A pair of breeding owls watch are perched on a tree branch in the darkness.

13 Apr 2022

EVENINGS WITH BARKING OWLS

David Waterhouse has been supporting WWF’s work for over 60 years. He continues his support through a Gift in his Will to WWF-Australia.

Owls have forever enchanted David, who particularly enjoys spending time observing mated pairs and their owlets. Some years ago, he was lucky enough to watch over a group of Barking Owls he stumbled across on a visit to Katherine. Read his story below.

There was no-one about in the grounds of the Ibis Hotel, Katherine, on first light and the place was strangely silent. At that hour it was reasonably cool, but I was all too aware that it wouldn’t be long before the dry heat of September would assert itself.

The surface of the swimming pool glinted placidly in contrast with the evening before when it swarmed with lots of splashing, squalling youngsters.

It wasn’t long, though, before a different kind of tumult – an avian racket this time – assailed my ears. I was standing not far from a tree close to the pool’s fence. A mixed flock of Blue-faced and White-gaped Honeyeaters flew towards the tree, maintaining their clamour as they perched on the fence top or the tree’s lower branches. In stark contrast, the object of their abuse cruised towards the tree in silent flight, totally ignoring the morning fuss. It was an owl. The bird was probably well used to the disturbance.

Dawn was just breaking and as the strong light fell upon the now perched bird, its large black pupils rapidly contracted by several f stops to become small dots set in two primrose-coloured eyeballs. I then realised the bird was a Barking Owl.

David Waterhouse has supported the WWF since 1961
David Waterhouse has supported the WWF since 1961 © Courtesy of David Waterhouse

Soon after the scolding of the smaller birds had ceased, the owl stared at me and then down at a cleft in the tree trunk which I hadn’t even noticed before. It ignored me as it did the honeyeaters and began to emit a series of low mooing sounds, like distant cattle, for a minute or more.

Suddenly, it hopped to a lower branch close to the cleft and with an awkward, wriggling movement, entered the narrow cavity. It left its tail protruding for a few seconds before it disappeared, suggesting that its daytime roost was a tight-fitting hollow.

On dusk that same day, I returned to find the Barking Owl sitting at the entrance to the hollow. Its obliviousness to my approach told me that it was well used to the comings and goings of the hotel’s visitors.

I watched it nonetheless from a respectful distance away from the fence. As it stared into the gloom, its pinpoint pupils expanded to large, black orbs once again. The bird, with just its head showing, took on the appearance of the English Tawny Owls from my formative days as a young naturalist. As before, it gave vent to mooing noises in a subdued tone and, once again, it was discovered and harried by honeyeaters.

Half an hour later, the last couple of honeyeaters had finally ceased their abusive tirade and retired to their roosts. Soon afterwards, the owl broke cover and flew over to a bough on a eucalyptus tree also in the hotel’s grounds. My attention was drawn to the hollow because owlet sounds were emanating from inside. As I suspected, a fluffy head appeared just above the hollow’s lip to be followed quite quickly by a second one.

The mother bird appeared to be staring down at her young from the gum tree perch.

People began to emerge from their hotel rooms, passing the pool on their way to the dining room. To me, dinner could wait. At around 7 pm, as I had hoped, a second owl, presumably the male, flew in silently as all owls do, seemingly from nowhere. Clasped in a claw was a small food item, possibly a mouse.

It landed on the dead limb next to its mate and surrendered its catch to what I took to be the female. She accepted it without ceremony. The mother immediately winged her way back to hollow to feed the begging young.

I was unable to make out if one or both young were being fed. She spent less than a minute at the entrance to the nest hole before re-joining her mate. The pair sat amicably together and then began to perform a brief barking duet which sounded for all the world like a pair of small dogs.

The male departed abruptly, perhaps to hunt for more substantial prey. Both owlets trilled loudly as if letting him know they were still hungry. His mate did not return to the hollow but remained perched. It was 8 pm or so before she too flew off to hunt. I left to have dinner soon afterwards.

Later that night, the dining room was closed and no-one was still around outside. I remained near the pool in the tenebrous quiet to see if one or both owls had returned. I listened carefully, hoping to hear them making that characteristic barking sound. Or even the penetrating scream they are said to utter occasionally, which has earned them the country name of ‘screaming woman bird’ or ‘murder bird’. I waited for some time but heard nothing. Neither bird re-appeared and the owlets withdrew quietly into their hollow.

A lone figure watched and then approached me in the dark. I expected him to say something like "can I help you, mate?" (code for ‘what are you doing here?’).

Instead, to my surprise he said, "are you waiting for the owls?"

He was the hotel’s maintenance manager. He too had watched the owls and he told me the powers-that-be had decided to remove the tree at one stage. He dissuaded them, perhaps on the basis that they helped in keeping down mice and rats. Also, they had used the cavity as a nesting place for a number of years, successfully raising young each spring.

It was the first time that I had ever been able to observe Barking Owls nesting as they are by no means common on the East Coast. I had, in fact, only had one sighting of them before from the track up to Alum Mountain near Bulahdelah many years ago. Thankfully, they are much more likely to be encountered around Katherine and elsewhere across Australia’s ‘Top End’ and I was glad to have had the opportunity to see them.

A breeding pair of Barking Owls= watching over their nest from a tree branch.
© Shutterstock / Terry Dell

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