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.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Night Parrot on Brighton Downs

Night Parrot - pic Steve Murphy
The following news and feature were published in The Weekend Australian of 14-15 May, 2016. I reveal that the cattle property Brighton Downs is where John Young discovered a Night Parrot population in 2013. However, the property is very large and I have not published specific site details for what is now known as the Pullen Pullen Reserve.

Analysis of the last five records of this species shows the parrot occurring over a 300km arc - from Boulia in the west to the Winton-Jundah Road in the east -  in Queensland's channel country. The Queensland Government's threatened species unit has decided that the parrot's call recordings will not be distributed to allow others to search for this enigmatic bird. These are same people who suppressed Robert Cupitt's Night Parrot find in the nearby Diamantina National Park in 2006.

It's time for a little less secrecy and for recordings to be distributed so that others can search for populations. It is a mistake for all the Night Parrot eggs to be left in one basket. Those wishing to search for this species could do worse than to look along the Diamantina River Road and the Winton-Jundah Road. Please note there is no public access to Pullen Pullen or Brighton Downs.

Brighton Downs & Diamantina National Park 
A sprawling live cattle export property in the channel country of outback Queensland has been revealed as being where a remnant population of the world's most mysterious bird lives.

The enigmatic night parrot, long feared extinct, is now known from five sites across 300km of some of the nation's most harsh and arid landscape.

The 420,000ha Brighton Downs property is where renowned naturalist John Young took the first photographs and film footage of the night parrot in 2013. At the time, no confirmed sightings of the parrot had been documented since 1912; the Smithsonian Institution regards the night parrot as the world's most mysterious bird.

Private nature conservation organisation Bush Heritage Australia announced recently it had established the 56,000ha Pullen Pullen Reserve to protect an estimated population of 20-40 night parrots at Mr Young's site.

BHA was forced to take out a $1.5 million mortgage to pay for the acquisition. Brighton Downs owner Peter Britton said the parrots had lived in the area for generations side-by-side with cattle grazing.

“I wonder with all this attention on the birds if we should be worrying about their future,” Mr Britton said.

Mr Young claims he was forced out of the BHA project. He has been hired as a senior ecologist with Australia's other major nature conservation organisation, Australian Wildlife Conservancy, which is locked in a heated dispute with BHA.

AWC announced this week a $3 million program that includes the construction a fence to keep feral predators out of 8000ha of the 507,000ha Diamantina National Park, which adjoins Brighton Downs. AWC plans to establish a population of 800 bilbies, doubling the Queensland population of the endangered marsupial.(More on the fence plan here.)

The proposed fence is understood to be less than 50km from Pullen Pullen. The last night parrot recorded before Mr Young's 2013 discovery was a dead bird found in 2006 in the national park. It had been decapitated when it struck a fence.

The Pullen Pullen night parrot site: Pic by The Australian
Allan Burbidge, the chairman of the Night Parrot Discovery Team, which works closely with BHA, said there is a risk of parrots striking the AWC fence and being killed.

“We would like to know what action would be taken if one or more parrots are killed following collision with a predator-proof fence,” Dr Burbidge said.

Frank Manthey of Save the Bilby Fund said he also opposed the fence because it would restrict the movements of bilbies from their last known haunt in Astrebla Downs National Park, 40km from the fence site.

AWC chief executive Atticus Fleming said the site was not near known populations of either bilbies or night parrots and will cover just one percent of Diamantina National Park.

“In our experience these fences have not had adverse impact on other species.” Mr Fleming said. “The fence is just one of the strategies being employed. There will be a range of feral animal controls.”

A decades-long absence of confirmed night parrot records ended with the finding a dead bird roadside near Boulia in 1990. A second dead bird was found in 2006 in Diamantina National Park, 120km south-east of Boulia. Mr Young photographed his parrot in 2013 on Brighton Downs, 30km north of Diamantina. Researcher Steve Murphy subsequently heard parrots calling at a second site on the property, 40km from Mr Young's site. Also in 2013, naturalist Glenn Holmes saw a night parrot on the Winton-Jundah Road, 60km east of Brighton Downs (see here).

John Young
For Peter Britton, a fifth generation cattle grazier, it was a dream come true when his family signed a $12 million contract in May 2013 with the giant Australian Agricultural Company to acquire the 420,000ha Brighton Downs holding in western Queensland's channel country. The Britton family had long coveted the live cattle export property on the banks of the Diamantina River. “We had wanted that all our lives,” Peter Britton said at the time.

Two weeks after the signing came some frightening news for the Brittons. As revealed by The Australian, renowned naturalist John Young photographed and filmed for the first time the enigmatic night parrot, regarded by the Smithsonian Institution as the world's most mysterious bird. There had been no confirmed sightings of the night parrot since 1912; almost a century later, a population of the Holy Grail of Australian wildlife was discovered, generating news headlines internationally.

Young discovered the parrot in the heart of Brighton Downs. Britton was concerned that the finding of this critically endangered species might prompt government intervention to stop grazing on his cherished property. “I didn't know what to think, it was a worry,” says Britton, speaking publicly for the first time about the discovery. However, government authorities commendably kept their distance, allowing Britton to sell 12 per cent of Brighton Downs to private nature reserve organisation Bush Heritage Australia.

BHA announced last month it had acquired the 56,000ha Pullen Pullen Reserve to protect the night parrot population discovered by Young, estimated at 20-40 birds; Pullen Pullen is the local Aboriginal name for the parrot. According to Britton, the area is one of three large patches of ideal night parrot habitat – old growth spinifex amid rocky ridges – on Brighton Downs, separated by distances of 30km to 40km, which together comprise about 30 per cent of the property.

Pullen Pullen: Pic by Bush Heritage Australia
However, significant barriers remain to secure the long-term future of the species. BHA was forced to take out a $1.5 million mortgage to acquire Pullen Pullen – an unusual arrangement for such organisations - and is $3.5 million short of its $5 million target for a three-year program covering acquisition, research and management.

Now, BHA is embroiled in a heated dispute with Australia's other big nature reserve organisation, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, over AWC plans to build a predator-proof fence in the Diamantina National Park, which abuts the southern boundary of Brighton Downs.

Meanwhile, BHA and its night parrot researcher at Pullen Pullen, Steve Murphy, are under scrutiny by the natural history community for shrouding their project in secrecy. The BHA website shows a blank map of Queensland as the site for Pullen Pullen; selected media taken there by BHA are given no clues about their destination.

Recordings of the parrot's call are not being distributed to allow others to search for more night parrot populations; the cryptic birds, extremely difficult to see, are most easily detected when they respond to playback of their call. In essence, all the night parrot eggs are being put in BHA's Pullen Pullen basket. The whereabouts of the parrots were made known to Inquirer by well-placed sources who fear that BHA is pursuing a secretive agenda that may not necessarily be in the best interests of the species.

Peter Britton is concerned about the parrot's future. “This bird has been living out here side-by-side with cattle forever without any problems,” Britton says. “Now with all this attention, will that continue? I worry it might be like the last three prime ministers: the media grabs a hold of them and before we know it they're extinct.”

The parrot's discoverer, John Young, now works for AWC after falling out with BHA and Murphy, his former collaborator, who caught the first live night parrot in April last year. Young has lashed out at Murphy for using nets to catch the bird. It beggars belief that he netted one of the birds from my site,” Young says on his Facebook page. “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.”

Murphy is unapologetic and has signalled his intention to use nets to catch two more parrots later this year. He is backed by the Queensland Environment Department's threatened species unit. “The department is working with the Night Parrot Recovery Team to protect the population and supports decisions made by scientific experts in the field,” a spokesman says.

Suitable night parrot habitat along the Diamantina Road.
Ironically, the threatened species unit enthusiastically backed claims by Young to have discovered a new species of fig-parrot in south-east Queensland rainforests in 2007, until those claims were challenged at the time by The Australian. Since then, government authorities have distanced themselves from Young. Recent government statements about Young's night parrot site fail to acknowledge the naturalist's key role in discovering the birds.

The AWC revealed this week an ambitious $3 million plan involving the construction of a fence to enclose 8000ha of the 507,000ha Diamantina National Park. The fence will protect bilbies and other endangered animals from feral cats and foxes. The federal Government is providing $1.2 million towards what would be the largest philanthropic investment in Queensland national parks.

However, BHA and its allies in the Night Parrot Recovery Team have come out fighting against the plan, fearing birds will be killed by flying into the fence. In 2006, park ranger Robert Cupitt found a dead night parrot in the northern sector of Diamantina National Park, relatively close to Pullen Pullen. The bird was decapitated by striking a barbed-wire fence; this was the last record of the species before Young's 2013 discovery.

Recovery team chairman Allan Burbidge says Murphy's research shows parrots fly up to 7km from their spinifex roosts at night to feed but they may fly much further. “It is known from other work in Diamantina and elsewhere that species with nocturnal activity patterns are more susceptible to collisions with fences,” Burbidge says. “It seems likely that a predator-proof fence within night parrot habitat might pose a threat to a bird that flies 15 km or so each night. For a population with perilously low numbers, the effect could be highly significant.”

Bush Heritage Australia's site details for the night parrot reserve
The recovery team is demanding to know what action will be taken if parrots are killed by the fence. Murphy has contacted journalists with the aim of undermining the AWC plan.

AWC chief executive Atticus Fleming responds that the fence will cover just one percent of the national park. Fleming says the fenced reserve would protect a population of 800 bilbies – double the entire Queensland population of the endangered mammal – as well as the kowari and other threatened species. “There is broad scientific consensus about the urgent need for more cat and fox-free areas,” Fleming says. “AWC is recognised as the leader in establishing predator-free areas and is the only organisation in Australia to have established multiple large (1000ha+) areas. In our experience, such fences have not had any significant adverse impact on other species.”

Feral cats are considered to be the main danger threatening the future of the bilby and the night parrot. In 2013 and 2014, government officers shot 3000 cats in nearby Astrebla Downs National Park, where the main bilby population survives.

John Young will be hired by AWC to search for new night parrot populations around the Diamantina fencing site and in other areas where AWC is working, including Astrebla Downs. “John is the only person who has found a live night parrot population,” Fleming says. “That is an outstanding achievement. We wouldn't all be talking about night parrots if it wasn't for him.”

Steve Murphy has recorded eight vocalisations from the parrot; the main call is described as a flute-like, two-syllable cadence. Murphy promised last year to release recordings of the call so searches could be undertaken for new populations of the parrot, which is so cryptic that he has seen just three in three years of research. “Nobody argues about the benefits of that and it will be done,” Murphy said at the time.

Now, Murphy claims he is unable to release the call because he has been prevented from doing so by the threatened species unit. “The policy of non-disclosure is being driven by the state government,” he says. However, a spokesman for the unit says it is guided by Murphy's advice. And Murphy's advice is clear. He now fears the site will be invaded by illegal egg-collectors and birders keen to “twitch” a much prized rarity if the call is released. “There are risks to the integrity of my data and risks also to the birds themselves,” he says.

BHA has set up satellite-controlled cameras on the reserve to detect intruders. BHA chief executive north Rob Murphy (no relation to Steve) says distributing the call could hinder research and management work. “Steve's research shows the birds are highly sensitive to disruption from people and are easily disturbed,” Rob Murphy says.

Brighton Downs map

But the admission by Rob Murphy that parrots are easily disturbed by people raises doubts about the wisdom of intensive research strategies such as netting and tagging. Birds frequently die or are injured after flying into nets. John Young's supporters believe data collected from the parrot caught last year by Steve Murphy was sufficient to establish the necessary facts about habits and movements, without the need for more birds to be netted.

The government's threatened species unit has form on the subject of secrecy. The 2006 discovery of the dead night parrot by ranger Robert Cuppitt in Diamantina National Park was kept secret, notwithstanding its huge significance. The find was revealed by The Australian six months after the event. Critics argued at the time that an opportunity for a comprehensive survey to detect more parrots was lost.

A lesson in avian history may be instructive. In 1976, another rare nocturnal bird, the plumed frogmouth, was discovered in the rainforests of the Conondale Range in south-east Queensland. At the time, the frogmouth had not been seen or collected for several decades and its call was unknown; authorities feared it was extinct. Instead of the discovery being kept secret, multiple recordings of the bird's call were distributed. Surveys were conducted across an extensive area and several populations were detected. There was no invasion of egg-collectors and twitchers; the plumed frogmouth today is safely secure.

Approximate sites for last 5 night parrot records

Regardless of the debate over management and research, the developments on Brighton Downs are an excellent example of how grazing and environmental interests need not be incompatible across Australia's vast arid zone.

And whatever his reservations, Peter Britton is hopeful that the future of the species can be secured. That's why he sold Pullen Pullen for what he and BHA agree was a fair price. “I didn't want it on my conscious if the bird goes missing,” Britton says. “I had no interest in exploiting the situation to make money. Like plenty of people, I want the best possible outcome for this animal.”

Further notes on this subject can be found here.



  1. Greg

    Is it not a pity that birding groups can always find the energy to kick the shit out of each other rather than cooperating to deal with the real enemy?


  2. I completely agree with letting the bird's calls out, which will help others track more individuals, and I am glad that on the other hand they are keeping the original location confidential. Good read, Thanks Greg
    Ollie Scully.

  3. Thanks for the info Greg, agree the call should be out there so those keen to map out the rest of the distribution can do so most efficiently. There is a hell of an area, north of the 'fox line' in which patches of unburnt triodia may remain as viable habitat. Winton to Exmouth WA!!