After trying numerous times in the past year to spot the Powerful Owl and Southern Boobook in Melbourne’s Royal Botanical Gardens, I can confidently tell you how not to spot an owl. In fact, after a last ditch attempt to spotlight the Barn Owl at the Western Treatment Plant, Jason and I hit a Bad Birding low. (Or a Bad Birding high I guess, because it was wildly unsuccessful. Perspective.)
So, here’s how NOT to spot an owl in the Melbourne area, so you can NOT spot them too:
1) Watch ebird religiously. Once the Powerful Owl has been spotted recently for several consecutive days at the Royal Botanical Gardens, go. Immediately. Don’t hesitate! Owls like punctuality. Fortunately, so do construction workers. Don’t worry, a construction project will just have started in Fern Gully where the owl is known to frequent. The day you arrive, so will construction workers, and the owl will leave forever. Hurray! You’re guaranteed NOT to see it! However, you will get to check plenty of construction equipment off your list instead. As the Powerful Owl would say, “Woo-hoo!”
2) Ask Royal Botanical Staff about the resident Southern Boobook (a small Australian owl). Get one of those handy free paper maps the garden hands out like candy to babies, and get the friendly staff to draw a map to Boobook’s favourite palm tree. Then, learn from friendly staff that Boobook most likely was eaten!!! How do they know? Boobook feathers at the bottom of the palm. Who ate it, we wondered. Probably the illusive resident Powerful Owl, we speculated. “Woo-hoo!”
3) Look for owl pellets in Yarra Bend Park. Find fresh owl pellets along the trail in similar spots for weeks. Look up into surrounding eukalypts. Ensure to strain your neck for maximum effort. Don’t worry, owls are so good at hiding in broad daylight you’ll never find them! Success!
5) When camping at Terrick Terrick National Park and you hear a dog barking in the bush and later the creepiest screaming banshee noise of your life, whatever you do, avoid the dogs and banshees and keep you and your flashlight safely in the tent. You’ll also avoid spotlighting the Barking Owl!
6) Finally, go to the Western Treatment Plant at night. Make sure to go in the winter time–it gets dark earlier and you don’t have to wait long. Bring your fancy flashlight that’s military-grade. Bring your dinner. Watch the sunset. Wait along a deserted road by some farm land until it gets pitch black and the sun has disappeared over the horizon. Get hungry. Start eating. See a black owl-like shape hovering over a field next to the car. Don’t worry, your hands are so full of sandwich you won’t be able to grab your flashlight or camera in time to determine whether the hovering night-bird was the Tawny Frogmouth or Barn Owl. The Reader’s Digest Book of Australian Birds will suggest that the hovering behaviour is indicative of the Barn Owl, but you’ll never know for sure. Phew! Owl spotting averted!
Despite NOT spotting many owls, Jason and I did manage to spot one species of owl in Australia: the Rufous Owl at the Darwin Botanical Gardens.
We only spotted the Rufous Owl, because we ran into a couple of guys wearing binoculars along the Rainforest Walk who were talking (fortunately for us) about spotting an owl. They were kind enough to point the pair of owls out to us. Without their help, it would have been a tricky endeavour, as you had to tilt your head just so as you looked through the rainforest to glimpse the birds. This was the only owl we ever spotted in Australia!
More recently in Canada, we were fortunate enough to spot a Great Horned Owl in an urban park merely by chance.
My conclusion from these experiences on how to spot an owl is the following:
- Ask the guy with the binoculars. If he’s talking about owls, he’s probably seen one.
- Alternatively, you don’t spot an owl. The owl will spot you.
Note: Since owls are often threatened and fragile species, it is always important to look for owls ethically. We never use call play back methods, give the birds lots of space (I use a zoom lens), and for our spotlighting attempt were going to follow Birdlife Australia’s ethical birding guidelines. Since we never wound up pointing our flashlight at the potential Barn Owl, this was somewhat of a non-issue. However, if we had managed to get our act together, we were going to shine the light briefly (a few seconds) at minimum power. In some ways I’m glad that we were unsuccessful, since it seems like barn owls in Victoria are currently having a hard time.