Owls Don’t Actually Exist (+Crocodylus Park)

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July 16th 2018
Published: July 16th 2018
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As everyone knows, owls don’t actually exist. They’re a myth invented just to annoy birders and to get them to stare at empty patches of vegetation where these mythical owls roost. Anyway, we started with an early morning visit to the Darwin Esplanade which isn’t particularly birdy being a pretty well manicured stretch of grass that overlooks the sea. But at the end of it near some steps that go down to the beach is a big patch of trees where the internet says that a family of Barking Owls roost. Obviously, they weren’t there or at least weren’t visible. A passing jogger said that the owls could sometimes be seen flying in before dawn when it’s still dark. But obviously she was just part of the conspiracy since owls don’t actually exist.

We couldn’t spend long looking for the Barking Owls that morning. I know they don’t actually exist but I just wanted to make sure, and I checked the trees thoroughly enough to make sure that the owls weren’t obvious at least, it’s not a big patch of vegetation. We couldn’t look for too long because I had to go back to the doctor to follow up about my dysentery from the start of my time in Darwin. I was better though as I had finished the antibiotics course and it had completely cured. The tests showed I had a bacterial infection, as expected, although it turned out I was given the wrong antibiotics for the type of bacterium that it actually ended up being (I was given a kind of antibiotics which many strains of that particular bacterium are resistant too so it’s not usually used) but luckily it seemed to work regardless.

That didn’t take long especially because I am, you know, better so going to a doctor is basically pointless but after that we headed for a visit to a birding site called Holmes Jungle Nature Park. It’s a remnant patch of natural vegetation in the Darwin suburbs and is largely dominated by tall grassland. There are buttonquails here but they’re difficult to see because they mostly just stay in the tall grass and you have to be very lucky to be in the right place when one crossed a path, and lots of finches too including Crimsons and Double-barreds and only my second view and first photo of a Long-tailed Finch. I saw some Zitting Cisticolas too which are uncommon in Australia. Holmes Jungle Nature Park is also supposed to be a good site for Eastern Grass Owls which apparently can often be seen hunting above the grasslands during the day in the mornings. Owls don’t actually exist though so I didn’t see any.

Holmes Jungle Nature Park is right next to Crocodylus Park which is where we went to next. This is a medium sized zoo in the Darwin suburbs with both natives and exotics and they specialise in crocs, hence the name. With this zoo visit, that makes the third zoo on this Top End trip which isn’t bad for an eleven day trip and although I had hoped to get to all three zoos, I thought I would probably only make it to Territory Wildlife Park. Most of the enclosures at the zoo are small and unremarkable, at least for everything except the crocs. They’ve got a variety of extremely common native birds, reptiles, and mammals, and a few exotics that are probably unusual for Australia with four species of primates, Maned Wolves, and three species of cat. Nicely laid out though in a small plot and worth popping into. The crocs are what makes the place more interesting though as they breed them here and breed hundreds. They have a row of about twenty breeding pens, each with a pair of huge Saltwater Crocs, some absolutely massive males too and a leucistic saltie, and of course lots of pools with young ones of different sizes ranging from just bigger than hatchlings to almost ready for handbags in size. They’re not shy about the fate of the crocs though, and they sell lots of crocodile leather and crocodile meat in the shop, the latter in the restaurant/café too. I think that is much better than pretending all the baby crocs live happily ever after.

They actually hold several species of crocodilian, beyond just loads of salties and a few freshies like Australian crocodile places tend to do. They also have American Alligators and, surprisingly for me because I wasn’t expecting either of these species, Philippine Crocodiles and New Guinea Crocodiles. Quite a few of the latter species, presumably they are trying to breed them. I wonder where they got those two species from? New Guinea Crocodiles in particular are not at all common in captivity and I don’t believe I’ve seen them before. Direct imports?

Crocodylus Park also does boat cruises on the nearby river where they see sort-of-wild (relocated) crocs and probably some common waterbirds, but you had to pay extra so I didn’t do that. I enjoyed visiting the place, well worth a few hours, and I like going to zoos anyway, especially new ones that have some kind of unusual feature. Oh, and they’ve got a rather impressive crocodile museum too with lots of quite interesting biological, cultural and conservation displays.

After Crocodylus Park since we got there early enough (none of these distances driven today are far at all) we headed to the Botanic Gardens for a proper visit. The one thing I wanted to see here was, you guessed it, a mythical imaginary owl. This is supposed to be the easiest and most reliable place anywhere to see a Rufous Owl (though I have actually seen one before two years ago near Cairns) because there is at least one or usually a pair that roosts here and they are supposed to be easy enough to locate. There is a small rainforest walk and they’re supposed to roost in the trees there or alternatively they apparently roost in the trees near the toilet block. But as I’ve said owls don’t exist. All the websites and guides tell you to just stare at the darkest bits of the trees and then you see the owls. Yeah, that’s definitely a ploy to have birders standing there staring at nothing for hours. I had a couple of hours at the botanic gardens, no owls.

So we then had to return the hire car that late afternoon so we did that and then walked from there back to the esplanade because despite being sure that owls don’t exist by this point, I still wanted to stare at some trees where Barking Owls definitely don’t roost for a few hours before dinner. Because the trees are right by some narrow stairs going from the upper esplanade level to the beach I had to basically stand right in the middle of a busy path to look for the owls, just staring at nothing with my binoculars. I did this for about two and a half hours, just up and down the same 30m of staircase at the same tiny patch of trees, but very dense trees. I would have given up earlier since owls don’t exist, but I did hear one short sequence of Barking Owl hoots and they’re distinctive so there’s no mistaking those. Someone has gone to the effort of hiding a tape recorder with Barking Owl calls in the trees too. All the locals seem to be in on the myth though, because a few people knew I was looking for the owls.

Then, to my shock and surprise, almost three hours on those damn stairs staring at trees for non-existent owls, there was one! It just sat there, perfectly still, with its eyes closed. Now that I’ve seen it, it would be very easy to direct anyone to it. Just look in the darkest bits of the trees… hmm. Anyway, the Barking Owl sat there, slightly opened its eyes, then closed them again. Then in a sudden burst of energy lifted a leg and sort of scratched its head then went back to sleep. The good thing about owl day roosts is that its walk-away views guaranteed. Must be a very realistic animatronic owl that someone put in that tree. If I didn’t know any better, I would almost say it was a real live owl.

That makes only the third owl species in two months on this trip so far. Three owls is better than no owls though, and I see owls at day roosts even less frequently than I see owls at night (both the other two were at night). I have another full day in Darwin tomorrow before leaving for Cairns the next morning, but I’m on my own without a car so limited to where I can get to by bus (i.e. this is Australia so nowhere at all) and where I can walk to and since a 4km walk is no problem for me, I can get to the botanic gardens to try again for Rufous Owl and possibly get to some mangroves to have another go at Chestnut Rail. Apart from those and Beach Stone-Curlew I’ve pretty much seen all of my main targets, which isn’t bad at all so I’m overall very pleased with having managed to get so much wildlife and to get to three zoos on top of that.

New bird:

Barking Owl

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