I was listening for the summer-song of the boobok owl, a soothing, warm sound which carries far through the dry woodlands of Tasmania as soon as the sun sets. Instead I heard the frightening, screeching call of the masked owl.
It sounded as though someone was being murdered out there, in the foothills of kunanyi/Mt Wellington.
I was at one of my favourite owl-watching and listening posts, the Ridgeway recreational oval, a mysterious and lonely place at the best of times without the screams of a masked owl putting the frighteners on myself and everything else around.
Bennett’s wallabies bounded all over the show, and for once the birds had fallen silent.
I had timed my visit to the oval for the summer solstice, the longest day of the year when hungry owls would be out calling and hunting before the glow from the setting sun had finally vanished from the western horizon. Only I was two days late, Christmas parties had got in the way this year and I was in no condition to drive the 10 kilometres out of town to Ridgeway. Instead I waited for a couple of days, to Christmas eve in fact, and I am now glad that I did.
Not only had the 15 hours, 28 minutes of solstice daytime been trimmed by a mere two minutes, the night of the actual event had been cold and overcast and now we were in a heatwave. The sun warming the Ridgeway Reservoir by day, and a cool breeze coming off the mountain, created a pure-white mist hanging over the southern end of the Ridgeway Rd.
I describe the oval as mysterious, simply because it sits on the top of a hill, literally in the middle of nowhere without homes or roads in sight. It is reached by climbing a rutted track, the early settlers at Ridgeway carving it out of the surrounding peppermint woodland presumably because there was no other flat piece of land around. From what I can see it is never used now but bushfire-prevention programs keep it free of shrubs and trees. At its centre is a cracked concrete cricket pitch.
Tasmania has only two owl species and, with luck, they can both be found at Ridgeway. The boobok is the smallest of the two and gets its onomatopoeic name from its song.
Both these cavity-nesting birds are threatened in Tasmania, largely because of land clearance and forestry which sees suitable trees proving nesting holes felled.
Eerie and silent, the mist over the reservoir swirling below me, pink sky to the north and west. It was as though the hill was floating on a cloud. I couldn’t even hear any cars on the local road, or from far distant up at Fern Tree or far down in Hobart. The only sound, the screeching of the masked owl, coming out of the mist. An uneasy feeling, not quite in the Christmas, joyful spirit. I should have been at a carol service, but I’m glad I went anyway.