Tuesday, January 18, 2011


The night before last, circa 9pm, I heard a Sooty Owl let out its distinctive and mournful 'falling bomb' shriek, followed by a sustained trill, in the deep green world below Bonnie View. The night was as still as the Great Wall of China, warm (twenty degrees), clear (finally) and moonlit. Insects and microbats sliced the humid sky. The conditions for owls were perfect.

Sooty Owls define mystery and beauty. Very few Aussies have had the pleasure of their company. I've only watched them twice before, in the cool, almost spooky, limestone grandeur that is the Devil's Coachhouse at Jenolan Caves in NSW (the birds have been there for thousands of years according to scientists; Jenolan's Twitter site says the owls were roosting in the adjacent Nettle Cave during Nov. 2010) and in the steamy tangles of Katandra Reserve, on the Central Coast of NSW, near Erina. The latter sighting occurred in 2001, with good friend and uber-birder, Edwin Vella. We were fortunate to see an individual with a rat in its talons. It called for an hour, not far above our heads.

Sooties are known to feed on (aside from rats) bandicoots, potoroos, possums, rabbits (they're out at Bonnie View, unfortunately) and gliders various. They are solidly-built things, with huge black eyes and plumage as dark as the soul of charcoal - think a Barn Owl back from Hell and you're close.

The field guides say the following about their distribution: Slater: 'rare'; Simpson: 'moderately common'; Pizzey: 'probably commoner than records suggest'; Debus: 'uncommon... there may be 5000 breeding pairs in Australia.' The NSW Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) lists them as 'vulnerable', due to the threat of clearing and burning sclerophyll forests which hold trees that possess suitable large hollows for nesting.

The Sooty is probably the Australian bird that captures my imagination and lifts my heart the most. A Sooty Owl can turn the most impossibly dark night into light.

LJ, January 18 2011.

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