The Powerful Owl is the largest owl in Australasia. It is a typical hawk-owl, with large yellow eyes and no facial-disc. Adults reach 60 cm in length, have a wingspan of up to 140 cm and weigh up to 1.45 kilograms. Males are larger than females. The upper parts of the Powerful Owl are dark, greyish-brown with indistinct off-white bars. The underparts are whitish with dark greyish-brown V-shaped markings. Juvenile Powerful Owls have a white crown and underparts that contrasts with its small, dark streaks and dark eye patches. The call of this species may be heard at any time of the year, but it is more vocal during the autumn breeding season. It has a slow, deep and resonant double hoot, with the female’s being higher pitched and expressing an upward inflection on the second note.
The Powerful Owl is endemic to eastern and south-eastern Australia, mainly on the coastal side of the Great Dividing Range from Mackay to south-western Victoria. In NSW, it is widely distributed throughout the eastern forests from the coast inland to tablelands, with scattered records on the western slopes and plains suggesting occupancy prior to land clearing. Now at low densities throughout most of its eastern range, rare along the Murray River and former inland populations may never recover.
Habitat and ecology
- The Powerful Owl inhabits a range of vegetation types, from woodland and open sclerophyll forest to tall open wet forest and rainforest.
- The Powerful Owl requires large tracts of forest or woodland habitat but can occur in fragmented landscapes as well. The species breeds and hunts in open or closed sclerophyll forest or woodlands and occasionally hunts in open habitats. It roosts by day in dense vegetation comprising species such as Turpentine Syncarpia glomulifera, Black She-oak Allocasuarina littoralis, Blackwood Acacia melanoxylon, Rough-barked Apple Angophora floribunda, Cherry Ballart Exocarpus cupressiformis and a number of eucalypt species.
- The main prey items are medium-sized arboreal marsupials, particularly the Greater Glider, Common Ringtail Possum and Sugar Glider. There may be marked regional differences in the prey taken by Powerful Owls. For example in southern NSW, Ringtail Possum make up the bulk of prey in the lowland or coastal habitat. At higher elevations, such as the tableland forests, the Greater Glider may constitute almost all of the prey for a pair of Powerful Owls. Flying foxes are important prey in some areas; birds comprise about 10-50% of the diet depending on the availability of preferred mammals. As most prey species require hollows and a shrub layer, these are important habitat components for the owl.
- Pairs of Powerful Owls demonstrate high fidelity to a large territory, the size of which varies with habitat quality and thus prey densities. In good habitats a mere 400 can support a pair; where hollow trees and prey have been depleted the owls need up to 4000 ha.
- Powerful Owls nest in large tree hollows (at least 0.5 m deep), in large eucalypts (diameter at breast height of 80-240 cm) that are at least 150 years old. While the female and young are in the nest hollow the male Powerful Owl roosts nearby (10-200 m) guarding them, often choosing a dense “grove” of trees that provide concealment from other birds that harass him.
- Powerful Owls are monogamous and mate for life. Nesting occurs from late autumn to mid-winter, but is slightly earlier in north-eastern NSW (late summer – mid autumn). Clutches consist of two dull white eggs and incubation lasts approximately 38 days.