Sunshine Coast Birds

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Saturday, 10 March 2018

Second Night Parrot disappears

Night Parrot - Pic by John Young
The following is the transcript of my story in The Weekend Australian of 10-11 March, 2018.

A second critically endangered night parrot disappeared after its mate vanished when it was caught and fitted with a radio transmitter by a team of experts charged with saving the birds from extinction.

The revelation prompted calls for the federal government to sack the night parrot recovery team and appoint a senior public servant to oversee the conservation program.

The night parrot is one of the rarest birds in the world. It had scarcely been reported for more than a century before naturalist John Young photographed one in western Queensland in 2013.

A pair of night parrots were discovered in the East Murchison area of Western Australia in March 2017. The Weekend Australian reported two weeks ago that recovery team chief Allan Burbidge led an expedition to the site five months later. The team caught one of the parrots in a net and fitted it with a transmitter, but no trace of the bird was found subsequently.

Recovery team sources said for the next three nights, a second parrot called frequently at the site during the night as it tried to find its missing mate. The second bird then evidently vanished.

Dr Burbidge says the transmitter failed, and there is no evidence the bird fled the area because it was traumatised, or fell victim to a predator because it was injured or encumbered by the device.

But one of Dr Burbidge's team, Tasmanian zoologist Mark Holdsworth, said it was possible the parrot perished. “That couldn't be ruled out,” he said.

Dr Burbidge agreed a second parrot was calling at the site when the bird was caught. “Steps were taken to specifically avoid flushing or catching this bird,” he said. “The signal from the transmitter was lost on the first night but... one bird was roosting at the capture site for at least two nights after the capture. It later appeared to roost elsewhere.”

Zoologists Mark Carter and Chris Watson recorded the calls of what was believed to be a night parrot in the Northern Territory in January 2017. Night parrot recovery team guidelines warn birds should not be flushed from daytime roosts: “Doing so will expose them to diurnal predators and potential heat stress.”

But Mr Carter said the team urged him to flush birds to photograph them. He was told this was standard practice on Pullen Pullen, the Queensland reserve where Mr Young photographed his birds.

Referring to the WA capture, Mr Carter said: “Now we learn... the “experts” undertook extremely risky interventions.” Mr Carter said the team should be replaced by a senior statutory officer.

End of story.

What follows are expanded comments from Mark Carter, a well-regarded Alice Springs birding guide.

Commenting on an approach by the recovery team about the NT bird: "The idea was that I would flush the bird in daylight to get photographs to ‘confirm’ the presence of the species. I was assured that this was a common occurrence at Pullen Pullen and that it did no harm to the birds. They also made this request to the NT Government. I was against taking any such action as I felt the risk of flushed birds being injured or killed by predators or of disturbing any nests was too high just to further confirm what we already knew from sound recordings and observers hearing the birds call at the site."  

Elaborating on the possible fate of the two WA birds: “Now we learn that in one case at least ’the experts’ have been undertaking extremely risky interventions which are not justified by the possible outcomes. Currently we know of very few sites for this species and each individual bird has to be considered to be extremely valuable and precious. We know very little about their capacity to tolerate disturbance but the early indications are not promising- deliberate disturbance to the birds has huge potential to do harm."

One of Burbidge's expedition members, Mark Holdsworth, Tasmanian zoologist of orange-bellied parrot fame, begs to differ. Holdsworth took to Twitter to dismiss my first report as "bullshit". When I asked him to indicate errors in the story, Holdsworth responded by blocking me. I thought this was ironic given it was Holdsworth who had confirmed to me rumours about the capture before the story was published. Moreover, as indicated above, Holdsworth agreed it is not possible to say that the captured night parrot is dead or alive. "We have no way of knowing what happened to that bird,” he said.

It's worth noting that most of the 15 people on the night parrot recovery team were not aware of the plan to capture and tag a bird in WA. Asked if there was any obligation on him to consult the whole team, Burbidge told me: "Tracking of night parrots was identified as an action in the Night Parrot  Research Plan. Since 2014, there have been discussions in the recovery team regarding potential tracking projects." 

Burbidge says the netting and capture was approved by the Animal Ethics Committee of the WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions.

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