Peek-a-Boobook: Encountering Australia’s Smallest Owl

I am solar-powered. Dawn’s first glow draws me out of bed. I’ll run tirelessly while our central star traverses the sky, but my energy lowers with the light. Once darkness falls, my body goes into rest mode. It’s a physiological response I’ve never been able to reprogram (a brief stint on nightshift made me so physically ill that I had to stop). As such, I rarely spot nocturnal wildlife unless it lands on my porch. This does occasionally happen—gorgeous grey tree frogs clinging to the back window, or geckering foxes that woke us on summer nights when we lived in the mid-Atlantic region—but I’ve had few opportunities to meet Australia’s night creatures.

Until friends sent me video of a tiny white owl bouncing on a branch, a fluffy mote beside the streetlight. They’d discovered a family of southern boobooks nesting in their neighborhood. I can’t imagine a more delightful name for Australia’s smallest owl. Boo! evokes startled eyes, and book echoes the bird’s folkloric association with wisdom. Eagerness to see a new bird overcame my evening inertia. I dragged my lawfully wedded mosquito magnet to the site at dusk. Our friends happened by on their evening walk just as we parked the car, and pointed out the exact tree. I squinted into the dense conifer branches, but no avian shapes appeared. Insectoid chirps drifted from the jade shadows.

“That’s the chicks!” Our friends told us excitedly (they are also bird nerds). I walked right up to the trunk, long grass tickling my ankles, and craned my neck to the canopy.


Five birds, two adults and three juveniles, were just waking up. The fledglings still wore fluffy white down. Our presence didn’t disturb them at all. Instead, they seemed curious. They peered through the branches, bobbing their heads in comically bouncy circles, and tilting their faces almost vertical to study the strange featherless creature below. From a distance they looked like cartoon spacemen, with flat faces and lightless ocular pits where the eyes should be. But a closer look revealed sweet, fuzzy expressions. Golden irises shone in the gloaming. The boobooks gamboled around the branches. They seemed to gain energy in inverse proportion to the dimming light.

At last they took off for a tree across the street, and my Laddie took off for the car, swatting at his arms. Darkness swallowed the suburb, and my camera—already pushing ISO limits to the grainy limits of digital imagery—captured only smudges. But the owls’ day was just dawning. The kids clustered together while mom and dad brought food: probably a rodent, judging from the silhouette I glimpsed before an eager little beak bolted it down. Breakfast finished, they moved to a large snag in the next yard. The fledglings flapped awkwardly to find their balance. A full moon rose behind them, highlighting their spooky outlines before it slipped behind the clouds. Scents of coming rain spiced the air. The owl family gathered on a utility pole, then melted into the night for a hunting lesson.

I strained my vision for every last flicker of flight. Prickles ran down my arms. It might have been only the incoming storm’s electrical charge, or something more primal. I’ve only seen wild owls a few times in my life, just wisps of wings in the woods. This intimate encounter felt like touching another dimension, more marvelously alien than any science fiction world I’ve invented. 

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