For many years it has been suspected that some birds of the Tasmanian race leucopsis of boobook type owl migrated to Victoria over winter. This member of the boobook clan tends to differ from their mainland counterparts by being smaller, darker with more speckling on back and crown, spotted underparts rather than streaked and most noticeably have fantastic “phonebook” yellow irises as opposed to the dull yellow to olive of mainland birds. Over the years there have been good numbers of dead birds and the odd live bird including Cape Bridgewater in 1993 and Hamilton 2013 which were seen by a number of people but there has never been any definitive evidence if this being more than aberrant birds making their way across the strait. Twice I have found beachcast boobooks at Wilsons Prom but at the time did not think much of it so did not collect or otherwise document the specimens. Local commentary from Tasmanian birders indicate that boobook types remain throughout the winter so at best a subset would migrate. Indeed I have seen (and heard) boobook types on territory in Tasmania a number of times during July through September over the years. To add some grist the mill, the IOC taxonomy (used by most Australian birders) split leucopsis from the mainland Boobook types and placed it with the New Zealand species – Ninox novaeseelandiae – which of course has made it of increased interest to birders. In Tasmania the Boobook type is capricious – often heard but less often seen – I have most often seen it on the road or roadside perch while driving or more commonly have heard it calling in the area. It was not until October 2015 when Andrew Franks posted a series of pictures taken after dark at the Cape Liptrap lighthouse of good numbers of Tasmanian Boobook that it was realised there was a significant number of birds staging for return at this location. This means that the odd birds recorded over previous years were not vagrant or aberrant but but part of a larger cohort migrating across Bass Strait.
The moment I saw Andrew Frank’s photographs in 2015 I arranged to go down with Paul Dodd and Ruth Woodrow where we were rewarded with at least 8 birds in the immediate area of the Cape Liptrap lighthouse which allowed close approach – I honestly believe I could have touched a bird if I had tried. The birds were largely silent but interestingly we did hear a couple of calls but I could not comment on the difference to standard Southern Boobook calls. The number of predatory birds in such a small area could not be sustained and within a week or two they were gone having answered a few questions but leaving a number more. Earlier this year Rohan Clarke and I were wandering around the Central Highlands near Marysville when we rumbled a Tasmanian Boobook on the road which provided a rare inland record of this bird. Over the past few months I have been increasingly looking forward to getting back down to Cape Liptrap in October to see if the congregation is indeed an annual event.
On the 14th of October Jeff Davies picked up Scott Baker and I and we headed down to Cape Liptrap with high expectations. A near full moon lit the sky as we arrived after dodging wombats, wallabies and a whole crew of fox kits on the road in. We were a full week earlier than my visit last year and I was a bit worried we would be early but within 60 seconds of leaving the carpark we saw our first Morepork type owl in the distance which was the first of many. The owls this year were much more skittish which we put down to the full moon or the fact we were a week earlier and they had not settled. In the two and a half hours we were there we estimated at least 8 owls but there may well have been more. It was great to confirm that last years records were not a once off and again this is supporting evidence that reasonable numbers of these birds migrate to the mainland every year. Eventually we managed a few record shots before jumping in the car and heading home. During the night Jeff had heard a bird call and Scott and I had seen birds huting insects. The next part of this puzzle will be to check other likely headlands at this time of year and see if there is a similar congregation of tasmanian boobook types. If anyone has any comment on the topic – anecdotal or otherwise I would be keen to hear.