The Nature Conservation Council of NSW (NCC) has been running private property conservation initiatives for the large forest owls (Barking, Powerful and Masked Owls) since 2019. The works are focused across Bundjalung, Yaegl and Gumbaynggirr country, in the lower Richmond and lower Clarence floodplains of northern NSW.
The work has involved a long-term acoustic monitoring program to determine owl occupancy and distribution, and survey of habitats to identify owl roost and nest trees. Initially work was focusing on monitoring of owl populations and education for landholders on key threats, particularly loss of habitat, too frequent fire, and loss of hollow-bearing trees.
In the spring-summer of 2019-20 this emphasis changed after the study area was impacted by the largest fire event in living memory. The project then pivoted into a post-fire recovery phase with a large-scale crowd-funded nest box program, continued acoustic monitoring of the owls, as well as an expansion of monitoring to include their prey (primarily arboreal mammals) to gain a better understanding of the longer-term impacts from the fires.
With support from the NSW Government’s Environmental Trust NCC is currently implementing two projects through the Large Forest Owls Project which will assist the recovery, and improve the long-term viability of the large forest owls and arboreal mammals (gliders and possums) in the lower Richmond and Clarence Valley areas:
- Barking Owls of the Bungawalbin (BoBCat) commenced in 2022 and is delivered across 8 properties containing key high use Barking Owl habitat within the Bungawalbin catchment. This project focuses on monitoring of Barking Owl and their habitat, as well as monitoring of nest boxes installed through the crowd funding campaign (see below for details).
- Safe Havens commenced in mid-2023 and is being rolled out across a much larger area covering 260,000 hectares in the lower Richmond and Clarence valleys. This project aims to take the knowledge from the previous projects and apply them across a larger area to work with landholders to monitor and conserve all large forest owl species, their habitats and prey.
The types of activities undertaken through the Large Forest Owl project includes:
- On-ground partnerships with private and commercial landholders and land managers.
- Establishing a passive monitoring network of song meters to monitor owls and other species of interest.
- Nocturnal spotlight surveys with a particular focus on detecting non vocal species such as greater glider.
- Identification and mapping of large hollow bearing trees and owl nest trees, and implementation of management strategies for protection from fire.
- Installation of nest boxes for gliders and other arboreal species, to support the recovery of populations of owl prey species.
- Trialling innovative artificial hollows for large forest owls.
- Landholder engagement, training and delivery of workshops.
- Preparation of a property management plans for participating landholders.
Landholders involved in the project can participate in different ways. Throughout the life of the project, landholders can participate in training workshops and community events and are supported to carry out key activities on their properties.
How to get involved
If you are a landholder in the Safe Havens project area (see map) and are interested in getting involved, you can download an Expression of Interest form here or contact the program coordinators below:
The importance of owls
The presence of resident populations of large forest owls in a landscape is a good indicator of healthy and functional forest ecosystems. The Vulnerable Barking Owl has declined across most of its historic range in NSW, with only two remaining strongholds: one in the Pilliga Forest, and one in the Richmond-Clarence Lowlands, specifically in the coastal Clarence Valley (Coldstream River and Shark Creek catchments) and in the Richmond Valley between Bundjalung National Park and the Upper Bungawalbin Creek catchment.
Barking Owls require intact, healthy forests and woodlands, and are a flagship species for the conservation and management of functioning mature forest ecosystems. The lowlands of the Richmond and Clarence catchments are a key stronghold for the Barking Owl (Ninox connivens), with significant populations of the Vulnerable Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua) and Masked Owl (Tyto novaehollandiae) also present. This is one of very few landscapes in NSW with healthy populations of the large forest owls. This assemblage of owls is supported by a diverse prey base of small to medium-sized native mammals and birds which make up a large proportion of their diet, especially when breeding. To ensure the survival of the large forest owls there is an urgent need to protect and maintain the connectivity of habitat across the Richmond-Clarence Lowlands and to actively protect large hollow-bearing trees which are essential for breeding.
Images (L-R): Barking Owl (Ninox connivens); Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua); and Masked Owl (Tyto novaehollandiae). Image copyright: The Nature Conservation Council of NSW
Impacts from the bushfires
Work by the Large Forest Owl Project between 2019-21 documented the loss and abandonment of Barking Owl nests during the bushfires, the extensive loss of hollow-bearing trees and impacts to their prey species, particularly arboreal mammal populations. Two Barking Owl nest trees were identified prior to the fires however sadly both were significantly affected; one was outright lost to the fire and the other nest abandoned during the fires. Known Barking Owl pairs have not displayed normal breeding behaviour at known breeding sites since the fires.
Gliders are the primary prey for Barking owls however results of acoustic monitoring show glider activity have been significantly reduced post fire. Squirrel gliders (Petaurus norfolcensis) were once quite common across sites but a reduction in presence has been recorded. Of the six sites where, Yellow-bellied Glider (Petaurus australis) had been recorded previously, only one site has recorded activity since the fire.
Image: Barking Owl nest tree pre and post fire. Image copyright: The Nature Conservation Council of NSW
Nest box crowd funding
Following the 2019-20 bushfires NCC launched a crowd funding campaign to fund the purchase and installation of nest boxes to replace tree hollows which are a critical habitat feature for numerous native species and were decimated during the fires.
Over $80,00 was raised which funded the purchase of 400 nest boxes to be installed across impacted properties.
Monitoring of nest boxes has recorded an increase in use of the boxes, which is a promising sign that arboreal species such as gliders and possums are recovering following the fires. The most recent monitoring showed that 98% of the boxes has signs of use by Sugar glider (Petaurus breviceps), Squirrel glider (Petaurus norfolcensis), Brush-tailed possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) and Yellow-footed antechinus (Antechinus flavipes).
Image: Squirrel Glider (Petaurus norfolcensis); Brush-tailed possum (Trichosurus vulpecula); Yellow-footed antechinus (Antechinus favipes). Image copyright: The Nature Conservation Council of NSW
Listen to calls recorded in the project area on the Large Forest Owls Project Sound Cloud page here, including koala, powerful owl, yellow-bellied glider calls and more.
Check out the video series (at the bottom of this page) to find out more about the Large Forest Owl project which were produced with support from the NSW Governments Saving Our Species program. There are 12 videos detailing:
- the use, installation and monitoring of nest boxes.
- the capture and analysis of acoustic data to assess and monitor fauna.
- the search for Barking Owls and nest sites within the project area.
- the effects of the 2019-20 bushfire season.
Safe Havens Coordinator
Large Forest Owls Coordinator