“I rather like watchin’ birds meself, Prof” said Leo with an evil leer. He skillfully drove the veteran 4WD along the narrow track into the depths of an ancient forest in southeast Victoria, tracts of which had been mercifully spared from modern loggers and wood-chippers. Maybe they owed their reprieve to the gullies and ridges that made machine access difficult. “Yea,’ he spat ruefully out of the window,” I don’t get much of a chance, but.”
“I’d have thought this district would be ideal,” I said. ‘I hope I’m not going to have a wasted trip.”
“NAH,” said Leo. “Not the sorta birds I like watchin’. A-course I can get to Warrnambool easy enough but they tell me the real place for birds is Bondi. Never been to Sinny meself but. Made it to St Kilda a cuppla times.” His eyes lit up with lascivious memories.
“So you are not an ornithologist?”
“ ‘Orny maybe, but I pass on the theology.” We both of us fell silent as he negotiated a tricky passage involving a twisting path between rocks and trees with a hairpin left-hand bend that dived into a bottomless gully. For a while, the sky darkened beneath a roof of branches as the trees pressed close to the track.
I was in search of the Powerful Owl, Australia s largest, and also pretty big by world standards. It can be as tall as 66 cm, with a correspondingly large wingspan. It is becoming increasingly rare as its habitat is destroyed by man. By day it roosts at various favourite sites on a branch of a fairly open tree in forest or woodland. It is easily approached in daylight but becomes shy and difficult to observe by night.
In the back of the jeep, I had enough materials to construct a temporary hide. When Leo had helped me erect it he was to drive back the way we had come leaving me to my long vigil.
“Sooner you than me, Doc!” were his parting words. It had been a long and tiring day, but Leo had lived up to his reputation as a skilled bushman and guided me to the reported sighting. There, sure enough, apparently indifferent to our presence, was a pair of Powerful Owls, roosting on a branch of a huge mountain ash that dominated a small clearing. The male, a little larger than the female was still clutching the remains of a small half-eaten animal as he dozed on his perch, his large dull yellow feet grasping both prey and branch with no difficulty.
I could see why they were also known as the Eagle Owl, their legs were feathered to the ankle and their large white faces had dark eye patches. Their golden eyes were open but apparently indifferent to my presence. Either that or the old con trick practiced on birds had worked once again: Man had arrived – Man had gone – evidently they hadn’t counted us. I looked at the pair through my binoculars. They were magnificent. I readied the cameras. My treasured heirloom Leica was a gift from my father who had personally looted it in World War Two, or more likely, knowing him, he had bought it with Govt issue cigarettes, during the hectic days following the defeat of Germany. I had taken some of my best photographs with that camera. But now everything was all-digital. I sighed as I laid out the new gear.
Still, it was all very exciting. The digital video cam, the high definition digital still camera, both had all the bells and whistle additions known to man. They still had refinements unexplored by me despite attempts at my education by my juvenile research assistant, a postgraduate student named Robin — ‘A most suitable name for an ornithologist’ I had quipped. The best thing about this digital stuff in my opinion, apart from the ease of uploading it to my computer, was that I could get an instant replay of my photographic attempts. They each had a little screen on the back, enabling me to see the picture I had just taken and to delete such embarrassments as a photo of a bare branch the instant after the departure of a particularly spry bird. No, I am no technophobe! But my secret archives still consist of my steam-age photos lovingly captured by the Leica.
There were still several hours of daylight left and I settled down to wait. Activity in a small portable hide is limited. The dim light makes reading difficult, the acute hearing of owls precludes music or radio – no, the watcher is thrown back on the old- fashioned art of sitting and thinking, or maybe just sitting. This can vary from a state of near Zen meditation, or lapse into simple dozing easily followed by sleep. I amused myself with one of the faculty’s newest toys, a global position indicator. This, I had been assured, would check with an orbiting satellite and tell me my exact position on the world’s surface within an accuracy of a couple of metres. Modern research demanded, according to the pontiffs, that an accurate record be kept of all sightings, with particular reference to location. I could hardly argue, being one of the pontiffs myself (or at least on the committee). I vaguely remembered them going on about it.
I duly noted my latitude and longitude in my notebook.
In my mind, I ran through all I knew about the Powerful Owl. It was also known as the great scrub owl, or alternatively the Eagle Owl, no doubt because of its size. Its back was dark brown, mottled and barred whitish, its front was white with bold grey-brown V-barring. I checked again with the binoculars, my memory was accurate.
Evidently the owls were better at just sitting than I was. After all, I thought, it is their bedtime whereas I had postponed mine for at least another eight hours, and that was only until Leo got back. Add another four before I was back in Melbourne, and further minutes checking in the equipment – the prospects of attaining my own bed were receding exponentially. Time for a doze I thought.
Dusk was falling quickly. Unlike England, the home of my childhood, there is very little twilight in Australia, even at Victoria’s latitude. I readied my equipment and slipped on the night-vision goggles. The world became a curious green but definitely a lot brighter. The two owls stirred, flexing their wings. Father owl quickly swallowed his snack and stretched first one leg and then the other He flexed his mighty shoulders and suddenly the huge wings extended and he glided silently from the branch. A couple of powerful wing strokes and he rose, tilted and swept of between the trees to begin his nightly hunt. Hoping I had captured his departure on the video-cam, I turned my attention to his mate. She seemed in no hurry, perhaps wishing to give him time to get clear.
If my name was David, I thought, I’d be able to fly silently behind her and take intimate pictures of her lovelife, swoop down with her to capture her prey and also be able to see her coming with the terrified eyes of a mouse. It is wonderful what those TV Doc boys can achieve with a big budget. I sighed and edged out of the hide and prepared to film what little I could.
Maybe she thought that I was a friendly shrub. The female owl left her branch, circled slowly over my head and then dived almost at my feet, giving me the shot of a lifetime. The green goggles showed a small animal, (marsupial rat, a baby possum, god knows, my specialty is birds), frozen in fear barely four feet away. The huge owl seized the unfortunate beast and flapped lazily back to her branch. I slipped back into my hide and called up the camera’s instant replay. Had I caught it all or not?
YES! YES! YES! Attenborough eat your heart out! Whatever wonders the night brought me now, the trip had been worthwhile. I smiled as I thought of Leo picking me up in the morning. He could keep his Pink-tipped Big-breasted Bondi Birds. Give me an Owl any day.