Skip to content

Holy owl vomit. To the Bat Cave!

Dr Alex Kutt (Ecologist)
Published 20 Jul 2018 by Dr Alex Kutt (Ecologist)

Owls are a common but often overlooked predator of small mammals in Australia. Though they don't exact the same toll as feral cats, they're expert hunters using sight and sound to locate their nocturnal prey.

A quirk of owl feeding behaviour is that they need to disgorge the indigestible components of their prey. These are produced as owl pellets, or as I like to call them, owl vomit. And they're really useful to us ecologists.

Owl pellets are packed full of information about the prey, in the form of skeletal remains, fur or feathers. These are readily identifiable and provide data about what species occur in the local area, and how the species present in the landscape change over time.

For example, Barn Owl roosts with pellets dating back beyond European settlement at Camooweal Caves in north-western Queensland provided evidence of the occurrence of now-extinct species such as the Western Quoll and Brush-tailed Rabbit-rat. Barn Owls may hunt up to 10 km from their roosts, so we know that species found in pellets occur or were previously present within that distance from where pellets are found.

Last week I travelled with Dr Pippa Kern (Bush Heritage ecologist at Edgbaston Reserve) to investigate a cave known as Bat Hole. It's in the far west of Cravens Peak Reserve near the Northern Territory border.

A Barn Owl had been known to have been roosting there over the years, and we were keen to find as many pellets as we could. After bumping along for hours crossing the dunes and through parts of the Toomba Range we got to our destination – and we were not disappointed. There was a large pile of owl-vomity goodness, each containing the mummified and undigested remains of many hapless small animals. Success for the Down-Under Chunder-Hunters!

The pellets, which numbered over 100, each seemed to contain two or three prey items – a fabulous owl-generated inventory of species around the cave.

We're in the process of sending the pellets to Dr Andrew Baker (ecologist and geneticist at Queensland University of Technology and editor of the soon to be published revised edition of Mammals of Australia). The pellets will be sorted as a student project. They will then go to Dr Heather Janetski at the Queensland Museum for final identification and lodging in the museum's collections. Stay tuned for the results later this year!

– Dr Alex Kutt, Senior Ecologist, North Region

To the Bat Cave. Photo by Pippa Kern To the Bat Cave. Photo by Pippa Kern
One of the roosts, with uric acid stains from owl faeces. Photo by Pippa Kern One of the roosts, with uric acid stains from owl faeces. Photo by Pippa Kern
Small animal killing field. Older disintegrated owl pellets below one of the roosts. Photo by Pippa Kern Small animal killing field. Older disintegrated owl pellets below one of the roosts. Photo by Pippa Kern
Owl vomit packed with desiccated remains - small rodent skulls and dasyurid (marsupial) jaws visible. Photo by Pippa Kern Owl vomit packed with desiccated remains - small rodent skulls and dasyurid (marsupial) jaws visible. Photo by Pippa Kern

Related stories

Prescribed burn at Pilunga Reserve, Wangkamadla Country. By Bee Stephens

BUSHTRACKS 27/10/2023

Land, bird, smoke and man

Prescribed burns on Pilungah and Ethabuka reserves, Wangkamadla Country, prepare the landscape for bushfire season and enhance biodiversity.

Read More
A flooded claypan at Pilungah Reserve. By Ingo Schomacker

BUSHTRACKS 13/06/2023

A dry flood

In summer vast tracts of Central West Queensland’s channel country were covered in water. Our Pilungah and Ethabuka reserves are now preparing for the other side of the ‘boom-bust’ cycle.

Read More

BLOG 11/03/2022

My Dingo buddy

While volunteering at Pilungah Reserve, north of the Simpson Desert in far western Queensland, Paul Graham had a profound experience connecting with a young dingo.

Read More

BLOG 21/02/2022

What has all this rain meant for our fire team?

The 2021/22 La Nina has brought significant rainfall to the eastern seaboard of Australia, while the west has seen below average conditions. Here are some weather highlights from the first few months.

Read More

BUSHTRACKS 14/01/2022

Corinna Clark's happy place

When the sun sets down beyond the sand dunes at Pilungah Reserve in far western Queensland, we like to go and sit on a sand dune near the homestead dubbed Little Red.

Read More

BLOG 14/10/2021

Introducing Pilungah Reserve

Our decision to rename Cravens Peak Reserve in far western Queensland acknowledges the enduring connection of Wangkamadla people to their country. We spoke to Wangkamadla woman Avelina Tarrago about what the change means to her.

Read More
Gidgee on Ethabuka Reserve.

BUSHTRACKS 07/10/2021

Our disappearing desert havens

When bushfires burn through the spinifex plains on Ethabuka and Pilungah reserves, arid species find refuge in Gidgee woodlands that are as vital to their survival as they are threatened.

Read More

BLOG 26/03/2021

A healthy desert is crucial for my culture’s survival

A new report published last week highlights 19 ecosystems on land and sea country that are unravelling due to pressures from climate change and human impacts. The Georgina Gidgee woodlands of central Australia is one of them.

Read More

BLOG 26/03/2020

Frog highways on Cravens

With 81mm in the first half of March, the ephemeral swamps and claypans in the sandhill country of Cravens Peak have filled. Halfway Swamp, 5km west of the Homestead, is bursting with life.

Read More

BLOG 10/02/2020

Examining owl vomit

While the idea of trawling through owl vomit might be nausea-inducing for some (picture skeletal remains, fur and feathers), for our senior ecologist Dr Alex Kutt it’s a clever way to find out more about the secrets of the land.

Read More

BLOG 15/05/2019

A boom year at Cravens Peak

Cravens Peak Reserve has received 225 mm of rain this year in two extraordinary rain events, and the desert's plants and animals are loving it.

Read More

BUSHTRACKS 11/12/2018

My Happy Place (Jane Blackwood)

I have lots of favourite spots on Cravens Peak and they’re all places that make me feel strong and happy, and connected to the country that I live on. One of those places is S-Bend Gorge; I never fail to feel completely embraced when I’m at S-Bend.

Read More

BUSHTRACKS 11/12/2018

Outback extremes

A more sophisticated understanding of how climate change will impact Cravens Peak and Ethabuka reserves is focusing our conservation efforts when and where they will do the greatest good.

Read More

BLOG 18/09/2018

Behind the scenes at Cravens Peak

An inside look into what it takes to capture a feature story about a Bush Heritage reserve. Mount Isa's low peaks are still visible behind us as we turn our 4WD south and head down the single lane highway towards Boulia. We're on our way to Cravens Peak Reserve in far western Queensland for a feature story on reserve manager Jane Blackwood to be published in the Courier Mail's Saturday magazine Qweekend.

Read More

BLOG 27/08/2018

No 3 – is 5 star now

With many hours of planning and hard work, Number 3 Ringers' Hut on Cravens Peak Reserve has been restored to its former glory.

Read More

BLOG 07/08/2018

Revisiting Cravens Peak after 33 years

Recently Dr John Winter and his wife, Helen Myles, who are long-term donors to Bush Heritage Australia, visited Cravens Peak as volunteers. John, Helen and their wider family make an annual Christmas donation to Ethabuka Reserve, which John first visited in August 1985 - 33 years ago! He was a member of a Queensland Parks and Wildlife Services Diamantina Fauna Survey team.

Read More

BLOG 20/07/2018

Holy owl vomit. To the Bat Cave!

With Bush Heritage ecologist Pippa Kern I travelled to a cave known as Bat Hole in the far west of Cravens Peak Reserve to collect owl pellets.

Read More

BLOG 11/12/2017

An unforgettable volunteer experience

Back in September, Victorian-based volunteer Nathan Manders answered the call for reserve support to one of our most remote properties - Cravens Peak on the edge of the Simpson Desert. Here Nathan shares his reflections and some of his stunning images from that trip - one that he'll never forget.

Read More

BLOG 27/11/2017

Desert butterflies

Deb Bisa, currently volunteering at Cravens Peak, has noted a few butterfly sightings during her stay since early November. One of these was a male Clearwing Swallowtail (Cressida cressida) that was 'netted' after a long period of windy days. This species has predominantly a coastal distribution where its food plants occur, and occasional vagrants reach inlands areas.

Read More

BUSHTRACKS 11/04/2016

Happy 10th birthday Cravens Peak

In 2006, Bush Heritage purchased 233,000 hectares of remarkable desert country. In 2016, Cravens Peak celebrates its tenth birthday, and the remarkable people that have brought it this far.

Read More

BLOG 30/11/2015

Happy birthday Cravens Peak

Ecologist Murray Haseler looks back at 10 years of conservation management on Cravens Peak and the gradual improvements in condition that have been hard fought and won.

Read More
{{itemsInCart}} Items - {{formatCurrency(grandTotal)}}