By Nigel Jackett, Broome-based Masked Owl researcher
Nigel Jackett, a PhD student from the University of Queensland, is undertaking research to improve conservation of the Northern Masked Owl (Tyto novaehollandiae kimberli), a rarely seen, threatened species known to or likely to occur on at least nine AWC sanctuaries and partnership areas across northern Australia.
Last year I was invited to help Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) with woorrurru (Gouldian Finch) and barbarnguny/wawarrany (Western Partridge Pigeon) surveys on the Yampi Sound Training Area (YSTA) on Dambimangari Country.
The surveys involved sitting by the edge of a waterhole, while we waited for the finches and pigeons to arrive for their morning drink. It wasn’t just the finches and pigeons that visited, but also many of the birds that live in the productive grasslands and woodlands of YSTA. We kept a record of all the different species seen or heard, to help learn more about the birdlife in the area.
After finishing the morning surveys, we would spend the remainder of the day back at the Kimbolton base entering data and preparing for the next day. However, there was also an opportunity to look for nocturnal birds in the evenings – in particular, the Northern Masked Owl.
I’m passionate about birds. As well as researching migratory shorebirds in Broome, and the elusive Night Parrot in the Great Sandy Desert, I’m part way through my PhD research on the Masked Owl. For this research, I’m studying the northern Australian subspecies of the Masked Owl, which occurs from the west Kimberley to Cape York Peninsula in Queensland. I work closely with AWC in the Kimberley and Cape York to learn about Northern Masked Owls.
Northern Masked Owls are very shy and hard to find because they sleep during the day tucked up in dense trees, and they are only active at night when it’s dark and hard for us to see them. However, when the owl lets out a screech, it is unmistakable – a long, loud, terrifying scream!
Listen to the Northern Masked Owl’s call, recorded at Yampi Sound Training Area:
The Northern Masked Owl eats small to medium-sized mammals, which can disappear from the landscape if fires are too hot or too frequent. They need good fire management to survive. Places with lots of mammals are likely to have Northern Masked Owls, so Dambimangari Country is perfectly suited for them. Unfortunately, other parts of northern Australia have lost their small to medium-sized mammals, with Northern Masked Owls disappearing from these areas.
At night around Kimbolton, we heard screeches of yuwurn (Barn Owl), whose calls and looks are very similar to the Northern Masked Owl. Yuwurn is also white with black eyes, but it has smaller talons (feet) and bill for catching small food like mice and insects. The Northern Masked Owl has bigger, stronger talons for catching larger mammals such as karimba (Golden Bandicoot), wungkarnbanja inja (Golden-backed Tree-rat) and langkurmannya (Savanna Glider).
At night we played Northern Masked Owl calls through a speaker, but we couldn’t find any Northern Masked Owls in the open woodlands around Kimbolton or Old Kimbolton. So, we travelled west towards the Trent River. Upon reaching the river, we played some calls, and almost immediately a pair of Northern Masked Owls screeched back and flew towards us to see who the intruder was. These were the first Northern Masked Owls I had seen in the Kimberley, so it was a very special occasion! We didn’t want to disturb them any further. In nearby trees, we placed two sound recorders (song meters) that could record their screech calls during the night for many months.
A few nights later we continued further west on an unmanaged old track to the Trent River mouth. In the middle of the night while asleep in our tents, we awoke to continuous screeching. We walked over with a spotlight, and there in an ungkurnbeem (paperbark tree) was a young Northern Masked Owl, begging for food from its parents! The fledgling owl appeared to be at its nest tree. The ungkurnbeem tree was 10 metres tall, and the bark was scorched black from previous hot fires. The top of the tree had snapped off, leaving it hollow at the top. This is likely to be where the owls were nesting and roosting during the day. Another sound recorder was placed nearby to record the calls of the young owl and its parents.
The AWC team are planning to download the data from all three of the sound recorders in early May. Hopefully there will be many hours of calling Northern Masked Owls. Knowing how often these owls call, and at what time of the night, will help us to better understand Northern Masked Owl breeding behaviours in the Kimberley. It is very exciting to know that Northern Masked Owls are breeding along the Trent River.
I look forward to working with the Dambimangari Rangers to learn more about the Northern Masked Owl and hope my research can help with their management activities. I’m sure with more searching these beautiful owls will be found in many other places on Dambimangari Country.