Powerful owl © Shutterstock / Karen H Black

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Vigil on an Owl Family

10 Sep 2021

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David Waterhouse has been a passionate supporter of WWF since the beginning of 1961. David is a strong advocate for his love for nature and will continue to make a difference for generations to come through his bequest to WWF. Here, David shares a wonderful story about his fascination and love for powerful owls.  

Each night, the calls from the nest hole were becoming virtually continuous. 

Usually, the male powerful owl, the largest owl in Australia, would arrive with no prey in his talons, except perhaps, for the odd noisy miner. Such a small bird represented no more than a snack to its hungry young, trilling plaintively from deep inside the hollow. 

Some nights though, he would turn up with more substantial prey to provide a full meal for the whole family. On dusk, he may well have silently arrived on a branch above the path with a Ring-tailed possum dangling from his claws. On a couple of occasions, he arrived with a large flying fox.  I used to assume that such prey was chased and caught in flight as they left their roosts at dusk. In fact they are always snatched from the treetops after they have landed to feed on fruit or blossom. 

Each time he brought in prey, his mate would miraculously appear, as if from nowhere, to beg or more like demand, a piece of the carcass which the male was already biting into, with bits of fur drifting to the ground. After a while, with a certain amount of grunting and squealing, the female dragged the huge bat away from the male owl and despite his protestations, flew heavily off like a loaded Lancaster bomber to the nest hollow. 

David Waterhouse has supported the WWF since 1961 © Courtesy of David Waterhouse

The young inside seemed to know that food was in the offing at last and the begging sounds grew in tempo in anticipation. The female seemed to have difficulty dragging the flying fox into the hollow’s entrance and for half a minute or so, one of the unfortunate beast’s leathery black wings still scooped down outside the opening. Finally, she managed to jog it down to the nest chamber. 

Her activity, witnessed through night binoculars, could strike some as distinctly ghoulish, as if a vampire’s child had been abducted to be devoured by another night creature feared by the superstitious. The “devil’s familiars” to our forebears, abroad in the dead of night. To me, it was merely a fortuitous glimpse into the life of an impressive night bird providing for its young. 

Time and again, in rain or shine, I returned at dusk to wait for the owls to appear, amongst the tall black-butt trees, their straight trunks clad in tatters of long bar strips. 

One wet and leaf-dripping night, I spotted a large, white lump protruding above the lip of the nest hollow. It moved continuously from side to side, like an animated soggy beanie, that someone had jammed into the hollow. It was the head of an owlet, almost the size of its parents. As if to encourage the loudly trilling chick, the female adult was perched on a limb just across the bushland path. Although she sat silently, one got the strong impression that her presence was meant to encourage her offspring to leave the nest. 

Two nights later, it did leave on dusk and I was glad that I had not missed it take the plunge. Actually, it was no plunge, except in the figurative sense. It was a straight, unwavering flight to a horizontal branch not far from where the parent was watching. 

For some nights, I had been convinced that only one chick had successfully been hatched. The incessant calls all seemed to been emitted by one bird. To my surprise, I was quite wrong. A second young one raised its head from the hollow not long after its sibling had left. It too called repeatedly at the entrance and a few nights later, it also vacated the nest, flying at 180o and landing rather awkwardly on the same branch as its sibling had done previously. 

Now both adults would go off hunting on dusk. The owlets would wait patiently in silence during the day, high up in the branches and would never return to their hollow, even in rainy or windy conditions. I knew from prior experience. 

I continued to visit the vicinity and noticed that the young seemed to move a little further away from the nest tree each time I went. 

One night, under an almost full moon, I arrived to find all four family members lined up on the branch of a large Angophora tree, in order to share a meal of Ring-tailed possum. Each parent would pluck at the decapitated prey and delicately feed a piece of flesh to the youngster alongside. Neither of the owlets showed any sign of unseemly, noisy behavior but patiently waited to be fed. The young were about the same size as the adults, but they were, in contrast with their dark brown parents, almost pure white on their undersides, with brown masks on their pale faces. 

To my mind, the sublunary setting, I was looking up and aching my neck to see, presented a touching frieze of domestic togetherness, albeit at the price of a marsupial’s life.  
  
Nearly three billion animals were harmed in the 2019-20 Australian bushfires, as well as burning out much of the Powerful Owl’s and so much of our wildlife’s natural home.  

David hopes that by sharing his experiences in nature he can inspire others to protect what’s left.  

Our bold vision to Regenerate Australia aims to rehabilitate and restore wildlife and habitats and future-proof Australia against climate disasters. This is our long-term vision, for long-term impact. And one incredibly vital way that you can be part of this vision is through leaving a gift in your Will.  

Find out more about how your legacy can help Regenerate Australia for generations to come.  

Please consider leaving a bequest to WWF, just as David has. 

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