A couple of months ago I heard some noisy miners carrying on in a tree in the fenced off section of the old BP site at Waverton. I scanned the tree for several minutes but could see nothing. However, the noisies seemed convinced that the tree contained something they didn’t like, and continued to direct their abuse at it. So I tried looking from another viewpoint, and eventually saw this (hint: you can just see the head and yellow beak of a noisy miner abuser behind the abusee’s wing tips:)
I was pretty sure it was an owl, an exciting prospect as I had rarely seen or heard owls in the inner suburbs of Sydney. Back in the 1980s, we would occasionally hear the cry of a barking owl in Lane Cove’s Warraroon reserve, usually at about 3 a.m. It always woke us, because it evoked a furious response from our border collie. He would hurtle down the stairs, barking hysterically, and hurl himself at the back door. Since then, I had only seen one wild owl, probably a southern boobook, near the North Sydney Dem school one night about 15 years ago.
Now I was quite close to one, in broad daylight, if I could get a clear view through the leaves. After a bit of manoeuvring, and crouching lower, I could at last see an Eastern Barn Owl (Tyto delicatula).
The owl looked at me for a few seconds, then closed its eyes. It opened them again when more noisy miners and a pair of magpies arrived. Clearly this was enough, and the owl flew off, pursued by a gaggle of miners and magpies. The sudden departure caught me by surprise, but I managed to get an image before the entourage passed out of sight.
The owl only flew a few hundred metres, into a thicker group of shrubs and small trees near one of the paths, so I followed it. The path took me closer to the owl than previously, but the foliage was much thicker. By the time I arrived, the claque of pursuers had quietened, despite their being joined by a couple of butcher birds, and the owl seemed more settled as I lifted the camera again.
The first photo, and the following one I took while the owl briefly checked me out, were badly misted by out-of-focus vegetation.
After that, I was able to get around the worst of the blocking branches while I took some more. The owl had obviously decided I was harmless, and cooperated by giving me different portrait angles.
The last one I took reminded me of the English folk tale; if you walk around an owl it will turn its head to follow you, until it wrings its own neck. It’s based on the fact that owls can turn their heads up to 270° in each direction, to compensate for having forward-facing eyes, but in reality they do know when to stop!
There are many other folk tales about owls. They are often thought to have special powers, I think because of their having a “face” and hunting at night when spirits walk. In some cultures, the owl is an icon of wisdom; the symbol of the goddess Athena was an owl.
In other cultures, they are regarded as foolish, for example in India in Hindi an idiot is ullu ka pattha (owl = ulu or ullu). But in many parts of India an owl sitting on the rooftop is seen as a sign of impending doom. In ancient Egypt, too, the owl (Moloch) was associated with mourning and death.
On this sinister theme, there is the anecdote of Captain J Kincaid, writing about his experiences in the Spanish Peninsular campaign 1811-1814:
“Prior to the action of the Nivelle, an owl had perched itself on the tent of one of our officers (Lieut. Doyle). This officer was killed in the battle, and the owl was afterwards seen on Capt. Duncan's tent. His brother-officers quizzed him on the subject, by telling him that he was the next on the list; a joke which Capt. D. did not much relish, and it was prophetic, as he soon afterwards fell at Tarbes.”
Barn owls in particular seem to come in for a bad press. The Newuk tribe of California believed that after death, the brave and virtuous became Great Horned Owls, whilst the wicked were doomed to become Barn Owls.
Perhaps the noisy miner tribe of Waverton share this belief. However “my” barn owl seemed to be a perfectly peaceful and well-behaved bird, by daylight at least.
North Sydney – my home suburb – holds Sydney’s second largest CBD. However its parks and bushland areas, and those of neighbouring councils such as Willoughby, host a surprising variety of native flora and fauna. These bush areas are maintained by dedicated council staff, often working with local resident volunteers.