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Tasmania’s Stories

‘Zorro’ to the rescue

Edition 199_Zorro

‘Zorro’ the puppy could be called the ‘masked owl avenger’. He is the secret weapon in the fight to save one of Tasmania’s rarest birds.

Zorro may be small and fluffy, but he has been hand-picked for a big mission: to head deep into Tasmania’s ancient forests to track down our notoriously rare and elusive masked owls.

Just shy of five months, Zorro – a border collie cross springer spaniel – is being specially trained to ‘sniff out’ the scent of these magnificent and endangered creatures.

It’s an innovative, out-of-the box idea, and the brainchild of scientist, Dr Dejan Stojanovic, who studies Tasmania’s rare birds.

“Once Zorro is trained it will be an absolute game-changer for owl research,” Dr Stojanovic says.

Zorro is very cute. But, he is also very clever which makes him the perfect choice for this groundbreaking mission.

“Zorro has a border collie brain, and a springer spaniel nose, which makes him the ideal combination,” Dr Stojanovic explains.

“Border collies are one of the smartest dogs and by nature they also want to please, while springer spaniels have a highly evolved sense of smell and are very athletic which makes them ideal for fieldwork.

“When the litter was born, we did an aptitude test on all the puppies and Zorro passed with flying colours. Most importantly he is highly motivated for his rewards, namely food treats and pats.”

Tasmania’s masked owls are amongst the largest of their species in the world, growing to the size of a big rooster.

However, these magnificent creatures are also endangered.

Latest estimates indicate just 1,000 remain, although Dr Stojanovic warns “this is really just a stab in the dark, as there is no reliability to that number at all.”

He leads a crack team of scientists – at the aptly named Difficult Bird Research Group at the Australian National University in Canberra – and is organising the first comprehensive survey of Tasmania’s masked owls. They want to lock in answers on numbers and habitats.

But there is one big problem – finding them.

Not only do masked owls make their homes in the towering trees of our old growth forests, which are extremely difficult to access, but they are also nocturnal.

“Masked owls are very hard to find using ordinary survey techniques,” Dr Stojanovic explains.

“Trudging around at night looking for owls in some of Tasmania’s most remote and rugged forests is both unsafe and inefficient.

“We needed to get creative and find a new solution.”

That’s where Zorro comes in.

He is being taught to sniff out owl pellets, the small indigestible bits of prey that resemble cat fur-balls, that the owls regurgitate onto the forest floor.

“By training Zorro to find owl pellets, we will dramatically improve the efficiency and accuracy of owl surveys, which will allow us to undertake the first detailed research on what Tasmanian owls need to survive,” Dr Stojanovic adds.

However, Zorro’s road to ‘masked owl avenger’ is not easy.

He has just begun an intensive yearlong training program that includes classes at the University of the Sunshine Coast’s elite Dog Detection Program. A successful crowd-funding campaign has already raised $60,000 to contribute towards this.

And, if all goes to plan, this time next year, Zorro will start his ‘day job’ and be deployed into our ancient forests in search of those elusive owls.

Meantime, while both Zorro and Dr Stojanovic may work for Canberra’s Australian National University, home is Mountain Creek, right on the edge of Tasmania’s South West Wilderness, and the very heart of masked owl territory.

“Even though this all might sound a little unusual, dogs have a super power sense of smell and a proven track record in sniffing out their targets.

“I have no doubt that Zorro could well become the hero of Tasmania’s magnificent masked owls.”

For further information please visit www.difficultbirds.com.

Image courtesy of the Difficult Bird Research Group, Australian National University.

14 October 2018, Edition 199

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Facts about Tasmania


Tasmania is the southernmost state of Australia, located at latitude 40° south and longitude 144° east and separated from the continent by Bass Strait. It is a group of 334 islands, with the main island being 315 km (180 miles) from west to east and 286 km (175 miles) north to south.


Tasmanians are resourceful and innovative people, committed to a continually expanding export sector. In 2012–13, international exports from the state totalled $3.04 billion. USA, China, Taiwan, India, Japan and other Asian countries account for the bulk of exports, with goods and services also exported to Europe and many other regions.


Tasmania is similar in size to the Republic of Ireland or Sri Lanka. The Tasmanian islands have a combined coastline of more than 3,000 km.


The main island has a land area of 62,409 sq km (24,096 sq miles) and the minor islands, taken together, total only 6 per cent of the main island’s land area. The biggest islands are Flinders (1,374 sq km/539 sq miles), King, Cape Barren, Bruny and Macquarie Islands.


About 250km (150 miles) separates Tasmania’s main island from continental Australia. The Kent Group of Islands, one of the most northerly parts of the state, is only 55km (34 miles) from the coast of the Australian continent.


Twice named ‘Best Temperate Island in the World’ by international travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler, Tasmania has a mild, temperate maritime climate, with four distinct seasons.


In summer (December to February) the average maximum temperature is 21° Celsius (70° Fahrenheit). In winter (June to August) the average maximum is 12° C (52° F) and the average minimum is 4° C (40° F). Snow often falls in the highlands, but is rarely experienced in more settled areas.

Annual Rainfall

Tasmania’s west coast is one of the wettest places in the world, but the eastern part of the State lives in a rain-shadow. Hobart, the second-driest capital city in Australia, receives about half as much rain as Sydney.

Annual Rainfall

Annual rainfall in the west is 2,400 mm (95 inches), but hardy locals insist there is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing. If you travel 120 km east to Hobart, you experience a much drier average of 626 mm (24 inches) a year.


The 512,875-strong community spreads itself across the land; less urbanised than the population of any other Australian state. Hobart, the capital city, is home to more than 212,000 people.

Capital City

Hobart nestles at the foot of kunanyi / Mount Wellington (1,270 m / 4,000 ft) and overlooks the Derwent Estuary, where pods of dolphins and migrating whales are sometimes seen from nearby beaches. Surrounded by thickly forested rolling hills, the city is home to the state parliament and the main campus of the University of Tasmania.

Capital City

Its historic centre features Georgian and Regency buildings from colonial times. Hobart is home port for coastal fishing boats, Antarctic expeditions and vessels that fish the Southern Ocean.

Land Formation

Mountain ranges in the south-west date back 1,000 million years. Ancient sediments were deeply buried, folded and heated under enormous pressure to form schists and glistening white quartzites.

Land Formation

In the south-west and central highlands, dolerite caps many mountains, including Precipitous Bluff and Tasmania’s highest peak, Mt Ossa (1617 m / 5300 ft). More than 42 per cent of Tasmania is World Heritage Area, national park and marine or forest reserves.


Vegetation is diverse, from alpine heathlands and tall open eucalypt forests to areas of temperate rainforests and moorlands, known as buttongrass plains. Many plants are unique to Tasmania and the ancestors of some species grew on the ancient super-continent, Gondwana, before it broke up 50 million years ago.


Unique native conifers include slow-growing Huon pines, with one specimen on Mt Read estimated to be up to 10,000 years old. Lomatia tasmanica, commonly known as King’s holly, is a self-cloning shrub that may well be the oldest living organism on earth. It was discovered in 1937.


Tasmania is the last refuge of several mammals that once roamed the Australian continent. It is the only place to see a Tasmanian devil or eastern quoll (native cat) in the wild and is the best place to see the spotted-tailed quoll (tiger cat), all carnivorous marsupials.


The eastern bettong and the Tasmanian pademelon, both now extinct on the Australian continent, may also be observed.


The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, was Australia’s largest surviving carnivorous marsupial and is a modern day mystery. The last documented thylacine died in captivity in 1936 and although the animal is considered extinct, unsubstantiated sightings persist.

History and Heritage

Aboriginal people have lived in Tasmania for about 35,000 years, since well before the last Ice Age. They were isolated from the Australian continent about 12,000 years ago, when the seas rose to flood low coastal plains and form Bass Strait.

History and Heritage

Descendants of the original people are part of modern Tasmania’s predominantly Anglo-Celtic population.

History and Heritage

Tasmania was originally named Van Dieman’s Land by the Dutch explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman in 1642. The island was settled by the British as a penal colony in 1803 and the original name was associated with the convict era. It was changed to Tasmania when convict transportation stopped in 1853.


A resourceful island culture has generated leading-edge niche industries, from production of high-speed catamaran ferries and marine equipment to lightning-protection technology.


Tasmanians produce winches and windlasses for some of the world’s biggest ocean-going pleasure craft; large-scale inflatable evacuation systems and provide specialist outfit-accommodation services to the marine industry.


The Wooden Boat Centre at Shipwrights Point has re-established the skills and traditions of another age and attracts students from around the world.


Tasmania is a world leader in natural turf systems for major sporting arenas and in areas of mining technology and environmental management. Its aquaculture industry has developed ground-breaking fish-feeding technology and new packaging.


Tasmanians sell communications equipment to many navies and their world-class fine timber designers and craftsmen take orders internationally for furniture made from distinctive local timber.


The state is a natural larder with clean air, unpolluted water and rich soils inviting the production of 100 varieties of specialty cheeses, as well as other dairy products, mouth-watering rock lobsters, oysters, scallops and abalone, Atlantic salmon, beef, premium beers, leatherwood honey, mineral waters, fine chocolates, fresh berry fruits, apples and crisp vegetables.


Tasmania is a producer of award-winning cool-climate wines, beers, ciders and whiskies. Other export products include essential oils such as lavender, pharmaceutical products and premium wool sought after in Europe and Asia. Hobart is a vital gateway to the Antarctic and a centre for Southern Ocean and polar research.


The industries in Tasmania which made the greatest contribution to the State’s gross product in 2010–11 in volume terms were: Manufacturing (9.4%), Health care and social assistance (8.2%), Financial and insurance services (7.2%), Ownership of dwellings and Agriculture, forestry and fishing (each 7.1%).

Getting to Tasmania

Travel is easy, whether by air from Sydney or Melbourne, or by sea, with daily sailings of the twin ferries Spirit of Tasmania 1 and 2 each way between Melbourne and Devonport throughout the year.

This site has been produced by the Brand Tasmania Council © 2014

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