Owl recovery in post fire East Gippsland

With funding thanks to the Ross Trust , and partnerships with Birdlife East Gippsland and local ecologists, the EGCMN  has successfully delivered the first year of an owl survey program as part of our ongoing ‘Owls from the Ashes’ project.

A total of ten individual owls were detected from 61 surveys (16%) across 41 sites (24%). Detections were six Sooty Owls, two Powerful Owls, one Masked Owl and one Barking Owl.

 

It is encouraging that owls were found across the fire affected forested landscape, however considering the majority of the sites surveyed were not severely burnt, it is of concern that owls were not found at 76% of their previous detection sites.

READ THE FINAL SURVEY REPORT HERE

These surveys provide some current information on threatened large forest owls across East Gippsland, following the unprecedented 2019/20 Black Summer fires. Although this major event created the immediate impetus to investigate the status of these species, it appears, concerningly, that the cumulative effects of habitat modification resulting from the landscape scale impacts of global heating, drought and fire are working in concert with disturbances such as logging, to negatively affect forest owls’ conservation status in the longer term. As effects are not singular but rather cumulative and ongoing, there is concern that long term population declines, rather than merely temporary absences, may be occurring.

The most in depth and recent research into large forest owl recovery trajectories following high severity fire in Victoria (McNabb and Loyn, 2015), recognises recovery may take over twenty years and is highly dependent on the degree and scale of habitat modification. Critically, noting this, the government should review current Owl Management Areas after bushfires if habitat values are significantly compromised for a long period of time. This is a situation, we contend, following the unprecedented Black-Summer fires, in the context of a changing climate, to now be the case.

Recommendations

1. Conduct research and on-ground surveys into the adequacy of the existing owl reserve estate, including Special Protection Zones and Owl Management Areas.

2. Conduct collaborative research that will inform management measures to combat owl decline created by global heating and the combined effect of habitat modifiers. For instance, research into prey animals such as the ring-tail possum Pseudocheirus peregrinus or bush rat Rattus fuscipes, known to be significant prey items for large forest owls.

3. Conduct a desk top assessment of the best owl habitat available in East Gippsland and protect it from human induced disturbance known to compromise habitat quality (clearing, logging and fire).

4. Provide protection for all detected large forest owls, in line with the precautionary principle, until the adequacy of the existing reserve system can be confidently asserted.

The project will covers  Sooty, Powerful and Masked Owls,  which are all charismatic and of conservation significance as ‘keystone species’ , listed in Victoria as rare, threatened and endangered, respectively.

Masked Owl – one of the species effected by the bush fires and focus of our project

 

Owl specific habitat requirements, such as hollow bearing trees are known to be susceptible to and detrimentally affected by intense fires.

 

Prime Owl habitat (old growth forest) subject to intense wild fire in the Kuark Forest, east of Orbost.

The project complements and adds to existing bush fire recovery works being implemented by the Victorian Government by providing the project outcomes (results via reports and spatial data) to supplement and add to the developing understanding of fire impacts on and remediation measures for these iconic species.

The project will also aims evaluate and report on previous attempts by the Conservation Management Network to provide supplementary habitat for Masked Owls to better inform the use of critical habitat supplementation in areas effected by fire and habitat fragmentation.

Artificial Masked Owl habitat being installed as part of a previous GPCMN project, will now be monitored and evaluated to inform future habitat supplementation measures.

 

 

Anticipated key project outcomes:

• Improved information on Owl habitation of ten key ‘Owl management areas’ post fire, to inform decision making on further surveys and enable existing Victorian government programs to identify and commence investment in required management interventions.

• Better understanding on the use and suitability of artificial/ supplementary habitat for Masked owl to inform future use in bush fire effected habitat.

• Increased cooperation, partnership development and capacity of government land management agencies and local community environment groups

• Improved knowledge of recovery requirements for LFO and costings to inform and seek further funding from government and other sources.