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A previously unpublished report of a Night Parrot indicates that an extensive tract of spinifex country extending south-west of Winton in outback Queensland may be harbouring a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


  1. Interesting Greg. I believe I've heard Night Parrot in the field (not too far from Cloncurry, on private property, 2014) - but there's no way I'm going to wade out into that particular minefield.

    1. Thanks for that Lawrie. There must be a few of them out there! And around Cloncurry looks as good as anywhere.

  2. interesting that there are more than we thought. While on a long trip, just north of Cloncurry, we flushed a probable night parrot from a possible roost, though the glimpse was short. he habitat was perfect, but I live on the sunshine coast, a while away!

    1. Another interesting possibility Ollie, thanks