Saturday, July 3, 2010

Owl you been going?

Last night as I took the dogs for a final walk along the road in the dark (it was supposed to be at sunset so as to be able to actually see but with other animals doing things to mess up the end-of-day timetable, it wasn't) a big, graceful bird flew out of the eucalypt at the gate and swooped silently over us into the paddock. So silently, in fact, that it was spooky. Deadly silent. Deadly, certainly, if you are a rodent. It was a Southern Boobook Owl.

The camera flash plays merry havoc with their eyes, so I try not to bother them like paparazi. With pupils that big it must hurt. They avoid excessive publicity and their security arrangements, nocturnal lifestyle and general aloofness mean they remain out of most people's awareness. This is the adult, the matriarch of the family. I am proud to be on more than nodding acquaintance terms. She has deigned to return here each year and has introduced her offspring so we can't be disagreeable neighbours. I can even drop names, like Ninox novaeseelandiea, or I would if I could pronounce it. To her friends she is just a Boobook owl.

She had three chicks at one point, and we even saw them in the pre-dawn greyness lined up on a series of fenceposts in the ram yard as she taught them to hunt. We tried not to disturb their lessons or indeed any of their hunting activities but it's difficult to know when they are in the garden, they are so silent. Such polite neighbours. They are quiet types, keep to themselves, you'd never suspect them... I once stood too still for too long watching one not 6 feet from me and it mistook me for a post and tried to land on my head. My last thought before coming to my senses and ducking away was not "Those claws are really big and sharp!" but an astonished and awed "Oh wow!" I actually would have quite liked to have been landed on by an owl. I doubt my scalp would have though.

Sometimes whilst tramping round the garden and talking loudly to each other we suddenly discover them there, blundering into their world like a bombastic boor at a genteel tea party. When you apologise they give you an icy, predator stare. It's quite intimidating, if you aren't on the same social level as an owl.