A hoot of a study

Have you ever heard the sounds “boobook! boobook!” in the night?

A University of Queensland researcher has unlocked more secrets about the little bird that makes these calls while looking for a mate.

UQ School of Biological Sciences PhD student Graham Fulton found that the bird making this characteristic two-note call, the southern boobook owl, is common in south-western Australia –despite being reported to be in decline in south-eastern and inland Australia.

The southern boobook (Ninox boobook) has predominantly brown plumage and is the smallest owl on the Australian mainland.

It feeds on insects and small animals, seizing flying prey such as moths and small bats in mid-air, while pouncing on ground-dwelling prey.

“While they are becoming better understood in eastern Australia, knowledge of forest owls in south-western Australia is poor, with little published on their ecology or status,” Graham said.

“This study set out to determine the species richness and abundance of these owls, and is only the second survey of south-western Australian forest owls ever published.”

Graham said many owls in Australia were threatened at various levels, due mainly to the loss of suitable habitats.

“Forest owls are important predators in ecosystems, but they are largely overlooked compared with other birds because they are nocturnal and in some ways cryptic,” he said.

Graham surveyed on the Swan Coastal Plain, about 75km south of Perth, from 2015 to 2016, and detected two owl species – the southern boobook and the masked owl, the largest forest owl in south-western Australia.

The nocturnal tawny frogmouth (Podargus strigoides) was also detected.

He also found a variety of small mammals during the surveys ranging from the little red flying fox and microbats, to ringtail and brushtail possums and bandicoots.

“The mammals identified in this survey may form part of the diet of the masked owl, which has been recorded as taking more terrestrial mammals than other large owls in eastern Australia,” he said.

“It was a pleasure to undertake this work. The clear skies of south-western Australia enabled me to count satellites as they passed over each night.

“When the wind dropped by the lakes the water would become a mirror and the sunsets, as the owls began to stir, were jaw-dropping.

“Work like this makes biology the greatest job in the world.”