By Larissa Potter, Senior Field Ecologist
“Dumbi is an important story for all three Wandjina-Wunggurr People. He’s associated with the flood story, the first story… this is a story we all heard since we were little.”
Kirsty Burgu, Dambimangari Director and Cultural Advisor
It was day one of the fieldtrip on Dambimangari Country and the chopper slowed as we neared our intended camp – a stretch of river selected from satellite imagery. Here, rugged sandstone ranges slope down to a broad watercourse, lined with galleries of tall joongoonbeem paperbark trees and stands of dense jarliwunarn wunu Pandanus. Most of the riverside was rocky and vegetated, but a large open area of white sand was the perfect place to camp, providing a safe chopper landing site, shade and plenty of freshwater.
We had several aims for this survey, one being to deploy an array of acoustic recorders to detect the threatened and culturally important Dumbi, the Northern Masked Owl. We did not know if the species occurred here, but the habitat looked suitable and camera surveys nearby showed a healthy mammal population, the owl’s preferred prey.
Dumbi, the white owl, is a sacred animal: ‘Dumbi is an important story for all three Wandjina-Wunggurr People’ says Dambimangari Director and Cultural Advisor Kirsty Burgu. ‘He’s associated with the flood story, the first story… this is a story we all heard since we were little,’ she adds.
An unexpected discovery
After deploying several recorders south of camp, we headed north to set the remainder of the array. It was here, just 500 metres upstream, that we experienced our first exciting bird encounter. There in a tall joongoonbeem was a Garr garr, Red Goshawk, mainland Australia’s rarest bird of prey! This species was recently uplisted to Endangered due its disappearance from over a third of its breeding distribution within the last 40 years and is a priority species in the Federal Government’s Threatened Species Action Plan 2022–32.
The Garr garr is a striking bird of prey, with a streaked upper chest and, as the name implies, a rich rufous colouration to the body and wings. After watching us for a few minutes, this female bird flew to land next to a nest – a large assemblage of sticks in a joongoonbeem. This is the first scientific confirmation of the Garr garr on Dambimangari Country and only the tenth nest recorded in the Kimberley. Although the landscape contains ideal habitat, the remote, rugged and vast nature of the region makes it challenging to survey its rich biodiversity.
A sacred animal
Exhausted after a big first day we crawled into bed…only minutes later to hear an unexpected, loud and haunting screech cut through the night air. Was that Dumbi the Masked Owl… or Yuwurn the similar Eastern Barn Owl? All was quiet for a few hours until the calls were heard again… and again… and again, so loud they must be nearby. So, bleary eyed, we poked our heads out of tents and shone torches into trees, only to find the majestic form of Dumbi perched just 15 metres from the campfire – confirmed by its large body and strong taloned feet with thick furred legs.
The next morning, it was the talk of camp. ‘I was so excited, it was amazing’ said AWC–Dambimangari Biodiversity Ranger Azarnia Malay. ‘I’d heard lots of stories about the owl and then I saw it, and it was good to see it in the wild.’ It was great news for the survey too, we now knew they were here. But it got even better.
As we sat around the fire the following night, a series of soft trills and ‘chirrs’ could be heard coming from a hollow in a dead joongoonbeem. Upon investigation, a young Dumbi was seen poking its head out, making this the first confirmed nest tree for the Northern Masked Owl in Western Australia! For the remainder of the trip, we were entertained and enthralled each night by the young owl and its parents, as they fed and attended to their chick. ‘Oh the little owl got me so excited, I couldn’t believe it, we saw a whole little group, a family, not just the baby, but the mother and father,’ said Azarnia.
The Northern Masked Owl is listed as Vulnerable and very little is known about the subspecies in the Kimberley. PhD researcher Nigel Jackett has been studying the only other known nest area in the region at Yampi Sound Training Area where AWC works in partnership with Dambimangari Traditional Owners and the Department of Defence. The abundance of mammals (particularly Golden Bandicoots, Common Rock-rats and Pale Field-rats) found at Yampi has led to a pair of Northern Masked Owls raising chicks during three of the last four years. Acoustic recorders deployed in this area have revealed further insights into the year-round calling behaviour and movements of the owls within the landscape, which has helped detect owls in other remote locations across northern Australia.
To have found the nests of two enigmatic threatened bird species within a kilometre of each other is incredible. As Dambimangari Ranger Peter Cooper said, ‘seeing a lot of threatened species, it’s telling us how healthy Country is, and how lucky we are to have Country like that.’ According to Kirsty ‘the moral of the story of Dumbi is… you have to have respect for animals.’ ‘By knowing the job that we’re doing, we’re keeping all these species safe’ adds Peter.
The Dambimangari–AWC team are looking to monitor the success of both nests which will provide important information for the conservation of these threatened and enigmatic species. We will continue to work together to look after Country, protecting and respecting its wildlife.
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