A walk down memory lane: Still autumn nights and reliving my first encounters with Australia’s largest owl

It’s time for a trip down memory lane, because we are now nearing the end of that wonderful time of year – autumn – which always takes me back to the cool, crisp nights of April 2008… But another trigger for my memories this year, was reading this really great ABC article recently.

Back in 2008, we’d just moved out to the bush and were living in a camper trailer on what is now the front lawn, because the house we were owner-building was – yes, you guessed it – a little behind schedule… A familiar tale to many, but I digress.

Powerful Owl. Photo by Wayne Bigg

Powerful Owl expert Ed McNabb had just given a talk in Mount Gambier, so the species was fresh in my mind. It was an exciting time, because Bryan Haywood, Dan Harley (Dan is now working with Zoos Victoria) and others had been on the hunt for the species in the border zone on the SA side near Mount Gambier and had made some great recent discoveries.

To follow the story from here, let’s pick up the email trail between myself and Bryan Haywood, back before NGT existed and we were both in our previous jobs. It was an exciting couple of days…

Here is my first message:


From: Bachmann, Mark (DEH)
Sent: Monday, 21 April 2008 8:07 AM
To: Bryan Haywood
Subject: Powerful Owls heard in Rennick SF

Hi Bryan,

thought you might be interested to know that since the owl talk last week (which was great), I have heard what I thought were powerful owls almost every night since – mostly off in the distance. As I haven’t been in to work since last Thursday, I haven’t been able to double check the call – until today!

Then last night I was actually woken up by some very close – nearby owl calling (probably 2am – ish) – whooo who, whooo who – it went on for ages – and very loud – but unfortunately everyone else in the tent was asleep……. (the kids will be disappointed when I tell them they missed it).

So first thing this morning I’ve double checked on an owl calling web-site and I happy to confirm that I have definitely been hearing them – and very often lately….

I’m not surprised given the amount of veg through Rennick State Forest on the Vic side of the border, and the fact that you turned them up nearby at Caroline forest – but it is still great to now be sure…. (for myself at least)

Let me know if you want to come out listening/looking one night,

Mark.

PS – Do you know if they have they been recorded in Rennick SF before?


Bryan’s reply:


From: Bryan Haywood
Sent: Monday, 21 April 2008 8:33 PM
To: Bachmann, Mark (DEH)
Subject: RE: Powerful Owls heard in Rennick SF

Fabulous Mark, beautiful weather for it. I reckon I recall you hearing them once before or at least thinking you did. Now you have. Great stuff. You may have a hollow or two large enough for a pair do you think?? Keep a keen ear out for a higher pitched call of the female as Dan described. If you hear both then we’ll need to get even more excited.

Keep us up to date with what eventuates as I don’t recall hearing about any birds in Rennick, no-one out there looking probably although it would be highly likely considering its size and habitat type.

Thanks for letting me know, I’ll get in touch if I can make it out one night. Bye for now.

Bryan


My follow-up response the next morning:


Powerful Owl – First of two (very ordinary!) photos by Mark Bachmann. April 21st 2008.

From: Bachmann, Mark (DEH)
Sent: Tuesday, 22 April 2008 7:02 AM
To: Bryan Haywood
Subject: RE: Powerful Owls heard in Rennick SF

Hi Bryan,

keeps on getting better each night….

last night not long after I got home we heard a male calling very close to the house site, I made a couple of my best imitation calls back, then he flew right into a tree in front of us – the kids were amazed…. – actually I was amazed too.

I called back again, and then he swooped low over us within a couple of metres, wingspan and brown and white feather colouring in full view of our torchlight from underneath – actually got a pretty good feel for size, which is certainly impressive.

I did my best to get a couple of piccies, which is difficult in the dark, but I’ve attached the best couple for you.

As if that wasn’t enough, about an hour later, we heard a female start calling off the distance a few hundred metres away from our camp site – the higher pitch of her call was quite distinctive (now that we are getting our ears tuned!)

I’ll keep you posted….and stay in touch,

Mark.


Bryan confirmed we may have a breeding pair:


From: Bryan Haywood
Sent: Tuesday, 22 April 2008 8:41 AM
To: Bachmann, Mark (DEH)
Subject: RE: Powerful Owls heard in Rennick SF

Ohhh what a night, late December back in 63….

Amazing Mark, in your own backyard. What a treat!! It appears the pair is set, you just need to do some further scoping for a nest hollow. Which will be best done in a month or so. Will talk again ASAP.

I will get some dates of first sighting/s etc from you too at a later stage for our records.

Thanks for the update.

Bryan


But that wasn’t the end of the story.

Later that year we saw the pair of chicks produced by our newly discovered local breeding pair on a number of occasions on our block, only a short distance down the track from the house, and – feeling like a proud parent – I managed to get a few more blurry photos. My two eldest sons (Brendan and Caleb, who were 11 and 8 at the time) were keen to go looking for more evidence, and after searching through the bush in the State Forest next door managed to locate several roost sites with white wash (bird poo under the roost) and pellets (full of all sorts of regurgitated goodies from bits of possum, such as fur and bones).

Powerful Owl chicks in November 2008, spotted by Caleb Bachmann (Photo: Mark Bachmann).

If you are interested to learn more about the work that was going on back then, you might find this article by Bryan Haywood of interest, because it summarises the wider search that was underway at the time in the Victorian/SA border zone.

Looking back, it is a real thrill going over the story again all these years later. That sense of discovery and the rush of encountering this amazing, large, intimidating bird of prey up close. Like Wedge-tailed Eagles – a similarly magnificent bird – I never get tired of seeing or hearing the Powerful Owl, even though I have now continued to hear them every year since. However, of note, we’ve not seen chicks again… yet.

Powerful Owl distribution map.

For anyone reading this in central Victoria or further east, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about…. but you have to remember these records are part of a small cluster (refer to map below) that form the western edge of the species’ range (see national map) and at the time we were putting a number of new dots on the map. Indeed many of Australia’s species that are more typical of the Great Diving Range ‘peter out’ in this border zone, where the larger remnant forested areas end – so it is an interesting bio-geographic melting pot that still occasionally produces surprises.

In short, the species was largely unknown in this area back then – as you’ll see below. Exciting times they were indeed…

PS – If you have a Powerful Owl story to share, please get in touch.

Records that form the western edge of the range for the Powerful Owl. Map from Haywood (2010).

Mark Bachmann
Mark Bachmann


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