Every year during the long nights of winter, Eastern Barn Owls are known to frequent the paddocks around the Western Treatment Plant. The owls congregate to take advantage of the bounty of mice and other small prey that the freshly cut fields expose, and are very active in the first couple hours of darkness.
One evening in 2017, we spent three hours searching for the owls, but didn’t see or hear any. In early winter 2018 we tried again, but only got a fleeting glimpse of one and a very blurry photo of what we would like to believe was an owl. It was tough at that time to believe that Barn Owls are the most widespread species of owl (and bird!) on the planet, and is found on all continents except Antarctica (until global warming soon has its way).
With the constant stream of National Geographic-quality photos of the ‘Avalon owls’ being posted to Facebook on a daily basis, we were determined to try our luck again, armed with new intel and photography techniques to reduce motion blur. This time, we weren’t disappointed.
Just on 6:30pm we turned into the unsealed Beach Road (heading towards the boat ramp), and our headlights cut through the inky darkness to reveal the unmistakable sight of a majestic Eastern Barn Owl, perched on a fence post, feathers fluttering in the near gale-force, icy-cold winds. Success!
We spent 5mins photographing the bird, trying different settings, eventually settling on high-ISO (3200), wide aperture (f-7), slight over exposure (+1EV), and a shutter speed of around 1/80 (requiring a very steady hand, and well-supported camera and 600mm lens). The photos were dark, but at least they were not blurry or too noisy to render them unusable – nothing that post-processing couldn’t fix!
Interestingly, the bird did not fly off due to the headlights, us jumping out the car, the door slamming shut, or another car hurtling past. When it did fly off, we assumed it was because it was dinner time (technically breakfast?). We were happy to leave right there and then and return home with a smile on our faces, so we drove a bit further along Beach Road for a safe place to turn, and saw another owl, even closer, on a fence post! We were amazed by how they can swivel their necks almost in a 270-degree arc, and moreover, how fantastic their eyesight must be to navigate and hunt in the pitch blackness of a moonless night. It was a memorable evening, and we were elated to get good views of the elusive Eastern Barn Owl – third time lucky!
A week later, a Spangled Drongo was reported on Phillip Island – one of only a handful of birds ever reported in Victoria. Indeed, the Pizzey & Knight map suggested that they were found on the east and north coasts of Australia, and a couple hundred kilometres from Phillip Island.
Photos of the bird kept flooding in to Facebook, and we thought it would disappear before we could have alignment of availability and good weather on a Saturday. Nonetheless, we tried our luck the next weekend and thought that if we didn’t get lucky, at least we would have a great day out on the island.
As we passed the Phillip Island Airport, Imka shouted “raptor!”, so I quickly made a u-turn, and was pleasantly surprised to see a very obliging Peregrine Falcon on a dead tree in a roadside paddock, no more than 10m away. It was the closest encounter we ever had with such a majestic bird, and it was still there when we left the island, suggesting that perhaps it calls the area home(?).
We had pinpoint directions for where the drongo would be, and had no problem finding the intersection in Rhyll: three cars were parked around the corner, with birdwatchers and their long lenses and binoculars already trained on the nearby canopies.
No one had seen it yet, so I decided to separate from the group, and was rewarded with a very close encounter with the Spangled Drongo! It wasn’t a classically beautiful bird, but I was enraptured with its metallic blue-black sheen, long forked tail, and its harsh call. I snapped a few photos when it alighted on a nearby branch, then trotted back to the group (including Imka) and waved them over to see the bird.
The very appreciative group of birders got crippling views of the Drongo as it flew from branch to branch facing us head on, giving us side profiles, spending time in both the shade and the sun – a photographer’s dream model. We left the group after thirty minutes feeling very pleased that we had accomplished our mission, and added another bird to our lifer list.