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.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Night Parrot: Exciting Developments

Night Parrot
It doesn't get much more exciting in the birding world than this: publicly released photographs and a video showing that the Night Parrot is hanging in there, albeit probably by not a great deal more than a thread. Researcher Steve Murphy and his colleagues have established that the Night Parrot has been recorded from several sites in the same area where it was discovered by John Young in 2013.

Moreover, Bush Heritage Australia has come on board to assist in endeavours to protect the area and put in place a management plan to secure the future of the bird. This saga could easily have panned out differently. It is a tribute to Steve Murphy, Bush Heritage Australia and John Young that a sensible solution was arrived at in a timely and orderly manner.

Young discovered the Night Parrot on a remote grazing property south-west of Winton in far western Queensland following a six-year search. The area is sparsely vegetated gibber country interspersed by spinifex patches - some quite extensive - on the slopes and around the base of red rocky ridges, with denser vegetation and low trees in gullies and on ridge tops. It was in the general region that a dead Night Parrot was discovered in 2006 and relatively not too far removed - as the Night Parrot flies - from where a road-killed Night Parrot was found in 1990.

The mist-netted Night Parrot. Pic Rachel Barr
These records suggest that the species may be persisting in small numbers across quite an extensive range in south-west Queensland, with Murphy's research indicating the birds move about frequently - as far as 8 kilometres - while feeding. Murphy and Young have both testified to the difficulty of locating the species: between the two of them, together or separately over several years involving many hours of effort and research, the parrot has been seen on just a handful of occasions. It does not call frequently and evidently does not flush readily during the day. So it is indeed the proverbial needle in the haystack.

Murphy and his assistant, Rachel Barr, managed to mist-net a Night Parrot last Easter. They attached a tiny radio transmitter to the bird before releasing it. The video of the bird disappearing into the spinifex is exquisite - a link to the video is here. Murphy's research was funded by Fortescue Metals as an offset for a company mining project in the Pilbara of Western Australia, where 3 Night Parrots were seen in 2005. Some doubt had been cast on that sighting, but the appearance and behaviour of the bird in the video is a good fit with the notes provided by the observers - especially the way the parrot moved across the ground. So Murphy's find may indirectly provide further evidence that a population of Night Parrots could be extant in the Pilbara as well as in south-west Queensland. Incidentally, Fortescue's funding for the Queensland research is scheduled to expire at the end of 2016.

Steve Murphy
At the time of the mist-netting, Murphy had heard birds calling from multiple sites within a 10-kilometre radius, indicating the presence of a well-established population. However, one bird was heard at another site 40 kilometres away, suggesting that the population could be more widely distributed. Birds called from relatively small and isolated spinifex patches as well as more extensive spinifex areas. Some of the areas where birds were present had been grazed by cattle.

Until his success with the nets, Murphy had seen just one Night Parrot in the area: a bird that was probably sub-adult flew into view quickly in response to playback. Many other calling birds failed to respond to playback. Murphy has recorded several Night Parrot calls which demonstrate some variation in pitch and composition. An important question now is whether recordings of those calls will be distributed so that others can search for further populations. The present site in south-west Queensland understandably is not being revealed, but there is a strong case for recordings to be made available to assist in finding more Night Parrots.

Feral Cat caught on camera near Night Parrot site
The mist-netted bird has been seen since once since it was captured and its transmitter is believed to have subsequently fallen off. Interestingly, 15,000 hours of camera trapping have not recorded any Night Parrots, although vocalisations indicate the birds are more widespread than the camera trapping suggests. The camera trapping did reveal other birds and mammals, including feral cats. Feral cats constitute perhaps the biggest threat to the birds; they are known to have been voracious predators of Night Parrots elsewhere in inland Australia.

Bush Heritage Australia, which has an excellent reputation for acquiring and managing environmentally sensitive areas, is negotiating with the owners of the 1 million-hectare property to acquire about 5 per cent of the holding - 56,000 hectares including the known Night Parrot sites. The organisation hopes to raise $400,000 to fund the acquisition. Anyone wishing to assist in the acquisition can do so  through this link.

A recovery team has been established comprising Murphy and experts from Bush Heritage Australia, Charles Darwin University, the Australian National University and the CSIRO. The federal and Queensland governments are both involved in planned management activities including the mapping of Night Parrot habitat, securing the site, mitigating wildfire risk and feral animal control.

John Young had once vowed to exclude government agencies from any role in protecting the area. Young had been offered on ongoing role in management but elected not to be a participant. Young was not involved in preparations for the latest announcement and in fact has distanced himself from the project in recent months. It is to Young's credit, however, that he recognised that the future of the bird lay beyond his limited resources and that the task required major input from government and non-government agencies alike. That's been the fortunate outcome, and the future of the Night Parrot is looking brighter as a result.


  1. Thanks for the update Greg! This is far better news than I expected. Jeff Skevington

  2. I saw it on Landline on Sunday ..... what a highlight when Steve released the bird and it scattered into the spinifex. Jude

  3. That is so awesome! These birds look like tiny kakapo!