Earlier this year an owl died in our suburb after it became entangled in power lines. I found out about it when a colleague emailed a blurry photo of an adult Powerful Owl hanging from the lines.
I was devastated, convinced that the bird was one of the pair whose territory covers the valley below our house. The pair has fledged one or two youngsters every year since I stumbled across their nesting site a decade ago.
The entangled owl was less than a kilometre from the nesting site. I’d seen the year’s youngster only a few weeks before and knew that it was still in juvenile plumage. Both facts pointed towards the dead owl being one of the adult pair.
I know some of the owl’s local roost sites but the chances of finding them out of breeding season were slim. I realised I couldn’t be certain if one of the pair had been lost until the next breeding season.
The Powerful Owl’s breeding pattern has been very consistent from year to year. The pair start roosting near their nest tree each July. By September one or two downy grey chicks emerge to roost in the adjacent trees. The chicks tend to stay in the immediate vicinity of the nest tree for at least a month, after which the day time roosts shift around the valley. One day you’ll find the youngsters and adults in a particular gully, the next in another a few hundred metres away.
Throughout the winter I wandered past the nest site in the hope of spotting the pair. No sign of the adults and as September crept by no new chicks. The evidence was stacking up that the pair had been broken.
Powerful Owls roost in dense vegetation, often rainforest trees at the bottom of steep gullies. The adults are difficult to see in the dark green foliage. The light grey chicks are much more easily spotted especially since they are fond of sitting in a patch of sunlight. Even so, the easiest way of detecting the owls is when the chicks call to their parents as dusk falls. Torch strapped to my head, I decided to walk down to the nesting site in a last attempt to find evidence of the birds.
The walk to the nest site is about a kilometre down a rough firetrail. I hardly got more than a hundred metres down the track before hearing the distinctive begging call of a Powerful Owl chick. The calls were coming from a creekline at the bottom of a steep slope. I pushed through the thick vegetation to a rock shelf overlooking the creek. Another call, and there was a Powerful Owl chick sitting about twenty metres away.
The chick stared, head moving in the unique circling pattern of owls as it inspected me from different angles. A few seconds later a cockatoo called and it looked away, attention shifting to a more interesting subject. The flash recaptured its attention, but soon enough the neck turned away and towards the dark.
I headed home, scuffed, scratched and thoroughly relieved that I’d been wrong about the identity of the owl in the power lines.
The following morning I found an adult roosting with the youngster. The two were roosting close to a large hollow that looked very similar to the previous nesting tree. It is possible that they had decided it was time for a change, although the new site might signal that another pair had taken over the territory. No real way of knowing, so I decided to be grateful that the valley was still home to a pair of Powerful Owls, original or not.
A couple of nights later I donned sturdier clothing and headed down the hill. I was hoping to photograph the parents returning with a possum to feed the chick. Honing in on the calling chick I settled on a convenient log to wait. The chick flew down and landed barely 5 metres away.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve experienced the powerful curiosity of the chicks. I suspect it has a lot to do with the Powerful Owls being the dominant species in their forest habitat. They have little to fear, and like many other peak predators there is a hint of ‘I wonder if you are edible’ in their curiosity. It leads to a very unusual situation for wildlife photography, where the subject is simply too close to capture a good image. We stared at one another for a few moments before I retreated to a distance where the owl filled a bit less of the camera frame.
Fifteen minutes and many sandfly bites later it was too dark to have any chance of seeing a returning adult. I left and headed uphill. Walking across our front lawn I could just hear the chick’s call rising from the valley below. If there is one species that demonstrates the resilience and adaptability of Sydney wildlife, it has to be the Powerful Owl. Wandering cats beware!
Powerful Owls are undeniably powerful predators. A much smaller, but equally predatory species of local wildlife is the Grey Butcherbird. Butcherbirds have a broader diet than owls, with insects forming a major part of the diet. Butcherbirds have a particular liking for the nestlings and will take surprisingly large prey if they display any hint of injury. They are notorious for killing pet birds through the wire.
My neighbours mentioned that a pair of Grey Butcherbirds had built a nest in their yard. The nest was nestled in a lemon tree, not much more than a metre above the ground. A seemingly vulnerable location, but one the butcherbirds were more than prepared to defend against the local dogs, cats and chickens. I perched on the slope above to see three half grown chicks crowded into the nest. The parents arrived with food every couple of minutes, mostly insects but also what looked suspiciously like dry cat food.
After being fed one of the chicks presented its rear to the adult, which grasped the extruded faecal sack in its beak. The strategy explained the remarkably clean appearance of the tiny nest.
Odds and sods of the week