By Tracy Brighten
An extract from my short memoir on searching for New Zealand’s 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 sound disturbs the stillness. Alex sets up her tripod and crouches down behind her camera with a lens so long she looks oddly like paparazzi. She photographs the chicks and makes notes 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. Eyes wide open, she stares down at me, indignant. I’m starting to see Alex’s fascination with these owls.
Perico is not so co-operative that night. We track her back and forth in a bushy gully but 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 remember Alex’s favourite childhood story and resist the urge to talk: “If you go owling, you have to be quiet.”
I wonder if I have tinnitus. The crickets’ chorus is constant. In the moonlight, I think about 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, wooden doors and window frames rattling and whining in the wind. 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… I can’t find words.
The owls just aren’t calling. Maybe we’re interrupting 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 to see Perico 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 if they draw attention to themselves. Perico’s eyes disappear for a while, then reappear. She’s rotating her head! We sit for an hour, watching and listening, not a word between us. 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