The haunting call of a boobook owl took me one summer’s night into that parallel universe that is the world of birds.
I have to confess I was a little worse for wear at the time after spending the early evening drinking with former colleagues from the Mercury. When I retired to bed early – leaving my family to watch a program on television – I had no idea that the evening would produce such a momentous event.
Deep in blissful sleep, I was suddenly awoken by the far-carrying onomatopoeic call of the boobook. The call was so loud, that it appeared to be somewhere in the bedroom and I immediately swore never again to linger too long in the parallel universe of the Salamanca strip, drinking alcohol from bottles with birds on their labels.
Was the lasting affects of Kingfisher lager from India, or Barking Owl shiraz from Western Australia playing tricks on my senses? I pulled the sheets over my head, before I realised the bedroom window was wide open and a southern boobook really was calling from a bottlebrush at the side of the house.
I say it was a momentous occasion because it was not only the 57th addition to the checklist of birds seen in, or from, my garden but possibly a new addition to my lifelist of birds spotted. Days previously I had learned that a team of scientists had now renamed the Tasmanian sub-species of boobook the Tasmanian morepork and were declaring it as the state’s 13th endemic species. It said so in black and white, in a new book I had been given, Finding Australian Birds, and produced no less by CSIRO publishing.
I’ve never regarded myself as a “twitcher” – one of those birders who dashes around the country ticking off new species – but I dutifully ticked off this “new” bird, although I had first seen the Tasmanian sub-species of boobook at the Waterworks Reserve some years back.
However, like the hangover I had next day from a night of carousing, the sighting was also to prove a headache. One of the authors of the guide to finding bird locations may have been emphatic about the new species when I contacted him, but Birdlife Tasmania said they could not confirm it.
The classification of birds is a complex process – especially as DNA analysis has thrown many of the old certainties into confusion – and we might have to wait a little longer to discover if Tasmania has its own owl. It appeared there were two camps dealing with the classification of birds, and they didn’t always agree with each other.
Tasmania has two owl species also found on mainland Australia – the masked owl and the boobook – and the latter has always been my favourite. Although the masked owl – a threatened species – is less common, it is the one I have seen most frequently because it inhabits the woodland above my home in the Waterworks Valley, and has been known to roost in central Hobart.
The boobook is far smaller – about the size of a butcherbird – and has a face with an inquisitive expression, dominated by fierce, probing orange-yellow eyes.
I listened for the boobook call the following night but I was to be disappointed. And I erased the Tasmanian morepork from my lifelist of birds spotted. I’m sure it will be included at some future stage, hopefully with some other Tasmanian sub-species which are markedly different from their mainland kin, like the Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle (bigger than mainland birds), the grey goshawk (which is white in Tasmania) and the eastern rosella, more brightly coloured, and larger, than the one found over Bass Strait.