As I crouched in the chilly darkness, gripped by terror, I berated myself once again for letting my heart overtake my head. What possessed me to venture alone into an unlit outer city nature reserve at night, even though I’d seen evidence of nefarious nocturnal activities?
At the conclusion of my last blog post (which now seems like a lifetime ago) I promised to regale you with tales of feathered romance and murder from my own backyard. Other events have temporarily distracted me from this task. Instead, I offer a different story of power and passion from the winter of 2019 as a temporary escape from worrisome world events.
This convoluted tale really began with rage. Rage at age. Rage at my own age, to be precise. I didn’t recognise it for what it was at the time though.
After encountering groups of boisterous walkers playing loud music and illegally letting their dogs roam at White Rock Conservation Estate, one of my favourite local spots, I sought solitude and a wildlife experience at a region much further from home.
Mt Barney National Park is a spectacular setting, well known for its wild and rugged peaks.
Images of lush dripping forest and tumbling streams rose in my mind whenever I considered this destination.
Sadly, I arrived during a prolonged drought and the landscape was depressingly barren.
Despite being winter, the maximum hovered around 30 Celsius. Rather than attempt the difficult summit ascent solo, I chose the less demanding Lower Portals Trail.
Shuffling along undulating hills with little or no shade on a breezeless day, plastered in sunscreen, wearing a long-sleeved shirt, trousers, closed-in legionnaire’s hat, and carrying a heavy backpack soon had me glowing, and not from delight.
All but one of the anticipated crystal-clear bubbling creek crossings were dry, and I could see little evidence of wildlife. The parched forest was still and silent.
The sounds of increasingly loud music and raucous laughter did not improve my mood. I couldn’t believe it. I’d travelled two hours and driven over a corrugated gravel road to escape the noisy crowds and they’d followed me! Hopes of spotting any wildlife vanished.
Unusually for me, my irritation developed into rage as I stopped to make way for the large group to pass. I’d always finished a walk in a state of bliss despite pain or physical exhaustion, but this time I returned to the carpark fuming. I’m reminded of those animations where livid characters have steam pouring out of their ears. I’m sorry to have to admit that was me. At the time I attributed my foul mood solely to the behaviour of the group who scared away the (probably non-existent) wildlife.
By my arrival home I was laughing at myself though. Despite being well acquainted with the stages of grief, I hadn’t recognised my anger for what it really was – rage at my deteriorating body. How dare those virile young people be having fun when my body was failing me. How dare they bound along so lean, fit, tanned, and barely-clothed, singing and laughing, while I, flushed and sweat-soaked, plodded painfully along.
They especially had no business playing a significant song from my own teens to remind me of what my body used to be capable of. What, you don’t believe me? Have a listen…
After recognising the root cause of my rage – frustration at my physical loss – my mood lightened and acceptance followed. I returned to White Rock Conservation Estate the very next day, at peace and carrying no expectations. Had my emotions not bubbled over due to the activities of the fun-loving young group at Mt Barney, I wouldn’t have been calm enough to return to this old haunt, and I may have missed out on one of the most thrilling encounters of my life. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have ended up cowering in the darkness a couple of weeks later.
“Let it Be” by the Beatles was playing on my mixed CD as I pulled into the reserve that morning. It seemed an appropriate mantra. I meandered along the fire trail not expecting to see wildlife but content to appreciate towering gums silhouetted against a dazzling blue sky.
As usual, I paused at my favourite tree – a majestic silver-trunked eucalypt. It was here that we first locked eyes.
Never underestimate the allure of the strong silent type. How could I not be placed under a spell by those magnetic eyes that seemed to penetrate my very soul? A powerful physique added to the appeal.
I don’t know how long we spent gazing at each other before it was time to part. We shared no words. We didn’t need to. I was hopelessly hooked.
A part of me knew my passion could never be returned in the same way, but history shows that unrequited love can still be a powerful force. And in this case, it was a force strong enough to have me brushing aside legitimate safety concerns to return for a night rendezvous.
Who set my heart all-a-flutter and led me on a path of discovery? Who motivated me to re-enter the reserve one dark night in the hope of another meet-up? Who, who? (There’s a hint there for fans of puns.)
Throughout my childhood I’d only encountered owls in fairy tales. These beautiful birds of prey seemed otherworldly – visitors from another realm, not flesh and blood creatures. My fascination with them grew over the years, but it wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I saw my first owl – a one eyed individual perched in an olive tree next to my outback kitchen. I was a busy overworked mother then, and had little time or energy to immerse myself in wildlife experiences. My next encounter was with a skeletal specimen caught up in a barbed wire fence. A small southern boobook at the Tarcoola Track on the banks of the Brisbane River a few years ago was my first experience of a healthy individual. It was the sight of my first powerful owl perched high in my favourite tree at White Rock that had me transfixed.
The intensity of the stare, the powerful talons, and the sheer size left me intrigued and desperate for another encounter. With a wingspan of 1.4 metres, it is Australia’s largest owl species and certainly deserving of its name.
On the ground below my enticer lay a decapitated sugar glider. I suspected it may have been the owl’s dropped prey.
Later, I was shocked to read they can bite the heads off gliders, possums, and bats in one gulp. During the day, they will often perch high in the canopy with their headless prey held in their talons.
Powerful owls are increasingly being drawn to the high availability of possum dinners in suburban areas as their other food supply dwindles due to forest clearing and drought. While this food availability helps existing individuals survive, they still need old growth trees with large hollows to breed. These hollows need to be around 2 metres long.
This highlights the importance of protecting old growth trees. Replacing a large old tree with a small seedling will not produce a tree with suitable hollows for many years. Luckily for the powerful owl, White Rock Conservation Estate has been protected from logging and development so far.
After sharing my exciting discovery with naturalist, Rob Ashdown, he suggested I locate a copy of wildlife conservationist Dr David Fleay’s fascinating account, Nightwatchmen of Bush and Plain, published in 1968. Even though it was long out of print, I was able to buy a precious second-hand copy online.
Fleay’s passionate tales of boyhood adventures searching for the powerful owl at night only increased my appetite for more encounters. It seems I’m part of a league of fans drawn to the magic of this raptor. Rob Ashdown’s blog post In Search of Live Powerful Owls exemplifies his and other’s passion.
After contacting Rob Clemens from the Powerful Owl Project, I was even more motivated for a night escapade. Rob told me that it was breeding season and the hollows of my favourite tree or others in the locality may possibly contain chicks which soon would be fledglings. If I ventured there from sunset onwards it may be possible to hear their distinctive trilling. If there is one thing more exciting than powerful owls, it’s powerful owl chicks!
I anticipated proudly reporting back to Rob Clemens that I had indeed discovered an elusive nest. For a brief moment, I fancied myself to be another Jane Goodall, Gerald Durrell, or David Attenborough. Yes, I know. That sounds quite ridiculous now, but it had been a childhood dream to pursue such a life. Like many women of my generation, the practicalities of family life helped set me on a different (although no less fulfilling) path.
Usually, I’d never enter White Rock Conservation Estate alone at night, but on this occasion, I was buzzing with excitement. Powerful Owl fever had me completely in its grasp. I was riding high on passion. Before common sense could completely rear its ugly head, I headed off to White Rock alone at sunset.
The car park gate was supposed to close at 6 pm so I parked my car further up the road and then walked briskly along the White Rock fire trail. I expected bushwalkers to be long gone so was perturbed to see a few small groups still returning. I’d hoped that no-one would see me entering alone at that late hour.
As darkness fell, I found a spot in bushland near my favourite tree where I could view its limbs and hollows outlined in moonlight.
I listened intently for the deep calls of the adult powerful owl and the trilling of young, but as time passed all I could detect was the occasional crackling of undergrowth and the drone of marauding mosquitoes. The only creatures to emerge from the hollows were microbats. It seemed the object of my affection had only been using the tree as a day perch.
It’s strange how quickly the thrill of adventure can transform into terror. It wasn’t the feral pig tracks I’d seen on the Yaddamun Trail that made me nervous. It wasn’t the thought of wild dogs that bothered me. The nocturnal snake and spider species didn’t cause me concern either. Even the thought of stepping on unexploded ammunition didn’t phase me unduly (there are warning signs.) No, what cooled my passion was the possible presence of 2 legged beasts of the human kind.
Sitting hidden in the bush felt safe enough, but my grand plan hadn’t taken into account the required walk back up the road to my car with my bright headlamp making me a beacon to anyone in the vicinity. I was too embarrassed to ring anyone to tell them I was scared and to ask to be picked up. I could imagine the lecture I’d receive about taking foolish risks. I decided it would be less dangerous to return to the car sooner rather than later, and set off along the fire trail again.
Shortly after, I was stunned to hear male voices and laughter behind me along the track. They weren’t using torches so I couldn’t see who they were. Were they walkers who had misjudged their time? Were they there for some other reason?
I rang a friend who didn’t answer, but I pretended to talk to them anyway hoping the men would be less likely to attack if I was on the phone. As I stumbled along, I heard them call out and laugh, “Hey Love, slow down, we’re not going to hurt you.” If you were me would you trust them?
So often we imagine what we should do in such a situation, but the reality is that you never know how you will react until it happens. The adrenaline rush of the fight or flight response isn’t conducive to calm, rational thought.
I realised that if the men did have nasty intentions, my headlamp was just making me an easy target. I forced myself to turn it off and tried to keep heading back in the darkness.
Once my light was extinguished, the group fell silent so I couldn’t gauge where they were. The fire trail is wide soft dirt and I’ve often been surprised by walkers and mountain bikers approaching me from behind during the day.
After reaching the car park, I started to run up the road towards my parked Corolla, but decided to stop and hide in the bushes beside the road. The car park gate had not been closed at 6pm and the men might be able to drive their vehicles up the road illuminating me in their headlights before I could reach my own car.
As I crouched in the darkness, oblivious to snakes and spiders, I heard them revving their vehicles loudly. They seemed to be taking an eternity to leave. Had I made the wrong decision? Eventually, one car slowly came up the road past my hiding spot. The other remained for a while and then followed, stopped at my parked car briefly, and then sped off, showering it with gravel. Once they were out of sight, I raced to my car, locked myself in, and headed home. As I was driving off, a set of headlights came back down the dead-end road towards me again, but after spotting my headlights, the driver turned around and drove off.
Who were the men? Were they just innocent bushwalkers? Were they just worried about me? I’ll never know, but the experience dampened my passion for a night-time encounter with my feathered lover.
After recovering from my scare, I continued my search for more information about powerful owls and in the process discovered the David Fleay Wildlife Park at the Gold Coast which is now managed by Queensland National Parks.
Larger commercial sanctuaries may offer a glossier encounter and more facilities, however, the daily educational shows by park employees and the range of creatures to be seen in quiet natural settings for a relatively low entry fee make this destination still worth visiting.
I’d never heard of pioneer conservationist and zoologist, Dr David Fleay, until Rob Ashdown suggested his book. It amazes me that a person who was so influential in wildlife conservation and breeding programs now seems forgotten in history. The devastating effects of logging, land clearing, bushfires, and drought now highlight even more the importance of his life’s work.
His wildlife park also rehabilitated and homed injured and orphaned wildlife. Being situated at the Gold Coast, the land was highly valuable and he could have sold it to developers, giving his family a comfortable retirement. Instead, it was ceded to national parks for a much reduced figure. “Animals First,” compiled by his daughter, Rosemary, details his life-long passion for saving wild creatures.
When the park’s ownership was transferred, many changes occurred and today it is not the same as in Fleay’s time, however it is still a great memorial to his family’s hard work and sacrifice.
Would I go back to White Rock at night alone again for another chance encounter? Passion is a powerful force. It gives us courage and drive. It helps fuel discoveries. It protects and rescues. It helps create objects of beauty and necessity. It solves problems. Even I have my limits when it comes to my passion for wildlife though. Despite the enticements of the strong silent type, I won’t be returning alone. You are welcome to join me though. Perhaps, like David Fleay, you’ll develop a lifelong passion for this powerful creature of the night. And by the way, I did return to Mt Barney on numerous occasions and even camped there for two nights, but that is another story…
“All these decades later, this regal, austere, particularly Australian, Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua), giant of the continent’s nocturnal bird of prey, epitome of solitude and a voice that expresses no other the essence and grandeur of the mountain bushlands, is as fresh and exciting as the day I met it forty-three years ago.”
David Fleay ( Nightwatchmen of Bush and Plain, 1968)