You may have seen this issue pop up online and in the local and mainstream media recently. WEPA was alerted last month by Simon Brown, Wildlife officer at Willoughby City Council (WCC) that the expansion works at Chatswood High School were an immediate threat to an active nest tree of a Threatened Species, the Powerful Owl. The nesting site has been in use from at least 2011 (except for 2019/20) and it would appear it is currently in use for the 2021 breeding season. At least 11 chicks have successfully fledged from this nest over the last decade or more.
The problem seems to have emerged because the Biodiversity Development Assessment Report did not identify that Powerful Owls were nesting on-site and the Tree Retention/Removal Report prepared for the Chatswood High School Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) unfortunately did not capture the nesting tree on its plan.
Powerful Owls are very particular about the nests they choose. They need 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. Once the female chooses a nesting hollow the pair tend to return to it year after year.
We are extremely grateful to Simon and the Wildlife team at Willoughby Council, who raised the alarm and carried out delicate discussions with staff from the Department of Education and the Department of Planning, Industry and the Environment to prevent the nest tree’s removal. He was joined by Dr Beth Mott, leader of the Powerful Owl Project in Sydney (run by BirdLife Australia) who also added her expertise to negotiations. A shout-out as well to local Powerful Owl watchers Wendy Rogers (a WEPA member) and Lynette Twigg who have collected data on the owls and watched over them for the last decade or more.
Happily, an agreement has now been reached to modify the building plans to allow the nest tree to be retained in the long term. It is quite encouraging that this should happen on the grounds of a high school as the youth of today will have much to do to help retain our unique wildlife in an uncertain future.
WEPA has written to the Premier and Minister for Planning suggesting that the protection of our native flora and fauna during State Significant developments of this sort would be improved if there was a legislated obligation for those preparing Environmental Impact Statements to make direct contact with local community and environmental groups and with the bushland/biodiversity staff in local Councils. This would allow those with expertise in the area to share this local knowledge in order to protect our urban bushland and wildlife when development is considered.
The Powerful Owl is a potent symbol in our area of the way in which urban Sydney can continue to coexist with our local flora and fauna – they are much admired and much loved. They are also apex predators essential to the maintenance of ecological balance. We appreciate that action has been taken to ensure that they continue to help our bush thrive and delight our community for years to come.