Legends of the Powerful Owl.

Powerful Owl

I was a lad when a very important man gave me a very beautiful book. I remember all items being cleared from our kitchen table and imaginary crumbs being wiped away. The book had its protective cellophane wrapping removed and was carefully placed in the centre of the table. Within its covers were some of the most precious treasures of the great Australian continent. It contained great eagles with two and a half metre wingspans, giant flightless Emus; tiny, fluffy blue fairies with upright tails, and colourful parrots and cockatoos and fathoms of riches more. The book was the “Reader’s Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds”. I remember the smell of the glossy new pages wafting upwards as it opened. Beautiful colour plates complimented with descriptive passages, and each species had a concise synopsis which included the exact measurements to the millimetre as well distribution maps so I could imagine where each bird was from outside my door. Even the most familiar and common birds like Crested Pigeons, Magpie Larks and Australian Magpies looked important. Then, there were those familiar but sought after things like eagles and hawks, big cockatoos and exotic kingfishers. There were however, also those new to me. –Special species, unique as they are rare; species only willing to show themselves to the most capable, experienced and worthy naturalists such as the legends of David Fleay and Graham Pizzey. There were Grey Falcons and Red Goshawks, Masked and Sooty Owls, Ground and Superb Parrots. I memorised each name, their colour and size and their locations. I discovered that it was easy to imagine Australian birds by their names. –Black Falcon, Brown Falcon, Grey Falcon etc. I remember the most awe inspiring name however was “Powerful Owl”. It was like the world championship wrestler of Australian birds. (It is Australia’s biggest owl). I longed to see such a special species but respected its importance and conceded I may never be worthy to witness one outside a zoo.
The first Powerful Owl I saw was captive at Healesville Sanctuary, in Victoria in 1992. I had read about David Fleay and his love for the bird. I had found a single copy of his book, “Nightwatchmen of the Bush and Plain” in a library. I didn’t feel ignorant of Powerful Owls but I thought it was impossible to stumble on such a special thing in the wild. I had heard that there were records of them in the Toowoomba escarpment. I had looked a handful of times but felt it’d just be Luck if I sighted one. On a rainy day in 1994 however, I found a near-tennis ball sized pellet. I had found much smaller pellets belonging to Boobooks and was sure this huge one belonged to a Powerful Owl. I was going to return with my camera.

Detour: The next week I took my new Pentax Z-20 to Redwood Park. I was on my mountain bike and was cycling down the riding trail when an Accipiter, either a Collared Sparrowhawk or Brown Goshawk charged straight up the trail towards me screaming! Surprised, I stopped and dismounted. It swooped up and landed in a tree’s branch directly above me. I thought, “Wow! What a neat experience, and a good opportunity for photos”. I got my camera out of my backpack and pointed it up at the subject. Every time the camera focussed, it “beeped” and every time it “beeped” the hawk answered with screams. I became a little frustrated because it was noon and the sun was directly behind the bird. It was also a bad angle looking straight up the bird’s backside. I decided to put the camera around my neck and ride a little further down the track to get a better angle for a photo. I hopped on the bike a started to move. Suddenly the hawk swooped down and flicked my hair screaming in my ear. “Ooh”, I thought this time, becoming a little nervous. The bird hid in a clump of leaves and I carefully put the camera back into my bag. I hopped on to coast away and again the bird charged from behind. This time it rode the top of my backpack and I could feel it touching my collar and helmet. I looked down at my shadow cast by the noon sun and could see the shadow of its wings spread either side of my helmet’s shadow. “Wow!” When I dropped my head low, the hawk retreated. If I lifted my head, it attacked. I was still trying to work out if it was a sparrowhawk or a goshawk when I saw its shadow curve away to the right and be replaced by another twice its size from the left. Two Brown Goshawks! My nervousness became panic. I pedalled to get the hell out of there. I pedalled and pedalled, uphill and down. They chased. I eventually got to the picnic ground next to the high way and decided I was rid of them and wanted to rest. I got to a picnic table, ripped of my helmet and panted, sweating all over. It was February and hot. I thought the ordeal was over but I couldn’t believe it: They arrived in the tree in front of me, hunched and angry. I was off again, across the highway and heading towards Picnic Point. This time I didn’t stop. I eventually got to a softly shaded area where small birds were happily singing and was at peace at last. Eventually I went home and didn’t go bird watching again for three months. (Nor did I answer my telephone).

I forgot about Powerful Owls for quite a while. I had read David Holland’s account of territorial Powerful Owls attacking people and wanted no more experiences like that.

Years went and in August 2007 Michael Atzeni of the Toowoomba Bird Observer’s took me to find a Powerful Owl and again there was no luck. Almost a year later and a kind and persistent Mick took me back to the same place. It was late morning and the Australian winter looked so different to that of northern Japan. A clear ultramarine sky and bright sunshine were so unlike the grey skies and snow of Niigata. Wrens and honeyeaters sung, hopped and fluttered all around. Brushy trees kept their colours under the bigger eucalypts that were the most inclined to shelter the great owls. A path zigzagged up and down and around shallow gullies and white light splashed cleanly in between the shadows of the trees. We looked around and again I wasn’t surprised not to see a Powerful Owl. It was just nice being there. Almost with hope abandoned we became distracted by the abundance of the honeyeaters. We wandered away from the gully into an open grassy area and looked upwards for Scarlet Honeyeaters at the tops of the trees. We discussed which way we should go back. –The way we came or continue round the other way. I watched Mick’s face and followed his expression to a branch reaching over the track from which we’d come. Suddenly from the shadows of the branch the dreams from a well worn book materialised into the full glory of the legend itself and there she stood with prey in hand, taught and tall and quiet. A beautiful Powerful Owl. My Pentax Z-20 had evolved into a Pentax K200 and it started its work through the shadows with inbuilt stabilisation. Mick ran to the car for my tripod (Thanks again Mick) and I finally got some photos of this very special bird. (Almost 2 years ago already).

A bonus about an hour earlier on the way to the owl location Mick spied a pair of Ground Cuckoo-shrikes. Also a new bird for me and quite a beauty too. (below)

Ground Cuckoo-shrike

All photos taken on July 12, 2008 by Russell Jenkins.