Esther Beaton


The Owl Hunters: Behind the Scenes of an Australian Geographic Assignment

Trapping Masked Owl
Researchers from State Forests setting net to trap a Masked Owl known to be in forest. Whiporee, northern NSW (blur)

Have you ever wondered what happens behind the scenes of a wildlife photo? When I’m on an assignment to photograph wildlife, I often collaborate with scientists who are doing field research. I work hard to get my shots but sometimes these scientists have to get pretty creative themselves to accomplish their job.

When I was asked to do a story on owls for Australian Geographic, I travelled to the Pilliga region of New South Wales with Rod Kavanagh and Matthew Stanton, researchers for State Forests NSW. A behind-the-scenes peek reveals what’s involved in the finding, luring and trapping of an owl for purposes of science. And how my photography sometimes has to take second place.

I travelled with Rod and Matthew as they drove down the road to a spot where a local volunteer had been tracking the movements of “Charlie”, a masked owl, for the past month. The weather was still warm from the sunny day. Among the woodland of immature spotted gums, Rod and Matthew selected two large trees to set up their net.

Trappping masked owl
Researchers from State Forest shooting slingshot of fishing line over a branch prior to hoisting net into tree to trap owl. Whiporee, northern NSW

They worked fast as the beautiful afternoon light began to fade and the chill set in. Rod used a slingshot to fire a sinker and fishing line over a 20 m high branch of a spotted gum. Then he repeated it at the second tree. It must have been difficult finding two trees the right distance apart, the width of their net, with branches at matching heights. Plus the branches had to face each other. Once the fishing wire was thrown over those high branches in the two trees, they tied firm string to the fishing lines and hoisted them up over the limbs and down again. Next they untied all the fishing line and discarded it. If only aborigines had sling shots – how much easier their hunting could have been! Then the net was carefully hoisted up, one person at each end passing the loops of the net through the string, as if threading a rod through a row of curtain rings – but in the vertical plane. Then the net was up, forming a big square sheet. It covered an area of about 10m by 10m – an impossibly small area when you looked around at the surrounding forest and huge expanse of territory that was the owl’s domain. How the hell were they going to get it to fly through this virtual hankie?

Trapping Masked Owl
Researchers from State Forests setting net to trap a Masked Owl known to be in forest. Whiporee, northern NSW

Aha. They had a solution. They were going to play owl recordings – the territorial calls of another masked owl. Brilliant. But still that begged the question. Once the owl came close, how were they going to get it to fly low and between these exact two trees? Rod had worked at this problem since 1990, his first successful owl trapping. Since then he’s had the highest rate of success in Australia catching a record number – about two per year.

The ingenious technique he worked out was to play the call through a series of three megaphones strategically placed on either side and along the line of the net. As the male owl approached, it would be drawn to the sound coming out of one megaphone. Once near, they would play the sound through the other megaphone, placed on the opposite side of the net. The owl, curious to investigate this intruder in his territory, would fly across to the other megaphone and – voila! – encounter the net.

Well that was the theory. But when the owl approached, that’s not exactly what happened.

Whiporee State Forest
Regrowth after logging, coastal lowland forest, where Masked Owl roosts but feeds in nearby pine plantation, Whiporee State Forest, northern NSW

We had been waiting about one hour after sunset. It was the night of the full moon and it had just risen but was now obscured by heavy, rain-bearing clouds. Peter Meredith the writer for this Australian Geographic story, Bill Greenness a volunteer from Grafton and I were huddled in the leaf litter, trying not to make the leaves scrunch, trying not to move at all as the mozzies homed in on us. As the darkness closed in, we were also surrounded by a pall of smoke from an early season bush fire.

We were surprised to hear Rod and his assistant Matthew communicating with each other – surely their voices would disturb any owls. But the men were getting excited about something. An owl had approached! I couldn’t see a thing, but Matt apparently could see through his special night vision ocular, the kind that turned dark night into a sort of vivid green daylight.

They played the awful screeching call of a masked owl more rapidly. First one megaphone, then the other. At first it had been a few minutes between calls, now they played one every 30 seconds or so. At one point Matt played the calls of other owls, a technique, I learned later, intended to relax the prospective masked owl. Whatever the case, it worked, for suddenly we heard Rod shout “Got it! Lights! Quick!” And then almost immediately later, “He’s gone”.

While we watchers had been galvanising ourselves into action, me with my camera gear racing in for a shot, the owl had simply bounced out of the net. It had been sprung too stiffly and didn’t release upon contact with the owl. We realised another stress factor for these scientists: determining what tension was just right for an owl of unknown weight, travelling at an unknown speed, at an unknown angle.

Trapping Masked Owl
Researchers from State Forests with Masked Owl trapped in net, night. Whiporee, northern NSW

And now the whole effort had come to naught. Or so I thought. Surprisingly, Rod and Matt gave it another go. With all the torch lights, shouting and people racing around, I couldn’t see how an owl would return to such a frightening, chaotic scene. But we returned to our places, hunkering down to the chill and mosquitos once more. The lights went out and again the megaphones played the screeching, grating, cackling blend of masked owl calls. In a few short minutes, I saw a silhouette fly down from the leafy canopy. “Got him!” yelled Rod, “Lights! Quick!” and this time the net fell, bringing the owl to the ground with it. It caught Rod too as he grabbed the owl firmly with his bare hands.

Attaching radio collar
State Forests researcher attaching radio collar and harness to Masked Owl. Whiporee, northern NSW

As Matt held the owl with a beanie covering its head, Rod secured a specially fitted harness. My shots of scientists tangled with nets and of owls being weighed and measured hardly make breathtaking wildlife images. Later though, I would have my chance for some clean, good quality portraits. But I certainly got the chance to see and experience the toils and frustrations of studying wildlife.

Scientist with Masked Owl
State Forests researcher Rod Kavanagh with captured Masked Owl. Whiporee, northern New South Wales

Do stories like this inspire you to get out there and to partake in wildlife encounters? I hope so. Whether it’s as a nature photographer, a volunteer researcher, or a participating tourist, the Australian bush has some magic experiences lying in store for those who seek them.

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