BIRDS – and other things! Print
Friday, 01 July 2016 00:00

Part forty - six : Birds of the Night

I have previously written about the nightly spine - chilling calls of the bush curlew but there are also other nocturnal birds here in the Top End that sometimes create the same effect of setting our teeth on edge. The orange - footed s c rub fowl for instance has a similar screechy utterance that only a mother or devoted (tone deaf!) mate could love.

However, there are a couple of other raucous night - birds in the same league which come readily to mind. One or two of the omnipresent but seldom seen owl species seem to have no inhibitions when around humans and appear to take great pleasure in disturbing our slumber - time. While some of the owl species are relatively soft - spoken, the barking owl (the one mo st likely to visit our gardens, although as suburbia spreads it is getting to be more infrequent) has an explosive, dog - like bark that usually tapers off into a human - like sobbing shriek, apparently designed to scare the living daylights out of us mere mortals. Occasionally preceded by a softish growl, it rapidly grows to a loud, em phatic ‘wook wook’ which carries for long distances. The resemblance to our own barking mutts usually rouses us just long enough to mistakenly yell at them to ‘stop BARKING or I’ ll.....!’

The barking owl has large, piercing bright yellow eyes ringed in black and with big black centres. It has an alternative nick - name: the winking owl (possibly because it seldom does!) but does not have a defined mask like the boobook/mopoke/more pork owl.

While both the barking and boobook owls are classed as hawk - owls, the latter’s voice is far more musical and even has a certain friendly appeal. When in hunting mode, the boobook announce their presence with a very clear ‘more pork, more pork’ en unciation reiterated over and over. When coming from within a stand of trees, the heartrending call resonates rather like surround sound from stereo amplifiers. Defying pin point direction - finding, the echoes seem to indicate that hundreds of boobook owls are sheltering amidst the branches. Not so – it is just a subtle hint of mysterious bird ventriloquism designed to fool the enemy.

Many years ago, with my kindy - age (and under) brood, we camped one time on the banks of Lake Finniss by the old Woolner Stat ion Homestead . Around and behind us were savannah - like grassy plains before reaching back to the natural bush , with many ageless native trees and undergrowth; in front of us, the lotus - filled, safe, serene waters of the lake beckoned enticingly (there were very few crocs in those days!)

And so the stage was set for a typical Territory outback night of ‘happy hunting grounds’ for any feathered nocturnal diners. We were not disappointed as, just on dusk, both these owl species began making their presence obv ious by:

a) regular, insistent requests for ‘more pork’, and;

b) continual barking, presumably warning us of some busybody wanting to be fed! I remember that there was not much sleep on that camping holiday – the ‘noises in the night’ kept everyone on tenterhooks.

Usually, at twilight time, a sudden soft who o osh sound and the glimpse of browny/grey and white feathers would indicate that the owls had been reactivated to hunting mode and were flying up to higher perches from which to survey their ‘restaurant’ area. Cicadas, dragonflies, moths mice, small lizards and so on were their desired prey and, as I perceived it, they were simply waiting for their Domino’s Pizza Delivery Service, ready to pounce on any small animal silly enough to go night flying or walking.

To me, the cry of ‘more pork, more pork’ is a nostalgic sound as, having grown up close to a pinus radiata plantation where the insistent, compelling voice of the boobook owl issuing from the depths of the forest in the depths of the night, had a somewhat comforting resonance.

Anyhow, after feasting all night, both the barking and boobook owls return at first light to their chosen roost to spend the daylight hours, silent and virtually unmoving, beside their mate – no doubt contemplating their next food f oray in a few hours’ time

Next time Meetings with Nightjars and Collectibles.

Gayle Carroll