Powerful Owl

What is the size of a small toddler, sleeps all day standing up, and can sometimes be seen with the grisly remains of last night’s dinner hanging from its claws ready for a snack on waking up? Give up?

Ninox strenua, better known as the Powerful Owl, is a local resident and the family we’ve been watching has been raised in the Nuggety’s. Locating their roosting spot is not easy. The owls move trees every few days so that if they are not where you last saw them then you need to search the branches of trees for a couple of hundred meters all around. Train your eyes to search the upper branches for unexpected shapes. Most often they choose to roost in trees on or very close to a creek or gully. Through October and November, birdie folk fortunate enough to know the owls’ whereabouts, were able to follow the progress of the two giant fluffy chicks and their parents. Usually there was only one parent sitting with the chicks but a search of trees in the vicinity would often locate the other sleeping parent. Just for the record, the female measures around 60 cm high and the male 66-cm.

Powerful Owls share their territory with the more common Ninox connivens or Barking Owl. This is the owl notorious for it’s blood curdling and human-like scream, a call heard only occasionally. Locals living in, or close to, the Nuggety Ranges report having heard this scream but only rarely. Just as well. We know of a couple who moved to the Dandenongs and who called the police at 1 am, convinced a woman was being murdered just along the bush road nearby. The police were not amused to discover that they had not heard of the local Barking Owl and its “screaming woman” call. The female Barking Owl grows to 35 cm and the male to 45 cm.

Less than a kilometer from the Powerful Owl family we were shown what looked to be a broken dead branch sticking up from the limb of a Grey Box tree some 6 or 8 meters above the ground. Closer inspection revealed that this stumpy broken branch was in fact Podargus strigoides better known as the Tawny Frogmouth. It sat stiffly at an oblique angle on a small collection of twigs, from which a white ball of fluff occasionally appeared from where it was hidden underneath its mother. We were told the bird returned every year to raise its young, usually two chicks but sometimes only one. Totally exposed to the world yet so well camouflaged and so still, this bird seems so representative of adaptation to our harsh dry continent.

A couple of years back I was at an agricultural show in Britain and I came across a side-show tent housing a dozen cages, each with a T-piece perch like in the old cocky cages. Each cage housed a live foreign owl. There were owls from Brazil, Siberia, Africa and other countries. The cage at the end of the line contained a Tawny Frogmouth.

It was shocking enough seeing all of these caged owls but seeing one of our birds there got me very angry. I wanted desperately to pick up the cage, climb onto a plane and bring it home and let it go. What was it doing here between the traditional clog maker’s tent and the British Birds Conservancy Society tent? How did it get here? I moved away for a while then came back better composed and with a friendly smile asked the owl tent attendant if he had had much success breeding Tawny Frogmouths? (I also wanted to tell him that it was not an owl anyway, and should not be here.) He looked at me for a while then said, “No, we don’t breed our own owls, we buy ‘em.” Then I enquired as to how I might go about buying an owl. After a longer silence while staring at me suspiciously, he answered, “Dunno. You would have to ask the boss. E’s not ‘ere.”

Then he moved away to ask a kid not to poke the Madagascar Owl Asio madagascariensis with his show-bag rule. Perhaps there are registered Tawny Frogmouth breeders in Britain with aviary bred birds for sale. Who knows? I’ll make inquiries.

As much a mystery was how the owl man made his money. He didn’t sell anything, not owls, not even T-shirts depicting owls of the world. Perhaps the show committee paid to have him there just as schools in Australia pay for a visit by a mobile farm or zoo.
Before we finish up our bird section we should mention that the two offspring from the pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles Aquila audax who nest regularly on Mt Tarrangower have now left the nest. They may well be soaring above your head right now, while you’re reading this. We wish them well.

One of life’s little pleasures for the region’s families, particularly in the warmer weather, is to picnic at, and wander along the river at Hamilton’s Crossing. (At least, it used to be a pleasure but at the moment it is less so.) Hamilton’s Crossing is an unmarked bridge less than 20 km from Maldon on the Loddon River and just a few kilometers from Barringhup. It has many safe swimming holes and shade from big old River Red Gums. A tranquil spot and a haven for birds and other wildlife such as platypus.

A recent visit gave cause for concern. The drought mainly, but probably also higher water temperatures, have favoured the European Carp. And they are big! In every pool one can see the slow moving shadowy shapes and often their fins or tails protrude above the shallow muddy water. They have likely replaced any other fish species in the river and one can only hope that some solution is found to remove them and bring the river back to its former self.

Archived Country Notebook articles: Written by Richard Lee for a monthly newspaper column.