Sunshine Coast Birds

Birding and other wildlife experiences from the Sunshine Coast and elsewhere in Australia - and from overseas - with scribblings about travel, environmental issues, kayaking, hiking and camping.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Ground Parrots in Danger of Extinction on the Sunshine Coast

Ground Parrot photos by Graeme Chapman


One of the last remaining populations of the endangered Ground Parrot on mainland Australia appears to be heading inexorably towards extinction as a result of habitat mismanagement and plans for an airport runway extension on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

A once healthy population of Ground Parrot on the Sunshine Coast – with as many as 300 birds - has shrunk to fewer than 40 parrots in four scattered areas of wallum heath extending from Marcus Beach in the north to Marcoola in the south. A look at what has happened to this population in recent years and plans for the future - in particular the proposed runway extension at Sunshine Coast Airport - suggest that its survival is doubtful.

One of Australia’s truly unique birds, the Ground Parrot is one of just three nocturnal, primarily terrestrial parrots in the world – the others being the Night Parrot of Australia and the Kakapo of New Zealand. The Ground Parrot occurs in Tasmania and in a handful of scattered sites on mainland Australia. The only other population is Queensland is north of the Sunshine Coast in the Great Sandy World Heritage Area, primarily in the Teewah Creek catchment at Cooloola.



On the Sunshine  Coast as recently as a decade ago, several Grounds Parrots were in residence in an area of wallum heath at Noosaville, north of Ernie Creek Road. The presence of this endangered bird in the area was a key factor in planning for an extension of Ernie Creek Road across the wallum heath plain of this sector of Noosa National Park. The road was supposed to be sufficiently elevated so that parrots would be able to move freely between areas of heath to its north and south. If they were to fly over (instead of under) the road, roadside barriers were supposedly high enough to avoid collisions with motor vehicles.

It didn’t work. The Ground Parrots appear to be no longer in this area as I have failed to hear birds calling during two surveys. The presence of the birds is detected by their distinctive calls at dusk; this is the main method of surveying them.Presumably, the road has been a key source of the demise of Ground Parrots at Noosaville.

Another may be the proliferation of woody shrubs in the wallum heath plain here. Ground Parrots prefer open, drier heath which has been burned at intervals of about 8-12 years; regular, controlled burning appears to be essential to its survival. If heath is not burned, it is eventually choked with woody shrubs, which are not suitable habitat for the Ground Parrot. One study suggests that birds vacate heath within 15 years of its invasion by woody shrubs.

This appears to be what has happened not only at Noosaville but further south, in the Marcus Beach-Peregian Beach area, again in Noosa National Park. This is now the most northerly site of the four Ground Parrot populations surviving on the Sunshine Coast south of Noosa. Here, a decade ago, about 10 Ground Parrots were heard regularly during surveys in the area. I have listened for the parrots at three sites at dusk in recent times in the Marcus Beach-Peregian Beach area on four occasions, and have heard Ground Parrots twice, with a maximum of two birds calling. I suspect that just a couple of birds, perhaps three or four, are hanging on at this site.

Prime Ground Parrot habitat - wallum heath in the Great Sandy World Heritage Area

Again, the wallum heath in this sector of the national park is choked with woody shrubs. It does not appear to have been been burned for many years so is no longer suitable habitat for Ground Parrots. The dilemma for authorities, in terms of fire control, is that the heath is surrounded by densely populated areas in what is, after all, Australia’s tenth largest city, and one of the country’s major tourist destinations.

The second Ground Parrot population on the Sunshine Coast is further south in the Mt Emu section of Noosa National Park. Numbers are not known but birds have been recorded on both sides of Sunshine Motorway in very small numbers. Several years ago, Ground Parrots were seen flushing from the heath ahead of a fire in this area. There are perhaps 5-10 birds in this area.

The third population is in Mt Coolum National Park, and the fourth is centred around the nearby Sunshine Coast Airport at Marcoola. Both these sites are monitored by Environment Department surveys, with between one and six birds being heard at a total of eight listening stations, indicating a total likely population of 20-25 birds at the two sites.

I have heard three birds calling simultaneously from inside the southern boundary of Sunshine Coast Airport. It appears probable that the area of heath within the airport fencing is the single most important site for Ground Parrots on the Sunshine Coast.

Data on Ground Parrots on the Sunshine Coast was pulled together for the Preliminary Review of Significant Factors by environmental consultancy Ecosmart Ecology; this was part of the Sunshine Coast Airport Master Plan Project. More than 10 Ground Parrots were heard calling in and around the airport during surveys, with possibly more present in the area; Environment Department experts believe the airport population is likely to be the most stable and important on the Sunshine Coast.

The consultants say it is likely that the airport population is acting as a source for maintaining dwindling numbers at sites further north. Interestingly, management practices in the airport have succeeded in keeping woody shrubs out. Regular slashing and maintenance of heath within the airport appears likely to simulate the effects of fire, preventing woody species taking over the smaller seed and fruit producing plants favoured by the parrots.

The big problem for the Ground Parrot is a $250 million plan to extend the east-west runway at Sunshine Coast Airport. This project has been declared a state significant project and fits in nicely with recently announced plans by Liberal National Party heavyweight Clive Palmer for major new tourist development projects in the region. (Palmer has ludicrously insisted that rare birds such as the Ground Parrot can simply fly away and settle elsewhere.)

Ground Parrot habitat - wallum heath around the north-south runway at Sunshine Coast Airport 

According to the airport environmental consultants, the new runway will dissect Ground Parrot habitats in the north and south of the airport area. Apart from the shrinkage of already small areas of habitat, the birds’ ability to fly between those areas could be reduced by increased noise, light and aircraft traffic. The Sunshine Coast Airport Master Plan Project's Initial Advice Statement concedes that in relation to the Ground Parrot, the runway plan will "directly impact the availability of habitat or food source". 

In short, the runway extension could spell the end of the most important surviving population of Ground Parrot on the Sunshine Coast, and may lead to the extinction of the Sunshine Coast population of this endangered species.

One of the aims of federal environmental legislation is to ensure the survival of endangered species such as the Ground Parrot. The fate of the bird on the Sunshine Coast is a sad reflection of the failure of this legislation to meet its objectives.


There's been some local media interest in the issue. This image by Warren Lynam from the Sunshine Coast Daily.  


2 comments:

  1. I recall seeing a Ground Parrot as a child in the early 1990s in our yard under a bush in Peregian Beach. Our property was only Currawong Cres, on the western side of the David Low Way. Currawong Cres actually backed onto the heathlands. We faced David Low Way and the parrot was on metres from the road in this bush, I can only imagine how many have been killed by cars.

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  2. I enjoyed reading this info. Any recent news on the airport colony referred to?

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