Powerful Owl

Night walk

It was a still night in the Brisbane Ranges. The bright light of the full moon was dimmed by mist. Out of the white haze along the ground stood trees, those closest to us appearing black. Trunks behind them were grey, becoming paler with distance, until they faded into invisibility. While we waited for the rest of our group, we scanned the trees. A grey brushtail possum gazed down at us, its fluffy black tail hanging down beside the branch; large ears, pink nose and dark eyes alert. Careful! Don’t shine the spotlight in its eyes. We don’t want to blind it! It ducked behind the trunk, out of view.

The Common Brushtail Possum is, unsurprisingly, a common sight when spotlighting in Victoria.  Image: David Whelan

The Common Brushtail Possum is, unsurprisingly, a common sight when spotlighting in Victoria. Image: David Whelan

Soon the group assembled and we began our walk along the bush track. More possums were seen, going about their nightly business in the tall pale-branched Manna Gums, trunks dark and rough, long ribbons of old bark hanging from their branches. We followed the slow ‘mo-poke’ call of a Southern Boobook Owl, hoping for a glimpse of it. In the distance another boobook answered. A member of the group repeated the owls’ calls, hoping to attract one to us, but as the birds’ calls became more distant, we gave up.

Sharp eyes noted a mat of prickly leaves on the ground, with small cranberry heath flowers, red tubes splitting at the end to five tiny hairy points. A cluster of Parsons Bands Orchids was found, each with two white petals reaching out and down. Then, eyeshine, up in the wattle tree. A small grey head with rounded ears and a black stripe between them. Sharp claws gripping the trunk as it faced downwards. A loose fold of white skin between front and back legs. A Sugar Glider! It stayed frozen as we gazed at it, the two wildlife photographers clicking away enthusiastically. Then it began to move its head from side to side, perhaps using sharp incisors to cut the tree’s bark, creating a wound that would ooze sugary sap, an evening meal. When the photographers were satisfied, we continued our walk.

If you're lucky, the distinctive face of a Sugar Glider may greet you on a night walk.  Image: David Whelan

If you're lucky, the distinctive face of a Sugar Glider may greet you on a night walk. Image: David Whelan

Sugar Gliders use their sharp incisors to cut through tree bark so that they can reach the sugary sap underneath.  Image: David Whelan

Sugar Gliders use their sharp incisors to cut through tree bark so that they can reach the sugary sap underneath. Image: David Whelan

We turned onto another track, hoping to see the prize we had come for, a Powerful Owl, known to be in the area. We noticed a rare patch of Snow Gums, trunks pale all the way to the ground, veins of the leaves almost parallel. Above, we heard the high-pitched echolocation calls of White-striped Freetail Bats hunting flying insects, and in the distance a repeated yap from a Sugar Glider. More eyes. Something large and brown in a tree. There it was! Australia’s largest owl. The Powerful Owl was huge, sitting on its branch, brown feathers with white markings, bright yellow eyes with large black pupils staring down at us and away. The photographers were joyfully busy. The rest of us watched the bird in wonder. It spread its long pale wings and silently flew to another tree. After a few minutes, the spotlighters found it again. The watching continued. A rustle in the trees across the track. The owl flew towards it. We left it, hunting for a meal, probably another possum.

The Powerful Owl is Australia's largest owl.  Image: David Whelan

The Powerful Owl is Australia's largest owl. Image: David Whelan

Some of us were tiring, so we turned back along the track, searching for more eyes and listening to the sounds of busy nightlife. Towards the end of the walk we heard the growling squabbles of brushtail possums. There were four in the low leafy branches of a Manna Gum, arguing over territory or food or mates. One climbed down the curved trunk and walked among the grasses. It sat up on its hind legs looking around. We could see the dark stripe of a scent gland down its chest, marking it as a male. Back onto four legs, walking towards us! When he was close, he turned and walked away along the track and finally back into the grasses. We continued back to the cars. The mist was gone, but the moon was still dimmed by light cloud. We enjoyed the black silhouettes of tree branches and leaves against the grey sky, said goodnight, and drove home to bed, leaving the animals to continue their busy night.


Wendy Cook lives on a farm west of Melbourne with her husband and two teenagers. She loves watching the nature she sees around her every day and writing about it. She is a volunteer with Fungimap and at her local primary school where she hopes to instil a love of nature and reading in the children.

Photographer David Whelan is a foundation member of the Australasian Raptor Association (ARA), now Birdlife Australia’s Raptor Group. His photography has graced the pages of several reference books, the latest being CSIRO Publishing’s 2017 release Australasian Eagles and Eagle-like Birds by Stephen Debus. Along with his good friend Bernie McRitchie, he provided the first confirmed successful breeding records for the Black Falcon in Southern Victoria. Photographer in Residence for Martin Scuffins and the team at Leigh Valley Hawk and Owl Sanctuary, David is working on several new publishing projects coming in 2018/19 and is preparing to launch a website showcasing his skills later this year.


Banner image courtesy of David Whelan.

Discovering Strathbogie to invigorate the imagination

The only war that matters is the war against the imagination.
All other wars are subsumed by it

...

The war is the war for the human imagination.
No one can fight it but you and no one can fight it for you.
— Diane Di Prima

I want to speak of a wild place. I want to tell you what it means to love a place that is threatened. I want to tell you of small actions that can change things.

I consider that I know the forest fairly well, fairly intimately, not as a botanist or expert in any field of forest lore, but as a man who likes to meet the forest as a conversation between feet and fingers and senses, between leaf and trunk and the herb-rich forest floor. Who would plant his toes in the deep mulch and moss of our forest, like roots in the rich soil.

Simeon Ayres believes that encouraging others to develop a deep connection with the Strathbogie State Forest is vital in ensuring its protection.  Image: Michael Flett

Simeon Ayres believes that encouraging others to develop a deep connection with the Strathbogie State Forest is vital in ensuring its protection. Image: Michael Flett

Four years ago, I put up my hand to lead visitors on walks through the Strathbogie State Forest. Impacted by logging, the communities that surround the forest have come together to work out how to protect it. Guided forest walks are one way that the Strathbogie Sustainable Forest Group is currently highlighting the significance of the forest and why more Victorians should help to conserve it.

There are very few folks these days who walk in the forest, who choose to spend time out there, in a swag under the stars and the watching gums, exploring the origins of a creek, following that ridge line to the unnamed peak. As I see it, there is the chance that those who come and explore the forest might fall in love with it.

Logging is one of the major threats to Strathbogie State Forest and the fauna that inhabit it.  Image: Michael Flett

Logging is one of the major threats to Strathbogie State Forest and the fauna that inhabit it. Image: Michael Flett

Those Sunday afternoons have been a time of great revelation. Hundreds of people have joined together to walk on place. We have explored together this beautiful and overlooked corner of the world, we have walked with the old timber getters, with botanists and storytellers, with those who know where gold was mined. We have spotlighted the highest density of Greater Gliders in Australia. Explored for mushrooms and fungi, bushfood and medicine plants, visited the places where the old Mountain Grey Gums and Peppermints are twisted and aged far beyond the first days of white settlement. We have felt the brush of the wings of the Powerful Owl as dusk falls and the tips of the trees on the high mountain turn vivid pink.

Many have joined us for these explorations, coming from all walks of life to this forest. To this unpeopled place, save for a few pig hunters and motorcyclists. Why so few people now? These days, when the nature documentaries are shown in vivid, widescreen technicolour, it seems that we are still interested in the world around us. But it no longer fulfils the need it once did. 

Immense eucalypts, Powerful Owls and Greater Gliders are just some of the impressive organisms to be found in this ancient forest.  Image: Michael Flett

Immense eucalypts, Powerful Owls and Greater Gliders are just some of the impressive organisms to be found in this ancient forest. Image: Michael Flett

Once there was a time when more of us knew the language of wild places, when we could hear the songs of the wind, the language of birds, when we could follow the braille of tiny marsupials wending their paths, when our vision was wider, when we were immersed within the great conversation of the wild. The country was once our imagination; our minds did not halt at the skin upon our foreheads - we were part and parcel of it, we were not separate. 

In the early 21st Century, we seem to have outsourced our imaginations to television, social media, and handheld technology. With this outsourcing, I wonder if we need the forest anymore, whether the lack of respect with which we treat this otherness that we encounter, the damage that we are visiting upon this planet, are simply symptoms of our collective loss of imagination. We must remember, too, that losing habitat and species is like losing a language.

In the week when the last male Northern White Rhino died in Kenya, I asked myself, ‘What is it I can do?’ If we are not careful, it will be the last Greater Glider or the last Powerful Owl, or any of a vast number of smaller birds, mammals and insects. In answer, we must turn to our wilder places and once again engage in a conversation with all that we still have.


Simeon Ayres is a farmer and small business person from Strathbogie who holds a deep affinity for the country he lives in.


Banner image courtesy of Michael Flett.