BARKING OWLS’ by Garry

The Barking Owl is an aggressive hunter taking a wide range of prey. As  they hunt earlier in the evening and later in the morning than any other Australian owl  species,  their  diet  includes a wider range  of  diurnal  birds.  Prey recorded includes House Sparrow, White Winged Chough, Kookaburra, Magpie-lark, Magpie, Red-rumped Parrot and Tawny Frogmouth. Mammals such as small possums, bats  and  gliders are also taken but the introduced rabbit is now  the  major source  of food in southern Australia. As with other Ninox Owls  [hawk  owls] they  also take insects such as beetles and crickets particularly in the  non-breeding season.

 

Barking  Owls’  nest in a large hollow in the trunk or large limb  of  a  tree. Dead  hollow  spouts are also used, the nest may be up to 30metres  above  the ground  but  is  usually  much lower. No nest is made,  the  eggs  being  laid directly onto the floor of the hollow.

 

There  are usually 2 or 3 eggs that, as with most hollow nesting species,  are white. Incubation takes about 35 days and the fledglings leave the nest about 35  days later still being downy as are all other young members of  the  Genus Ninox although none are still showing as much down as the Barking Owl.

 

The  size  of  a Barking Owl can vary between 35cm and  45cm  and  the  wingspan between 85cm and 100cm. The colour of the head varies from dark to light  sandy brown,  the  upper  wings and back are brown with large white  spots  and  the uppertail is inconspicuously barred brown; breast and belly are white  heavily streaked  brown;  eyes are large with a large yellow iris. The large  yellow eyes and large white spots on the upper surface are usually enough to identify this species,  but,  if  the  dog-like  call  is  heard  this  would  confirm identification.  This species is also responsible for the  ‘screaming  woman’ call. it is described as being very much  like  a terrified woman and quite capable of making your hair stand on end on a  dark night if you’re out by yourself.

 

The Barking Owl is a species that, in Victoria, is  considered  to  be endangered.  There are only a small number of known breeding pairs mainly restricted to  the  dryer  forests of Central Victoria. Severe bushfires over the last few years have burnt many of the large hollow bearing trees used by the Barking Owl as well as other species, the fires have also reduced the availability of food. After the fires the owls were seen coming back to their territories in burnt areas, the loss of their habitat as well as food meant they did not stay.

 

Ideal  habitat is open country with a choice of large trees for  roosting  and nesting.  In  Northern  Australia  where this  species  is  more  common  the favoured habitat is paperbark swamps; in southern districts it chooses creeks and rivers that are lined with River Red Gums, isolated stands of large  trees and  open  woodland. In Victoria much of its preferred habitat would  now  be confined  to  private property or creeks and rivers  running  through  private property.

 

My  first encounter with this species was in October, 1982, when Brenda and  I travelled from Melbourne to Chiltern especially to see them. I had been given a detailed map by a friend that showed me exactly where to look for the birds. We spent 3 days bird watching in the area seeing a total of 125 species. A  trip  one night to the area marked on my map added the Barking Owl  to  the list  of  birds  we had seen. At first the birds’  were  heard  calling  their unmistakable  dog-like double bark ‘wuf-wuf’ or ‘wuk-wuk’. After hearing  the call  I  could understand why they are known as Barking Owls, the  call  being remarkably like a barking dog. Later  that  evening we were to see the pair in the spotlight.  Unlike  their smaller  cousin  the Boobook Owl, whose mopoke call may go on for  hours,  the Barking Owl call usually only lasts several minutes at a time making it  much harder to locate.

 

My  encounters with these owls have been mostly very few, my second  sighting  11 years later when in 1993 I found a single bird roosting in a River Red Gum  at Laanecoorie  Reservoir not far from home.  Four  years  later  in  February  1997  whilst spotlighting  for  mammals and nocturnal birds in open  forest  of  Broad-leaf Peppermint,  Manna  Gum  and Blue Gum near Bogong  village  in north  eastern Victoria, I had good views of a single bird for a few minutes then three weeks later  Brenda received an injured bird from Baringhup making a total of  5  birds seen in over 40 years of bird watching.

 

In 2010 and 2011 I took part in a survey to assess the population of owls and arboreal mammals after severe bushfires in the Goulburn Broken Catchment area. Recorded calls of the owls’ were played at night at approximately 50 sites covering a large area east of Kilmore and extending almost to Jamieson, as high as Alexandra and a little further south than Healesville. Surveys of the areas had also taken place in 1996. The Barking Owl was not found on any site during the 2010 and 2011 surveys. Two other Ninox owls were recorded on some sites, they were Southern Boobook and Powerful Owl. Two Tyto owl species were also recorded on some sites, they were Sooty Owl and Masked Owl. The Masked Owl record is of calling only and on a single occasion. Tawny Frogmouths and Owlet Nightjars were also recorded.

 

Arboreal mammals seen were Mountain Brushtail Possum which showed a decline over the 3 surveys particularly on the burnt areas; Common Brushtail Possum; Common Ringtail Possum which has shown a steep decline over the 3 survey periods on both burnt and unburnt areas; Leadbeater’s Possum [a single record of call only]; Greater Glider, according to the previous surveys, this species has suffered a steep decline since 1996, especially on burnt sites; Sugar Glider, the trend for this small glider appears to be a small increase over the survey periods; Yellow-bellied Glider, there were few sightings of this species on any of the three surveys but it appears to have had a very slight increase on burnt sites but little change on unburnt sites; Feathertail Glider, this tiny glider was not recorded on any sites during any of the 3 survey periods, it was seen off-site in unburnt forest on one occasion in 2010; Koala, all records of this species during all surveys was in unburnt areas only.

 

Other mammals recorded on sites were species of micro bats; Black Wallaby; Common Wombat; Cat; European Rabbit and Sambar Deer. A number of frog species were also recorded including Brown Toadlet [endangered] and Dendy’s Toadlet [data deficient] found 10kms farther west than previously recorded.

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