Searching for an elusive owl

Perico by Alex Brighten

When our daughter was working on her master’s thesis, studying vocalisations of morepork, or ruru in Maori, I was lucky enough to accompany her on one of her field trips. She had long been fascinated by owls, but as town dwellers, we hadn’t been lucky enough to see owls in England. I felt privileged then to follow and watch these beautiful native owls in their bush habitat on a tiny island in New Zealand’s Hauraki Gulf. To remember the awesome experience, I wrote a memoir, ‘Searching for Ruru’. This is a short extract that might strike a chord if you’ve tracked owls, or might prompt you to pop it on your bucket list if you haven’t! 

Extract from ‘Searching for Ruru’:

Today we’re off to Perico’s roost. I’m so excited because she has chicks – I had seen photographs of the fluffy siblings. ‘They’ll have adult feathers now though,’ Alex tells me. We follow 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 disturb the stillness. Alex sets up her tripod, and crouches down behind her camera with a lens so long she looks oddly like paparazzi. The chicks are photographed and notes made while I sit near Perico’s ponga. The sun lights up her left side, her feathers stippled in shades of brown like a pointillist painting. Eyes half open, she’s dozing. A branch cracks under Alex’s foot. Eyes wide open, Perico 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 owls. 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; they are moulting and vulnerable. The owl eyes disappear for a while, then  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 roost by Alex Brighten

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Tracy is a freelance writer with special interest in scientific research and news on wildlife, the environment, animal welfare, and mental health. Follow my nature blog at and Twitter @TracyBrighten1

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