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.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Previously Undisclosed Night Parrot Sighting

A previously unpublished report of a Night Parrot indicates that an extensive tract of spinifex country extending south-west of Winton in outback Queensland may be harbouring a greater population of this cryptic species than is thought.

Glenn Holmes, a highly respected field ornithologist, told me he saw a Night Parrot along the Winton-Jundah Road on May 21, 2012. This is 12 months before John Young filmed and photographed a Night Parrot (the first time the species had been photographed) at an undisclosed site. That site, on a cattle station, is thought to be in the same general region: huge, sparsely vegetated grazing properties in the vicinity of the Diamantina National Park.

Steve Murphy's netted Night Parrot: Pic by Rachel Barr
Like Young, Holmes began searching for the birds after a park ranger, Robert Cupitt, found a dead Night Parrot in the Diamantina National Park in September 2006. Holmes was interested in the prospects of the bird occurring on Brighton Downs station, which fringes the eastern sector of the national park. Brighton Downs is south of and equidistant between Winton and Boulia, near where a road-killed Night Parrot was found in 1990.

Glenn Holmes reported his bird along the Winton-Jundah Road, somewhere between the two red crosses
The Queensland Government's Desert Channels Biodiversity Plan identifies Brighton Downs and Mt Windsor cattle stations as containing potential habitat for the Night Parrot, with extensive stands of spinifex in broken, gravelly plains along with samphire, Maireana spp and other plants which the birds may feed on. The habitat described in the biodiversity plan is not unlike John Young's site: a cattle station where research scientist Steve Murphy is continuing to study the parrot. Bush Heritage Australia has launched an appeal to acquire 56,000 ha of the property for a conservation reserve.

It is understandable that Young's site should remain undisclosed while efforts continue to secure the reserve. Murphy has said that the site is not on Brighton Downs. The purpose of publishing this post is to encourage birders who are travelling through the general region – and in particular along the Winton-Jundah Road – to keep an eye out for Night Parrots.

Glenn Holmes began corresponding with me late last year about his Night Parrot search. Unfortunately, he passed away in December from the cancer which prevented him from following up his May 2012 sighting. Glenn was adamant that the bird he saw along the Winton-Jundah Road was a Night Parrot, and he was keen to publish the sighting. A combination of me travelling overseas at the time of our correspondence and Glenn's illness prevented me from learning the precise site. However, it can be discerned from his correspondence that the parrot was between 23 degrees south and 142 degrees east: that is, between points about 100 and 250 kms south/south-west of Winton along the road to Jundah. In a straight line, the area would be about 160 km from Winton.

Old growth spinifex in Bladensburg National Park
Potentially suitable habitat for Night Parrots is found in and around Bladensburg National Park just south-west of Winton, with extensive tracts of old growth spinifex extending south and west through Opalton to the gravelly plains west of Stonehenge and through parts of the 507,000 ha Diamantina National Park.

Glenn Holmes was keen to touch base with Steve Murphy to ensure that publishing his record would not compromise the conservation program on John Young's site. Murphy, who netted and photographed a Night Parrot at the site last April, ignored my repeated requests to comment on Glenn's report.

Glenn Holmes
There have been many reports of Night Parrots over the decades, mostly unsubstantiated. However, Glenn Holmes had outstanding abilities in the field and those of us who knew him well have no hesitation in believing that the bird he saw on the Winton-Jundah Road was a Night Parrot. 

Murphy has recorded several birds at John Young's site but has backed away from an earlier population estimate of between 10 and 30 parrots there. However, he has heard a Night Parrot 40km from the site: a further indication that the species may be more widespread in the region.

Steve Murphy and associates at John Young's site
Meanwhile, a rift between John Young and Steve Murphy, former collaborators in the field, appears to be widening since Young effectively walked away the site and the research effort early last year. (See here for more on the results of Murphy's ongoing research.) Young's supporters were angered by a Queensland Government media release last November which said the Night Parrot had been rediscovered by a “team of scientists” at the site, with no mention made of the fact that the bird was rediscovered by Young (more on Young's 2013 discovery can be found here). This false claim has since been repeated in several publications.

Steve Murphy
John Young

Now Young has taken to social media to attack Murphy for catching a parrot in a mist net at the site. “It beggars belief that he netted one of the birds from my site,” Young says on Facebook. “What would have happened if it died in the net! We are playing with one of the least known birds in the world. Leave them alone. We do not have to have a human fingerprint on everything.” Young says he will search for a new site this year. Murphy believes that catching and radio-tracking a parrot was essential in order to get some sort of idea of its movements and feeding habits; he found that the birds regularly flew several kilometres to forage, often some distance from the old growth spinifex in which they roosted. 

Clearly the search for further populations of Night Parrot nationwide would be greatly enhanced if John Young, Steve Murphy or state authorities released - however selectively - some of the many recordings that Young and Murphy have made of the bird's call. Many people believe it is time that recordings were made available.

Bush Heritage Australia is continuing efforts to secure funding for a reserve, and is about $1.5 million short of its target. Anyone wishing to assist this worthy cause can access this link. 

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Hervey Bay, Maryborough & Great Sandy Strait

Greater Sand Plover
Three Asian Dowitchers, 150+ Grey Plover, Wood Sandpiper, Brolga, loads of Greater Sand Plover in breeding plumage and Beach Stone-Curlew were the highlights of birding around Hervey Bay and the Great Sandy Strait in south-east Queensland. We camped for 3 nights by the beach at Pialba in Hervey Bay where we camped at this time last year. Of interest was a flock of 50 Greater Sand Plover on the rocks at Pt Vernon. Most birds were in full or partial breeding plumage and unusually, no other species (including Lesser Sand Plover) were with the flock.

Sooty Oystercatcher
A single Sooty Oystercatcher (northern race) was on the rocks. I looked unsuccessfully for Black-breasted Buttonquail at Mungomery's Vine Scrub; platelets were very old and I suspect well-meaning locals who removed lantana and other weeds from the scrub may have unwittingly subjected the birds to cat predation.

Arkarra Lagoons were also unproductive other than a couple of Nankeen Night-Herons although an Osprey showed nicely nearby.

Grey Shrike-thrush
A Grey Shrike-thrush attracted to its image in a car mirror at River Head was a distraction. Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove and Fairy Gerygone were in the vine scrub here.

Wood Sandpiper
I visited Garnett's Lagoon with John Knight. We found a Wood Sandpiper at the same spot where we saw one this time last year. The lagoon was looking good for waders with 300+ Red-necked Stints among those present (full list here). Large numbers of sand plovers of both species were on the salt plan but interestingly, unlike the Pt Vernon birds, none had traces of breeding plumage.

Five Brolga - a good number for this species in south-east Queensland - were about.

White-winged Chough
 We moved on to another caravan park for 3 nights by the Mary River in Maryborough. Fairy Gerygone was common in mangroves along the river along with Mangrove Gerygone. White-winged Chough, White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike and Nutmeg Mannikin were among the birds in the area.

Great Egret at nest

Intermediate Egret at nest
Intermediate Egret, Great Ă‹gret and Cattle Egret were nesting in the same trees at Queens Park in Maryborough.

Gull-billed Tern & Caspian Tern

Bar-tailed Godwit, Great Knot, Greater Sand Plover, Lesser Sand Plover
Waders were in good numbers at the Boonooroo high tide roost, with many coming into breeding plumage. An Asian Dowitcher was seen briefly among the big flocks of larger waders, predominantly Bar-tailed Godwit. Also of interest were 150+ Grey Plover - an unusually large number for a species that is a scarce visitor to south-east Queensland. A large flock of Little Tern was also of interest. Both species of sand plover were in good numbers (full list here).

Grey Plover
I moved on to nearby Maaroom, a few kilometres to the north, while the tide was still high. A found a second  Asian Dowitcher foraging in low mangroves with a small group of Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits. This group flushed and flew into the distance.

Asian Dowitcher & Bar-tailed Godwits
Then, in the main large grouping of waders, I found a third Asian Dowitcher which I saw several times. Unfortunately the above is the only image I managed of any of the three dowitchers: a distant digiscoped snap of the bird (in the centre, left and behind a Bar-tailed Godwit, with its bill tucked away; characteristic plumage differences can be discerned, as demonstrated in the image below).

Asian Dowitcher
This is a better snap of a dowitcher I took a while back at Toorbul.

Beach Stone-Curlew
A Beach Stone-Curlew at Maaroom was another nice find. Interestingly, no plovers of any species were present at this site: See full list here.