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.

Thursday 15 February 2024

Night Parrot: Death by Barbed Wire

The Night Parrot found by Shorty Cupitt

Robert (“Shorty”) Cupitt remembers well the warm September day in 2006 when he was doing maintenance work around stock routes and fences in the vicinity of Diamantina National Park in western Queensland. He found a small dead parrot on the ground that looked unfamiliar. It turned out to be a Night Parrot - just the second confirmed record of this enigmatic species recorded over the previous century. The parrot was below a barbed wire fence. “There were feathers from the bird stuck on the top strand of barbed wire,” Cupitt tells me. “It was decapitated, killed by flying and hitting the fence.”

Night Parrot

In a 2008 paper in Australian Field Ornithology that published the historic finding, Cupitt issued a clear warning: “It highlights the danger posed to birds, including rare or threatened species, by the many kilometres of barbed wire traversing the landscape.” Cupitt’s find led to the bird being photographed for the first time by John Young in 2013, and the creation of the 56,000ha Pullen Pullen Reserve encompassing critical Night Parrot habitat by Bush Heritage Australia in 2016. 

Pullen Pullen

As I noted in an article in the latest edition of The Weekend Australian, another Night Parrot was killed after striking a barbed wire boundary fence on Pullen Pullen in 2019. With the region’s parrot population estimated at a total of 10-20 birds, that is a significant loss. Says Cupitt: “It’s barbed wire all the way along some of those boundary fences, including the top strand.” A barbed wire fence separates the 3-4 known roosting Night Parrot sites of the Pullen Pullen parrot population from each other and from feeding grounds they fly to each night. Until this week, BHA had little to say about the fatality (more on that later).

Pullen Pullen boundary fence

Outside Pullen Pullen, small numbers of parrots have been located in Western Australia. Last year, a Night Parrot was retrieved by traditional owners after being found injured, hanging by its wing from a barbed wire fence; it died soon after. The Night Parrot is critically endangered: we now know of three individuals killed by barbed wire fences, and the death toll is certain to be higher. 

Prepared specimen of recently killed Night Parrot in WA: WA Museum

In 2016, then Night Parrot Recovery Team Allan Burbidge head warned of the consequences of a plan by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy to build a predator-proof fenced enclosure in Diamantina National Park, more than 20km from Pullen Pullen. Said Burbidge: “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.” The plan was scuttled. Yet the recovery team has had nothing to say about the Pullen Pullen fencing.

Diamantina National Park

BHA has run white electric tape along the top of some fences in a bid to deter parrots from striking them. In a statement published on the BHA website this week - following The Weekend Australian story - Pullen Pullen ecologist Nick Leseberg offers further details about the 2019 victim. Says Leseberg: “This section of the fence hadn’t been flagged, as we didn’t think it was an area where the Night Parrots would be traversing. By this time we’d removed tens of kilometres of unnecessary fence, including the entire southern boundary with Diamantina National Park, but this really brought home the risk these fences pose. We’d love to remove all of them, but the reality is this is pastoral country and we need fences to keep cattle out of Pullen Pullen.” 

Leseberg and his colleagues have done some fine research work on Pullen Pullen. They are not helped by the peculiar perspective that BHA has of public relations. The organisation has taken a leaf out of the Donald Trump playbook by ignoring journalists it doesn’t fancy - like me. BHA told me bluntly it would not be responding to anything I put to them. BHA’s silence becoming part of the story in the national broadsheet newspaper speaks volumes.

It also speaks to a cultural problem that has been evident since BHA’s acquisition of Pullen Pullen. The wider birding community is often regarded with a degree of contempt. Twitchers are collectively considered a potential threat to the species. Those outside BHA’s inner sanctum of scientists are unwelcome. BHA said this in a revealing statement last October: “In 2013, in the remote corners of western Queensland on Maiawali Country where spinifex grows in abundance – the perfect habitat for the bird – the Night Parrot was rediscovered by scientists.” It was in fact rediscovered in 2006 by Shorty Cupitt, and photographed in 2013 by John Young; neither are scientists. 

Feral cat
BHA refused to respond to questions I put to them about current population estimates; the consequences for the population of successive years of good summer rains; and the impacts of population booms of feral cats and long-haired rats in the area. Those issues are to some extent now belatedly addressed in this week’s statement. Leseberg confirms that the bountiful years of wet weather were a plus: “The floodplains were really benefiting from the exclusion of cattle and there were as many Night Parrots on Pullen Pullen and (neighbouring property) Mt Windsor as I had ever seen. There were four known sites with birds, and potentially two others where we heard birds on a couple of occasions. I think there could have been as many as twelve or fourteen birds across the two properties.” 

The good times led to a big increase in cat numbers. BHA tripled the number of planned cat control trips. Trips would typically be for two weeks, with each trip removing 50 cats by mid-2023. Says Leseberg: “It wasn’t all bad news though. The stomachs of the cats were examined to determine what they were eating, and we were only finding rats, nothing else.” By the end of 2023, rat numbers were dwindling and although cat numbers remained high, there was evidence they were losing condition with fewer pregnant females. Referring to the bird’s present status, he adds: “We’re still detecting them across three to four sites, but at some of those sites the detections are not as regular. We don’t know if these mean there are fewer birds, or if they are moving around more.”

Long-haired Rat

It would be interesting to know if the long-haired rat plague had its own impacts, although that issue is not addressed in this week’s statement. Rats are voracious predators of eggs and nesting birds. Might that be a factor in the latest population shift that Leseberg refers to? Instead of regarding questions like that as threatening or inappropriate or whatever, BHA could be doing the bird a service with a little more inclusiveness and dialogue.

Pullen Pullen

Monday 12 February 2024

Southport Seamounts Pelagic, February 2024


Band-rumped Storm-Petrel

Highlights of the 3-night, 2-day Southport Seamounts trip organised by Paul Walbridge from February 9-12 included Band-rumped Storm-Petrel; a Collared Petrel; good numbers of Gould’s Petrel, Black-winged Petrel and White-necked Petrel; and huge numbers of Grey-faced Petrel. After leaving early Friday evening aboard the cosy Grinner II we ended up mid-morning at 27.3735S, 155.0996E, 100 nautical miles offshore in 228 fathoms on the Queensland Seamount - roughly in a line east of Pt Lookout, North Stradbroke Island. We remained in this general area over the weekend, with some time spent motoring back from drifting. Conditions varied little over our time out wide: strong winds 18-25 knots SE gusting to 30 knots with a 2.5m swell and choppy seas. A tad uncomfortable but good conditions for seabirds.

Grey-faced Petrel feeding frenzy

Paul’s full report is forthcoming. Suffice here to sum up some highlights. A Band-rumped Storm-Petrel  flew in early afternoon on Saturday and appeared to be much attracted to toy floating storm-petrels that Jacob Crisp had put together. It showed well, hanging around the back of the boat for 20 minutes or so.

Band-rumped Storm-Petrel

Band-rumped Storm-Petrel

Jacob got onto a decent pale phase Collared Petrel which I saw briefly but his were the only images, and nobody else saw the bird unfortunately. I had seen the species previously in the eastern Coral Sea. It's a rarely encountered taxa with a few records in south-east Queensland. A couple of dark Gould’s-type petrels also looked like contenders for a while. Gould’s Petrels were frequently about the boat and it was a delight to see so many.

Gould's Petrel

Gould's Petrel

Gould's Petrel

Black-winged Petrels were in fewer number than Gould’s but more inclined to offer nice, close fly-bys.

Black-winged Petrel

Black-winged Petrel

Black-winged Petrel

Like most seabirds over the weekend, there was a substantial appetite for the berley. Grey-faced Petrels were particularly voracious. This was the most common species by far, with over 50-100 birds often in the vicinity of the boat. Large numbers continued to be about even after sunset.

Grey-faced Petrel

Grey-faced Petrel
Grey-faced Petrel

White-necked Petrel performed beautifully, with at least 8 birds logged including 2 together. This is a cracker of a seabird that never disappoints.

White-necked Petrel

White-necked Petrel

White-necked Petrel

Kermadec Petrel was in reasonable numbers with dark, pale and intermediate phases on show.

Kermadec Petrel (dark phase)l

Kermadec Petrel (light phase)

Kermadec Petrel (intermediate phase)

Tahiti Petrel was the second most common species, with small numbers of birds about the boat throughout the weekend.

Tahiti Petrel

Tahiti Petrel

White-bellied Storm-Petrel put in a brief appearance on a few occasions, but there was no sign of the hoped-for New Caledonian Storm-Petrel.

White-bellied Storm-Petrel

White-bellied Storm-Petrel

Wedge-tailed Shearwater was relatively common but just a handful of Flesh-footed Shearwaters appeared.

Flesh-footed Shearwater

White-tailed Tropicbird was seen twice flying high. A single Red-tailed Tropicbird was near the boat at dusk.

White-tailed Tropicbird

A Red-footed Booby roosted on the boat on Saturday night and joined by a second bird in the morning.

Red-footed Booby

Adult and immature Sooty Terns were frequent visitors to the berley trail.

Sooty Tern

A few Brown Noddies were seen along with a single Black Noddy.

Brown Noddy

SPECIES LIST: Tahiti Petrel, Grey-faced Petrel, Kermadec Petrel, White-necked Petrel, Collared Petrel, Gould’s Petrel, Wedge-tailed Shearwater, Flesh-footed Shearwater, White-bellied Storm-Petrel, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, Red-tailed Tropicbird, White-tailed Tropicbird, Red-footed Booby. Brown Noddy, Black Noody, Sooty Tern. 16 species

Notes on the outlook for Coxen’s Fig-Parrot, Night Parrot & Buff-breasted Buttonquail: links between their fate and the “Blue-browed Fig-Parrot” fiasco


The following is the transcript of my news feature in The Weekend Australian of 10-11 February, 2024.

Coxen's Fig-Parrot

A 17-year-old mystery surrounding the identity of a tiny parrot is having unforeseen consequences for the welfare of endangered Australian wildlife. Self-promotion by high profile individuals and poor decision-making by Queensland Government authorities have combined to threaten rare and mysterious species, and deep divisions within the natural history community are laid bare.

Just one variety of bird, the paradise parrot, is confirmed as having become extinct on the Australian mainland since European settlement; it was last seen in the 1930s in south-east Queensland. Now, the fate of three more birds – the Coxen’s fig-parrot, night parrot and buff-breasted buttonquail - hangs in the balance. Two of the three are possibly extinct, contrary to confused government advice, with the third teetering precariously on the brink.

Buff-breasted Buttonquail

The celebrated naturalist Steve Irwin died in September 2006 when he was struck in the heart by a stingray barb on the Great Barrier Reef. Soon after, as a journalist working for The Australian, I was phoned by Tom Biggs, a Brisbane medical specialist who was providing commercial advice to controversial north Queensland naturalist John Young and his company, John Young Enterprises. Biggs asked if I was interested in breaking a “really big” story for this masthead concerning Young and a parrot; no further details were offered.

Biggs and Young were aware I had publicly suggested the Coxen’s fig-parrot might be extinct. The brightly coloured parrot once frequented the rainforests of south-east Queensland and north-east New South Wales but there had been no confirmed records of the bird for three decades at the time. Young claimed in the 1990s to have photographed the fig-parrot in NSW but did not produce convincing images. Young also asserted in the 1970s that he found a population of paradise parrots in north Queensland, but no evidence was forthcoming. Assuming Young was again claiming to have rediscovered the Coxen’s fig-parrot or paradise parrot, I politely declined Biggs’s offer.

Night Parrot

A few days later, in November 2006, Brisbane’s The Courier Mail newspaper splashed the story across its front and inside pages. It was not about those two birds but something more eye-catching: Young had supposedly discovered a species of parrot unknown to science - the blue-browed fig-parrot. The “discovery” was announced amid much fanfare at a function at O’Reillys Guesthouse in the Gold Coast hinterland by Queensland Environment Minister Lindy Nelson-Carr. Scientists from the state government’s threatened species unit hailed the discovery as ground-breaking and pledged to work with Young on publishing scientific papers.

But it wasn’t true. Investigations by The Australian, aided by Melbourne ornithologists Jeff Davies and Andrew Isles, indicated that Young’s image was an altered photograph of a much more common species – the double-eyed fig-parrot from north Queensland. Gale Spring, a leading forensic photographic expert, concluded there was little doubt the image was altered. Ornithological experts from a range of disciplines were unanimous in dismissing the claim. The Queensland Government withdrew its support for Young.

John Young

Young’s large number of supporters in the wider natural history community were furious. Fellow North Queensland naturalist and author Lloyd Nielsen declared on the online platform birding-aus that articles in The Australian were “despicable”, insisting Young’s claim was genuine: “This special bird really does exist as depicted in the published photograph.”

Now it is possible to throw further light on the matter. Nielsen relates how the day after the O’Reilly’s announcement, he and others were led by Young on a long hike through Lamington National Park to be shown a “blue-browed fig-parrot nest”. Young pointed to a small hole at the top of a tall tree and said it was the nest entrance. When no birds appeared after a short time, the group headed back. Nobody saw the bird, including government scientists who had endorsed Young’s claims.

Young pledged on his website in February 2007 to produce a "body of evidence, including photographs of multiple birds, recordings and biological material together with a nest site" at some future date. The evidence has failed to materialise 17 years on, but many nature enthusiasts continue to believe Young’s new parrot is out there. The big unanswered question: “Why would a claim like this be manufactured?”

Lloyd Nielsen

Young has told me and others in recent years that the bird he photographed was in fact a Coxen’s fig-parrot. He admitted that his claims of a new species were bogus. Young showed me a photograph of a dead bird in a nest hollow that resembled a Coxen’s fig-parrot - a species that has never been photographed. Nielsen told me he was also aware the new species claim was false, even when he was publicly asserting the opposite. Nielsen remains unsure if Young photographed a Coxen’s fig-parrot or if he “coloured in” a double-eyed fig-parrot image. Colours aside, parrot experts point to descriptive features, such as the bill shape in the pictured bird, indicating a double-eyed fig-parrot.

Young and Nielsen say Young succumbed to pressure to make his false claim. There were discussions about him emerging as the “new Steve Irwin” after the naturalist’s death and that a natural history discovery of epic proportions was needed to boost his profile. Something sexier than a Coxen’s fig-parrot. Young told me his “commercial backers” hatched the idea that he discovered a new species. Nielsen agrees, insisting he and Young did not want to go along with the ruse.

Coxedn's Fig-Parrot specimens (Neil Hart)

Tom Biggs rejects the suggestion that he urged Young to manufacture the parrot claim. Biggs tells Inquirer: “I am far from an expert. I don’t have 100th the experience that John has, and I am disinclined to think it was my suggestion. I have no recollection of suggesting it was a new species. I doubt that I would have suggested that on the basis of John’s claim, based on a photograph, that it was a different species from Coxen’s.” Biggs adds: “To the extent that he photo-shopped or deliberately manipulated colours, I wouldn’t know. It’s easily done these days.”

Young and Nielsen are among many naturalists who insist the Coxen’s fig-parrot is doing well in the wild. That view resounds with officialdom: Queensland Government threatened species experts – the same ones who believed in Young’s blue-browed fig-parrot - insist there are scores of reliable records of the species in recent decades. In 2018, the state took the extraordinary step of downgrading the status of the fig-parrot from Critically Endangered on the basis that its estimated population of between 50 and 250 had not changed for many years. The estimate was and remains misguided; not one of the reports has been confirmed by a photograph, sound recording or other evidence. The downgrading was executed at a time when many experts believe Coxen’s fig-parrot was likely to be extinct.

Young’s focus of attention shifted soon after the blue-browed fig-parrot debacle when The Australian revealed in February 2007 that a dead night parrot was found in Diamantina National Park in north-west Queensland by Robert “Shorty” Cupitt, a bulldozer operator. The bird was decapitated by flying into a barbed wire fence. Other than another dead bird found in 1990, also in north-west Queensland, the night parrot had not been reliably recorded for a century. At the time, it was considered more rare and mysterious that the Coxen’s fig-parrot.

John Young at the site where he photographed the Night Parrot in 2013

The Queensland Government had suppressed news of this remarkable discovery for several months, and would have continued to do so indefinitely, while failing to make meaningful efforts to find and protect populations of birds in the wake of Cupitt’s find.

The discovery was potentially a golden opportunity for Young to restore his bruised reputation by tracking down this enigmatic species - one of just two nocturnal parrots in the world and apart from Coxen’s fig-parrot, the only parrot never to be photographed. Young located parrots by call in the Diamantina area and eventually photographed a night parrot in 2013 - a remarkable feat that attracted international recognition. The site where the parrots live was acquired by Bush Heritage Australia and called the Pullen Pullen Reserve. BHA and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy are Australia’s two big organisations devoted to acquiring properties for wildlife conservation.

Young’s initial close working relationship with BHA was short-lived and he was hired by AWC to search for night parrots. Young quit the AWC in 2018 when an inquiry commissioned by the organisation expressed doubts about photographs he claimed to be of night parrot nests and eggs. The inquiry doubted Young’s claims to have discovered the parrot in South Australia. The AWC ditched two years’ worth of material that Young had gathered. Nielsen again came to his defence, saying at the time: “It's shameful that all that work was discarded.” Young continues to claim new night parrot records: in a blog post last April, he said he had discovered birds at 11 additional sites in outback Queensland since his 2013 photographs.

Fence at Pullen Pullen where a Night Parrot was killed

Parrot experts believe Young and his backers have set back the cause of night parrot conservation with unsubstantiated claims of finding them at multiple sites. “Young’s data was being used to inform decisions about funding and planning for night parrot conservation,” Australian National University researcher Penny Olsen told the ANU Reporter last March. “The bird might feel mythical but it lives in the real world, and the consequences of misrepresenting its population size and distribution are serious.” Young and Nielsen declined to respond to requests to comment.

At Pullen Pullen, the outlook is bleak: the total parrot population was estimated in 2022 to be between 10 and 20. Numbers have not increased since the 2013 photographs, and surveys have failed to locate additional populations in Queensland. BHA refuses to say what the population is now, or to comment on whether a recent explosion of feral cat numbers on and around Pullen Pullen has had adverse consequences for the tiny population.

In 2019, another night parrot was killed after flying into a barbed wire fence on Pullen Pullen; the fatality may have constituted between 10 and 20 percent of the population. Barbed wire fences on the property separate night parrot roosts from each other and from surrounding feeding grounds. Fences are located within a few hundred metres of parrot roosts. BHA built a new barbed wire fence along Pullen Pullen’s western boundary in 2017.

Entrance to Pullen Pullen

Useful data was provided when researches in the reserve put transmitters on two night parrots which were tracked, one in 2015 and one in 2016. That work revealed parrots fly long distances at night from day roosts to feeding grounds. Pullen Pullen researchers travelled to Western Australia to do the same with a third bird at a newly discovered site in 2018. As lead researcher Nick Leseberg told podcast host Thomas Doerig in 2022: “We went over there, put the tag on it and never saw it again. It flew away and disappeared.” Extensive searches failed to find the bird and it was not heard calling again at its roost.

BHA has now thrown a veil of secrecy over its Pullen Pullen operations. The organisation will not say if other parrots have died on barbed wire fences or been lost after being fitted with transmitters. “Unfortunately none of our staff are available to help with this story,” said BHA spokeswoman Coco McGrath. BHA has in the past declared that its operations are “utterly transparent”, but the secrecy surrounding the night parrot that kicked off with Cupitt’s find continues. BHA has the back of the Queensland Government, which introduced a $353,400 fine or two-year jail sentence for entering the 56,000ha Pullen Pullen Reserve without permission.

Double-eyed Fig-Parrot

John Young had been through the windmill with the Coxen’s fig-parrot and night parrot controversies. Next he set his sights on the third critically endangered species in this saga – the buff-breasted buttonquail. Young and Nielsen claimed to have had multiple encounters with the small ground bird since the early-1990s in a large area of woodland north of the Atherton Tableland in north Queensland. Those reports set the birding world on fire. Hundreds of bird enthusiasts from around the world claimed to have spotted the buttonquail after travelling to the area.

It was seemingly a mirage. Again, not a single record was supported by a photograph or other evidence. University of Queensland researcher Patrick Webster undertook extensive surveys of the area and found no evidence of the bird’s presence, instead repeatedly seeing a closely related and much more common species - the painted buttonquail. Webster and his colleagues conclude that none of the reports are likely to be genuine.

Painted Buttonquail

This made no difference to Queensland Government authorities which, largely on the basis of records from Young and Nielsen, refused over many years to upgrade the status of the species to Critically Endangered. The last confirmed record of the bird was in 1922, when specimens were collected near Coen on Cape York. The government’s faith in the integrity of claims by the two naturalists was unaffected by the fig-parrot and night parrot rows.

In the face of Webster’s research, Young and Nielsen doubled down on their buttonquail records. Like the night parrot until 2013 and the Coxen’s fig-parrot, the buttonquail had never been photographed. But Young said he had photographs of the nest and eggs of a buff-breasted buttonquail as well as multiple images of the bird itself, which he shared with Nielsen. In July 2022 Inquirer called into question a published image of what Young described as a buff-breasted buttonquail nest that proved to be the nest of a painted buttonquail.

The nest that John Young claims to be that of a Buff-breasted Buttonquail

I later published one of his images of the bird on my blog, sunshinecoastbirds. Experts agreed it was likely a painted buttonquail. Nielsen again responding angrily, saying on Facebook he was “thoroughly disgusted” at what he described as “gutter journalism”. However, following these revelations, the Queensland Government was finally motivated to intervene and upgrade the status of the buff-breasted buttonquail to Critically Endangered, in November 2022. At the same time, it reversed its 2018 decision to downgrade the status of Coxen’s fig-parrot, restoring it to Critically Endangered. It may be too late, however, for all three special birds.