The Joy of Birds: My first time

Powerful Owl, Ninox strenua

Discovering birdwatching and the open road of new species is an exciting and addictive past-time. It’s still exciting to find a new bird of course, but early on just about every species is a new discovery. The world of the internet has made it much easier to stay on the pulse of significant bird sightings. I’d keep an eye on various forums and birdwatching feeds for reports of anything that I was yet to encounter and was reasonably close. Being easy to find wasn’t always part of the deal, but sometimes you would be fortunate to have clues to a fairly finite area.

My first sighting of a Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua) couldn’t have been much easier back on the 27th of May, 2009. It happened to have been living in a tree in Flagstaff Gardens, one of central Melbourne’s parks where office workers would have lunch or undertake physical training. I commenced a game of find the owl amongst the dense Autumn foliage of the giant Elm trees. Although my photographic equipment was limited to a 300mm kit lens it still enabled me to get a view of this wonder of nature. Here it was, a silent killer living in the middle of the city while hundreds of people would walk directly underneath unaware that they were being watched. But the humans need not worry. Powerful Owls do not have humans on the menu.

I stood there on that day, craning my neck for an angle to point my lens between leaves and branches. A gentleman sidled up beside me and asked ‘are you looking for that Powerful Owl’? I excitedly told him that I had managed to sight it, but for this man the novelty had already worn off. He introduced himself as the secretary of the City of Melbourne lawn bowls club, which is based within the grounds of Flagstaff Gardens. The man then continued ‘that thing causes a mess. I need to get here early to make sure that I collect the possum heads that it leaves on the bowling greens’. Yes, that’s right, the Powerful Owl has an appetite for possums, fur, bones and all.

A Powerful Owl’s ability to decapitate or otherwise dismember a possum is certainly enough justification for its imposing name. Besides Brushtail and Ringtail possums Powerful Owls’ diet can extend to fruit bats and even large birds such as Australian Magpies or Sulphur-crested Cockatoos.

The second time around

I didn’t have to wait too long for my second sighting of a Powerful Owl, and one that was pure chance. My first sighting was in the middle of Melbourne on the 27th of May, 2009. The second came while on a study field trip on the 28th of May, 2009 in the Yarra Ranges, beyond Melbourne’s metropolitan boundary. Whereas the previous day’s owl was up high and tricky to spot owl number two was in the open, a little above head-height. The few photos that I took of this moment were worse than dreadful. I put this down to a number of factors: the terrible, overcast sky, my photographic inexperience or a panic to keep up with my class group.

And there was that stare. Having an eye-to-eye moment with a Powerful Owl is a wonderfully intense moment. Part of you is transfixed that you have this moment, while you wonder if there is the potential to learn how this owl got the name ‘Powerful’. There have been reports of Powerful Owls not taking kindly to human intrusions into their territory. Dr Beth Mott, Birdlife Australia’s Powerful Owl Project Officer, summarised a Powerful Owl/human encounter as ‘generally (been) scratching, but there’s definitely a risk of psychological trauma from getting swooped by such a big bird’. Personally I’d rather be attacked by a family of Australian Magpies than take my chances with one Powerful Owl. At approximately 67cm and over 2kg in weight

Thankfully I have had more encounters with Powerful Owls since those back-to-back days of 2009. And thankfully my photography has improved since then. Powerful Owls tend to be creatures of habit and will return to their favourite roosting trees each year, particularly when adding to their family. For a bird so cryptic and shy it is possible to find them in regular annual roosting areas. Even if you visit a roosting sight several years apart there is a good chance to find a Powerful Owl in that same spot.

Regardless of the photographic evidence, each encounter with one of these amazing birds is a special memory that one doesn’t forget. Those of us who live in Australia’s east coast cities are fortunate to have these special birds living amongst us. And we should do what we can to ensure that future generations keep returning to our suburbs to watch over us…and eat possums.

Graham, Wild Ramblings

The Joy of Birds

I remember a day about a decade and a half or so ago when Laura and I were having some sort of conversation about Australian wildlife. ‘What about birds?’ Laura asked. ‘Birds are just so common‘, I replied, Yes, I meant that in a derogatory way. I must have been chasing sightings of Echidnas, reptiles, anything else but ‘birds’.

I was missing the point at the time. Yes, bird sightings are much more common than mammals and reptiles, but that is the wonder of them – they are all around us in all habitats. Some of the species, such as Silver Gulls, Noisy Miners and Eurasian coots seem to be everywhere and are certainly very common. But some bird species are certainly a rare and special find. And most can’t be found everywhere. It’s fair to say that my simplistic and blinkered view of our feathered friends has shifted somewhat since that day when I scoffed at the ‘commonality’ of the avian branch of the Animalia kingdom. People will often ask me if I developed my interest in birds from a family member at a young age, but my conversion was from a much more technological introduction.

Noisy Miner

Many hardcore traditionalist birdwatchers will often wonder why one needs to point a camera lens at a bird when a pair of binoculars will more than suffice. But for me I can thank my first DSLR camera for revealing the joy of birds. I was fortunate to live in Melbourne’s bayside suburb of Altona when I would take my new toy for a walk or a bike ride around the neighbourhood. I was just looking for interesting ‘things’ to point my 300mm kit lens at. It was only from this exercise that I realised that my suburb had a diverse range of birds that I had never noticed before. Altona has a range of habitats; besides its beaches it has wooded areas, grasses, wetlands and creeks. According to eBird, Altona has recorded at least 169 species in a suburb that is only approximately 10km from the heart of Melbourne. So I had a great range of wonderful birds to hook me in to this wonderful interest.

Royal Spoonbill

Birds such as Black-shouldered Kites, Darters, Brown Falcons and seasonal shorebirds were a wonderful discovery. The size, shape and colours of these birds were a perfect subject for my camera. Yes, some of them were more sedentary and easier to photograph than others (and that is something that never changes by the way). But it was a fascinating challenge all the same.

Black-shouldered Kite

I also wanted to know who these birds were and study their behaviour. I wondered why some birds would be there at some times of the year and not others. I would learn who lived where and what they would eat. And then came the books: my book shelves would start to fill with Field Guides, bird literature and anything else that could fill my head with bird knowledge. Well, they did that, and also managed to tempt me to go find amazing birds that I never knew existed. My camera wasn’t the only technology that came in handy. I was glad to find that the internet was growing with bird-related information and discussion.

While my Canon 400D was my initial medium for finding the joy of birds in the first place, birdwatching has become a medium in its own right. I established a social bird photography group where people could learn together. I made some good friends and learned a lot from being the organiser of this group.

Birdwatching is wonderful excercise on a number of levels. Aside from the walking and carrying of equipment in pursuit of an amazing sighting there is a lot to be said for exercising your senses.

Birdwatching could possibly be nature’s optometrist. Try sighting a tiny Brown Thornbill as it zooms in and out of Acacia implexa. It’s one thing to sight the bird, but another to track its movement patterns as it disappears behind a tree twenty metres away. I now always seem to be on Tawny Frogmouth lookout whenever walking around Melbourne. The species does very well to blend into trees, most people walking right past the stationary bird.

Brown Thornbill

One of the many wonderful thing about Australia’s birds is that they are some of the world’s greatest songbirds. Not only is one of life’s simple pleasures to hear these songs and calls, but it’s a great listening and memory test to attempt to identify birds that you can’t see. Learning bird calls is akin to learning a language. I have even seen people who do a remarkable job of impersonating bird calls. I have even seen birds who are masters of mimicry themselves!

Superb Lyrebird

As you can see, bird watching is a multi-faceted interest. And it is one that anyone can do to any degree; you may become fascinated by what lives in your garden or local park, or you may be someone who spends great money and time, travelling to see as many bird species as possible. The phrase ‘The Joy of Birds’ has become a much used one, but it’s easy to see why.

The fascination and quirks of the avian world is enough justification to turn this into an ongoing series of articles that I hope that you enjoy. Maybe you’ll even be converted to birdwatching along the way.