The blood-curdling screams rang out across Ridgeway high above Hobart, carrying as far as the Waterworks Reserve in the valley below.
Blood-curdling and spine-chilling. That’s no exaggeration when describing the cry of the masked owl especially, as on this occasion, it was being magnified four or five times by the use of a loud-hailer.
An “Owls in the Spotlight” event had been organised by the Ridgeway Bushcare group and the city council’s Bush Adventures program and as I covered my ears as the owl cries rang out I hoped that the conservation volunteers in this neck of the woods had alerted the neighbours.
I had thoughts of the police arriving with flashing lights, responding to a report of murder and mayhem in the southern Hobart suburbs.
There are two ways to track down elusive owls, as any birder will tell you. The first method is merely to go to owl territory and wait for the owls to start calling. Usually, at least in my case, this is totally fruitless.
The other is to go on an owl hunt armed with a recording of owl cries – you can hardly describe them as birdsong – and broadcast it through the woods. I’m not a fan of using recordings to attract birds and I do not do it because I believe it can be very intrusive to the birds, especially in the breeding season when they will spend precious hours hunting for a rival supposedly on their patch instead of attending to breeding duties. On this occasion, however, the recordings and the loud-hailer were being used in the interests of science, performed no less by an expert on masked owls and other threatened species, Dr Phil Bell.
Owls have always proved elusive for me, but the portents for this evening were good. In previous days I had received an email from a reader with a picture of a masked owl on his rooftop in West Hobart.
The owl, I was told, had startled the reader’s son by suddenly plumping down with a thud on the roof but the young man still managed to get a picture of it with his mobile phone.
I’ve only once had a fleeting glimpse of a masked owl, at Sandfly south of Hobart, but I have heard them often in the Waterworks Reserve. As Dr Bell demonstrated with his set of recordings, the owl call really is scary.
Far more easier on the ear were Dr Bell’s calls of Tasmania’s other resident owl species, the boobok, which I know to be relatively common at Ridgeway, especially at the spot where the local bushcare group conducted the first part of their owl experiment, the Ridgeway Reserve, at the point where Ridgeway and Chimney Pot Hill roads converge.
A third owl to be occasionally seen in Tasmania, the barn owl, still has a scream for a call but it is not as terrifying as the masked owl’s.
The Rideway Reserve is a well-known barbecue spot and after a feast of snags the owl “music” began. Between the owl sounds, Dr Bell gave a run-down on the natural history of both the masked and boobook owls. In the masked owl’s case, he gave some indication of the reasons for its rarity. In a nutshell, it needs a very large territory, with not only an abundant supply of food but large old-growth tree cavities for nesting.
We spent about half an hour playing the recordings at the BBQ site without success, before moving on through the white peppermint eucalypts to the Ridgeway Oval, spot-lighting Bennett’s wallabies on the way. No owls at this location either, although we did manage to give some ground-roosting masked lapwings a shock with our recordings.
As so often happens with nature outings, the target species fails to show, but it is still possible to have an enjoyable time all the same, with enjoyable company.
No owls, but the evening still turned out to be a hoot.