Amy Beaton and Boyd Wykes Photo J Ghirardi

Amy Beaton and Boyd Wykes. Photo J Ghirardi

DENIZENS OF THE NIGHT

Venture out after dark with a headlamp along Margaret River’s extensive forest paths and you may encounter not only abundant possums and phascogales but also a variety of nocturnal birds. Binoculars work equally well at night with torch-light.

We have abundant small, familiar Boobook and extraordinary Tawny Frogmouth plus the lesser known, diminutive Owlet Nightjar, while ghostly Barn Owl may be encountered in farmland. Now we have revelations that this region is a ‘hot-spot’ for our largest night predator, the enigmatic Masked Owl!

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Boobook Photo S Castan

BOOBOOK

Ninox boobook

Best known of our nocturnal birds is the Southern Boobook, a small brown ‘hawk owl’ whose call conveniently matches its name. Another similar name ‘mopoke’ is best discarded since it has also been used for the Tawny Frogmouth.

Boobooks have extended their habitat from bushland to gardens, playing fields and farms of the Margaret River region as they have throughout much of Australia. Here their dietary needs are met by small insects such as lawn beetles and introduced mice. Suitable nest hollows remain in old marris and karri and they can disappear into day-time roosts of dense peppermint foliage.

Few people realise that the persistent, loud cricket-like calling heard in many of our gardens on summer evenings is begging calls of fledgling Boobooks. The give-away is when the calling moves rapidly between trees as the youngsters harass their parents for food.

Boobook contact, courtship and juvenile begging calls

Southern Barking Owl, Newstead Victoria Photo S Castan

compared with Boobook Photo S Castan

BARKING OWL

Ninox connivens

The Barking Owl is a larger relative of the Boobook that in WA has three populations – a SW corner population of a southern Australian race; Pilbara and Kimberley populations of a northern race.

This south-west population is extremely rare but is not currently listed as threatened as it is lumped in with the Southern Barking Owl sub-species across southern Australia. So little is known about this population that there have been no museum specimens since the 1960s. New records are needed to be able to undertake a genetic comparison with the eastern Australian counterparts. If further research proves it is an endemic sub-species, it will likely be recognised as critically endangered.

Although there are Darling Scarp forest records from Perth to Margaret River, the Barking Owl is not regarded as a bird of tall, continuous forest and was likely more a species of woodland and waterway vegetation of the wheatbelt; habitat that has been devastated by clearing, fragmentation and salination.

Barking Owls have a highly distinctive barking  ‘woof woof’ or ‘whoop whoop’ contact call; another reason for pessimism about its status when such calls are not being reported. When courting in the winter, the Barking Owl is famous for a ‘murdered woman’ scream of ‘heeelp’ that has reportedly led to searches in the night for a human in trouble. But when screeching is reported without any ‘barking’, this is most likely by other nocturnal birds, foxes or of course dogs.

HAVE OUR NIGHTS LOST THEIR WOOF? a plea for records of surviving Barking Owls in south-west WA

The Barking Owl has a less chunky body shape than its smaller Boobook relative, relatively larger bright yellow eyes and broader frontal streaking.

 Southern Barking OwlAustralian Boobook
Size35-45cm25-35cm
EyesBright yellowGrey-green
Chest colourDark brown streaks on creamWhite streaks on dark
RarityRareCommon
HabitatWaterside vegetation, semi-arid woodlandMost woodlands in south west
Call‘Woof woof’ or ‘whoop whoop’, gruff and deep‘boobook’ or ‘morepork’, high pitched

HOW TO SUMIT A RECORD

Please email: robert.davis@ecu.edu.au or submit your record when using eBird or Birdata.

Photos, phone video of vision and/or calls, or detailed descriptions are required to distinguish reports from Boobooks.

Verifiable historic records would also be most welcomed.

See Liddelow and Kavanagn (2002) for the little  known about the status of the SW Barking Owl population and a review of all records by Davis RA, Joseph L and Johnstone RE (2022) that concludes that the Barking Owl may now be extinct in SW WA.

Barking Owl ‘woof woof’ and single note contact calls (Pilbara population, Upper Ashburton, October 2019)

Tawny Frogmouth Photo S Castan

TAWNY FROGMOUTH

Podargus strigoides

Australia’s Tawny Frogmouth is of an ancient group with unresolved affinities to owls and other birds. Held in great respect and some fear by the Wadandi People of this region, ‘Kombegaar’, meaning ‘big mouth’, is truly extraordinary.

Gisela Kaplan details in her book Tawny Frogmouth ‘special powers’ including day-time invisibility through camouflage; a deep, penetrating ‘oom oom’ call that is difficult for predators to locate; eyes that see in the dark through uniquely huge, dilating pupils; modified feet with three toes pointing forward to assist branch perching; and that emblematic bill and whiskers enabling safe handling of scorpions, centipedes and spiders, as well as insects, frogs and mice. Unlike owls that rely on hollows, frogmouths build their own nests, a platform of twigs and leaves.

Frogmouths are abundant in our region, with plentiful habitat for roosting, nesting and foraging, including in backyards and school grounds to the delight of their lucky landlords. Unlike with owls, we cannot gain insights into diet from regurgitated pellets since the powerful stomach acid of frogmouths fully digests even bone and fur. We know from observation that they search on the ground for small prey, sadly too often on roads. They also take prey on the wing including swooping down for mice.

Owlet-nightjar Photo S Castan

OWLET-NIGHTJAR

Aegotheles cristatus

The Australian Owlet-nightjar is known to few and when seen fluttering in headlights can be mistaken for a large moth or bat.   And yet this smallest of our night birds is widespread throughout the semi-arid, woodland and forested regions of WA, and often common, as here in Margaret River.

Owlet-nightjars appear to be a small relative of Frogmouths with similar adaptations of camouflage plumage, enormous eyes and a broad beak.   However, they sit with the Nightjars, a separate cosmopolitan family of which Australia has several large, widespread species found in open country.

More often heard than seen, Owlet-nightjars make calls that include a variety of single and double-note churrs and yapps, quite loud for such a small bird, all at a distinctive, relatively high pitch. They roost and nest in small hollows accessed through spouts and chimneys which fortunately are plentiful in the many large trees retained in the outskirts of our townships, farmland and extensive forest reserves.

Owlet-nightjars will call and even commence hunting before dark and can be spotted sunning at roost entrances in winter. Their insect prey are taken both in flight and on the ground.

Owlet Nightjar varied double and single note contact calls

Masked Owl Photos S Castan

MASKED OWL

Tyto novaehollandiae

We now realise that many of the large Barn Owl-like night birds caught in headlights in semi-cleared areas of the Capes are more likely the little-known Masked Owl, also responsible for scary screeching many previously assumed were Brush-tailed Possums on steroids.

The Masked Owl is the largest member of the Barn Owl family, characterised by heart-shaped facial discs. The Masked Owl of south west Australia is now largely confined to the forested deep south, greatly contracted from a range that extended east through woodland to a cave-dwelling Nullarbor population.

Known as Yornitj in the Dworden language of the Wadandi People, this ‘spirit, shape-changer’ personifies all that is mysterious and forbidding about the night forest.

Wadandi Elder Wayne Webb has shared with members of our group  the thrill of close encounters with Masked Owl families and indeed currently lives in a Masked Owl ‘flight-path’, regaled by the ‘scary’ screeching of a pair heading out each night to hunt.

Barn Owl Photo S Castan

BARN OWL

Tyto delicatula

The Eastern Barn Owl, an Australia-wide version of one of the world’s most widely distributed land birds, is found in most Australian habitats ranging from desert to woodland. Wherever there are tree hollows and even caves for nesting, Barn Owls are able to breed in all seasons, with large clutches to take advantage of eruptions of native rodents and, now, introduced house mice in farmland.

Barn Owls are not suited to the deep forests of the east coast, Tasmania and south–west Western Australia which are prime habitat for the Masked Owl. Accordingly, Barn Owls are shown as absent from the Margaret River region by Johnstone and Storr in the WA Museum’s 1998 Handbook of Western Australian Birds. When Barn Owls did turn up here, they were likely short-term immigrants dispersing from an inland ‘bust’ following a ‘boom’. However, Barn Owls are now so often and consistently recorded that they are likely resident in the highly suitable cleared habitats we have created, helping manage our farmland rodents. They are known as Minnar to the Wadandi salt-water people of the south-west capes.

Barn Owls are smaller and slighter in body than the Masked Owl although a large (female) Barn Owl is similar to a small (male) Masked Owl. Both are ‘watch and pounce’ hunters but the smaller, more agile Barn Owl is also an excellent ‘courser’, gliding over open ground to spot and snatch prey. Key distinguishing features of a Barn Owl are little feathering of the legs, broken edging to the facial disc and fewer bars on the wing feathers. The Barn Owl’s screech is a high pitched scream, while the Masked Owl’s is a deeper, raspy prolonged cough.