It had stopped raining. I put on a green wool suit as if I was going to a CWA function and left the house. Instructions, printed from my email, were folded in my hand. They were the directions to the owl.
The Powerful Owl is Australia’s largest owl, and can be up to 60 cm tall, or, as I think of it “two rulers”. They are also quite rare, and it is surprising to see them so close to the city. We walked up from Circular Quay, where we’d been sitting on a bench facing the harbour, reading library books. “Instead of looking at the view,” Simon noted. “Ugh, we’ve seen it,” I said, Sydney-weary. The tourists trundling past us also seemed to pay the view little attention, though they must have been pleased the incessant rain had stopped.
We walked up the old stone stairs that cut through the middle of the Toaster, interrupting a photograph being taken by a girlfriend of a boyfriend. He was posing on the stairs with the Harbour Bridge behind him, and with me going past wearing a black woollen bonnet, looking stern. I was on a serious mission. I was going in search of the Powerful Owl.
I found the right tree, marked with a red X on my map, and looked up into the branches. It was only a few seconds before I saw the owl. It was high, high up, sitting in the tree and glaring down at the world below. I too would glare from up there. As we stood there, looking up at the owl, more people appeared and started looking. We pointed the owl out to a Japanese girl, who showed her mother and brother in turn. They thanked us and walked away and we kept looking. The owl stretched out one mighty wing, then settled again. It’s easy to forget the reality of owls, them being a creature consistently repeated in craft, patterning notebooks and made into badges (I just searched “owl” in etsy, 70 807 results came up). On etsy they are a benign presence, rather than the fierce birds of prey they really are. In this short article about the owl, it’s picture with a half consumed flying fox in its claws. This is the owl I would rather have on my notebook!
At home I got out my Simpson and Day Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, and looked up the Powerful Owl entry. My favourite part of this book is where it describes the birds’ calls. The Powerful Owl is: “slow, deep, resonant double-hoot”. For those who break into the Botanic Gardens at night, who brave the spiked fence, this hoot is your reward.