have one in particular to be honest. Love ‘em owl the same! LOL!
Neil visited the following evening and looked from the trackside across over the paperbark and creek. On dusk the male Powerful Owl called, he flew to the hollow. She came out, they sat and preened each other, giving Neil the death stare occasionally. I love mother nature and luck.