By Steve Bullock
My mate and I were out chasing wild dogs. The sun had settled and the stars were coming out enmasse littering the sky with a myriad of sparkling diamonds. We had reached a resting point on a cow track overlooking a narrow valley. This was a well frequented area for wild dogs and one where we had located pups on previous occasions. We both picked a spot to sit, the steep bank rising behind afforded us some protection from any wild dogs that might attempt to sneak in behind our positions. My mate would use his cupped hands to broadcast his howls and between times I would use a predator caller that I had bought a few months before.
The caller was a reed inside a rubber mouthpiece attached to a plastic horn about five centimetres long. The harder one bit down on the reed, the higher the pitch of the sound that came out imitating an injured mouse. Releasing the pressure to a half bite changed the call to a distressed rabbit and no pressure at all allowed the caller to sound raspy and breathy imitating the sounds of a hare in the clutches of a predator.
I was hopeful that this evening the caller would prove its worth. We both sat down against the bank, my mate a few metres away in the gloom. I could just make out his shadow in the starlight and saw that he was reclined on the grass, very comfortable but alert. I sat with my legs drawn up, my rifle nestled between my knees pointing skyward. A round already in the breech and the bolt raised but ready in an instant to be closed should the occasion present. Satisfied that we were comfortable with each other’s location in the darkness and conscious of our safe arcs of fire, my mate began a low drawn out howl that echoed back off the opposite hillside. His howls increased in intensity from a quiet querying call to a more rapid offensive challenge to any wild dogs who might be out there in the darkness. Our expectation was that these calls would raise the hackles of any alphas in the area and bring them in to chase off this intruder.
In between howls we both listened intently for any replies but none came. There was no breeze to carry our scent towards our quarry and the only sounds were from night creatures stirring and moving about their business of foraging and hunting for food. From where my mate was seated, I appeared to him as a dark silhouette against the skyline and from my vantage point I could see the shimmering lights of the coastal towns far off in the distance.
When it came my turn to use my predator caller, I did so as if I was a mouse caught in the death grasp of some night creature and I played out my role as if auditioning for some part on stage. I bit down hard on the rubber mouthpiece and blew and panted, imagining it was me that was being attacked and that I was some helpless animal, scared out of my wits with an unseen attacker snapping at my neck. I played that caller as if my life depended on it and was quite pleased with myself at the great performance I was putting on.
My hands rested on the rifle fore-end as I scanned the gloom and strained for any excited howls or barking that would indicate that we had stirred up the hunger of any wild dogs that would rush in for an easy kill.
As I turned my head towards the horizon, I suddenly became aware of a dark streamlined shape gliding effortlessly towards me. It was about 10 metres away, perfectly silhouetted against the distant suburban lights and sailing swiftly towards me. For a moment all I could think of was that the shape looked so much like an American stealth bomber - it was so smooth, closing fast towards me and directly at my head. On its present course it appeared that it was going to collide with my mouth. The silhouette was about a metre from tip to tip, a slight bulge in the middle and a sharp beak coming to a pointed ‘V’ at its extremity. Suddenly I recognised it for what it was: an owl streaking straight towards the sound of an injured mouse. The realisation of what this was and what was going to happen to me if I didn’t react, and react now, suddenly struck home! I burst into action as this huge night hunter was only a fraction of a second away from latching its claws around what it thought was easy prey.
I don’t know who got the biggest fright; me from the sudden realisation that a bird of prey was only centimetres away from sinking its talons into my face and ripping my predator caller away and most probably some of my flesh, or the owl as it came face to face with a dark shape that until a fraction of a second before had been a rock with a mouse sitting on top of it.
I didn’t have time to stand up or turn my face away as the bird was on me in an instant. I raised my rifle vertically into the air placing it between me and the razor sharp talons which by now were already outstretched towards my face as it attempted to lock onto its prey. Keeping my rifle between me and it, the bird flapped its huge wings, circling in wide slow downward movements as if back peddling frantically to get away from the commotion it had aroused. It seemed to hang in mid-air, suspended, neither going forward nor retreating backwards as it struggled to gain momentum, its huge wings trying to create an urgent down-draught that would take it swiftly away from danger. For a moment, neither the bird nor I seemed to be winning - I was madly waving my rifle about, not intentionally wanting to hurt the bird but seriously wishing to keep it away from my face and eyes. As for the owl, it must have struggled to comprehend what had just happened, wondering how its prey had morphed into some demented rock that was swinging a branch about, trying to hit it for six, that moments ago was on the verge of providing it with probably its first meal of the evening.
I could see its talons clearly despite the dark. Two stick-like feathered legs fully extended forward, thrusting the threat of pain centimetres from my face, black needle sharp tips that threatened to pierce and stab my face with its four toes, three on top and the fourth shorter one, like a vice on the bottom. I could just make out the knobbly surface in the swell of its feet but I wasn’t hanging around to admire them just then. I must have let out a shriek because the bird seemed to beat harder with its wings and like someone slowly lifting themselves out of a mud hole, it started to gain some backward motion, so slowly at first that if I had wanted I could have reached up and touched its breast as it hung before my face.
I didn’t though; I swung my rifle like a madman to keep its claws from me and encouraged it as best as I could to leave the area by shouting abuse at it. At length it dipped its right wing towards the ground before gracefully banked and dropped off the side of the hill and disappearing silently into the darkness.
As my breath heaved in my chest I struggled to gain composure, I was hoping that my mate hadn’t seen my schoolgirl reaction. However, the sound of loud laughter told me that I was wrong. He had seen everything and was highly amused at my hysterical antics. He had seen the bird gliding effortlessly towards me but there was no time to shout a warning, so he had watched the whole incident unfold before him. He had seen the bird stall in the air as it desperately tried to avoid being struck by my rifle. He had heard my girly shrieks of horror as what was about to happen struck home and he had watched the whole sorry affair as both bird and human tried desperately to disengage without causing injury to each other.
When I had calmed down sufficiently I was able to say with some sincerity that the dogs may have heard the frightened screams of some poor creature and might come to investigate. I knew one thing for sure; next time I used that caller, I was going to keep a keen eye out not just at ground level, you just can’t be certain what direction a curious predator might come.