Searching for an elusive owl

An extract from my short memoir on searching for New Zealand’s native owl.

The memoir tells the story of a trip I made with my daughter to a small island in the Hauraki Gulf during her study on vocalisations of morepork, or ruru in Maori. I felt privileged to follow and watch this beautiful owl and my daughter in their natural habitat.

Extract from ‘Searching for Ruru’

Today we’re off to Perico’s roost. I’m so excited because she has chicks. ‘They’ll have adult feathers now though,’ Alex tells me. We follow the grooves cut in the hillside by the sheep train that passes through. As we get nearer to the roost my guide signals to slow down, but Perico seems unconcerned. Alex points to her fledged chicks in another tree. They’re dozing, opening their eyes in the lazy heat only when sounds cut the stillness. Alex sets up her tripod, and crouches down behind her camera with a lens so long she looks like paparazzi. The chicks have their portraits taken and notes are made while I sit near Perico’s ponga. The sun lights up this serene owl’s left side, her feathers stippled in shades of brown like a pointillist painting. Eyes half open, she’s dozing. A branch cracks. Eyes wide open, she stares down at me, indignant. I’m starting to see Alex’s fascination.

Perico is not so co-operative that night. We track her back and forth in a bushy gully, but we keep losing her. It seems impossible to follow a bird in flight. Startling a skylark from her grassy sleeping spot, we sit down at the edge of the gully and wait. I resist the urge to talk, remembering Alex’s favourite childhood story Owl Moon, “If you go owling, you have to be quiet.”

I wonder if I have tinnitus. The crickets’ chorus is constant. I think of Alex being here alone over the past year. I’m in awe of her walking in the bush at night and sleeping in the bach in stormy weather with everything rattling and shaking. A high pitched scream cuts the silence. I’ve never heard anything like it. ‘Male kiwi,’ Alex whispers. There’s a lower hoarse reply. ‘Female.’ I’ve only ever seen kiwi behind glass. To see one here in the wild with Alex…

The owls just aren’t calling. Maybe we’re affecting their natural behaviour. I’m beginning to think I might not hear Alex’s morepork. She raises her antenna and flicks on her head torch, shining it straight up the kanuka in front of us. I follow her beam and Perico is staring down at us. Light off, Alex reaches for the infrared video camera. On the screen, two eyes flash on and off as Perico opens and closes her eyes. In her other hand, Alex holds the microphone, pointed upwards ready for the interview. Perico has nothing to say. The breeding season is almost over. Morepork are quieter this month because they are moulting and vulnerable. Her eyes disappear for a while, then they reappear. She’s rotating her head. We sit for an hour. I wonder how Alex can hold her arms in a fixed position for so long. My feet are numb and I have the urge to fidget. Suddenly the owl eyes are gone. Alex flicks on her head torch. The branch is empty.

References Yolen, J. (1992). Owl Moon. England: Liber Press.

Image credit: Perico in her Ponga by Alex Brighten

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You can find more of my writing on my blog, ‘Nature in Mind’.

Originally published at