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.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

More Night Parrot Notes

Night Parrot on Pullen Pullen - Pic Steve Murphy
Rangers in Diamantina National Park in south-west Queensland flushed birds they believed to be Night Parrots on several occasions in the 2000s but authorities declined to fund full-scale searches for the species. It was not until ranger Robert Cupitt found a dead Night Parrot in the northern sector of the park in September 2006 that the presence of the species was confirmed.

Following my revelation that the grazing property Brighton Downs is where John Young took the first photographs of a Night Parrot in 2013 (see following post), a lively debate has ensued. Should the site have been revealed? Are researchers and authorities acting in the best interests of the Night Parrot by refusing to release recordings of its call so other populations can be searched for, and by generally maintaining a policy of strict secrecy surrounding the population on Pullen Pullen Reserve?

The 56,000ha reserve has been acquired by Bush Heritage Australia and excised from the 420,000ha Brighton Downs property, which adjoins Diamantina National Park. It is now clear that John Young found his birds by looking in areas of suitable habitat not far removed from where Cupitt's bird was located. As Jeff Davies points out on Facebook, John made the "obvious decision" to search the property adjoining Diamantina National Park (which does not detract from the significance of his finding).

Rangers in the national park flushed single parrots on three occasions while riding motor-bikes through old-growth spinifex in the mid-2000s. It comes as no surprise that no follow-up surveys were undertaken. The 2006 discovery was kept secret by the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service; it was made public by me in The Australian six months after the event, in 2007. On neighbouring Brighton Downs just a year later in 2008, John Young heard the first call from what he then believed was a Night Parrot.

When Cupitt's discovery was revealed, QPWS told Andrew Stafford, who was writing a piece for Wingspan on the matter, that it would not be a prudent use of public resources to search for more night parrots. A departmental spokesperson says now the QPWS is unable to say if resources were directed at the time to further searches.

This saga of secrecy has resonance today, for the same state government authorities are now calling the shots on the secrecy surrounding the Pullen Pullen project - and they are refusing to release call recordings to facilitate wider searches. BirdLife Australia, the peak birding organisation in Australia, unfortunately appears to have changed its tune on the issue. At the time of the row over Cupitt's bird, BA made clear its concerns about the secrecy and the failure of QPWS to consult the birding community. Now, BA chief executive Paul Sullivan has come out in support of the secrecy brigade, sharing a tweet on Twitter describing the release of site information as "terribly irresponsible".

Others can be the judge of that, but an important consideration is the impossibility of assessing the potential impact on unknown Night Parrot populations of massive mining and other development projects over much of the historic range of the species. Are night parrot populations being lost as we speak? Chris Watson has published a compelling case for less secrecy and greater involvement of the birding community to further the interests of the species.

It emerges that Queensland Government authorities may not have the final say on keeping call recordings secret. Bruce Greatwich points out on Facebook that the research work to date on Pullen Pullen has been funded by Fortescue Metals under a Commonwealth offsets program, so call recordings and other data are not the property of Bush Heritage Australia, the Queensland Government or researcher Steve Murphy. Asked if approval to distribute the call may be the responsibility of the federal government, a spokesperson for QPWS says the question should be directed to the Commonwealth. I'm about to head off on a lengthy road trip so can't pursue that angle now, but others might care to.

Many have expressed the view that it is fanciful for state government authorities and others to assert that secrecy was paramount because the area would be overrun by twitchers anxious to tick a Night Parrot. Concerns expressed about potential disturbances to the birds do not sit well with the media shows put on for selected journalists by BHA, with helicopters buzzing overhead and scrums of 5 or 6 large vehicles parked amid the spinifex clumps where parrots were supposedly roosting.

Moreover, there are plenty of cases where the publication and sharing of information has had nothing but beneficial consequences for threatened species.

Diamantina River Road
I have made the point that there is no public access to Pullen Pullen and that anybody searching should confine those searches to the abundance of suitable habitat that is to be found along the Diamantina River Road, the Winton-Jundah Road, and roads connecting the two.

This is from an interesting travel blog published online by Outback Travel Australia:

Next day saw us heading west from Winton for 50 kilometres along the blacktop, before heading south-west down the Diamantina River Road. This well-graded track traversed low, rocky hill country and river channels, before running across grassland to an unexpected intersection with Cork Road – a new alignment that doesn’t figure on most topographic maps, but is shown on current road maps. It intersects the Diamantina River Road at S22º55’14.3” E141º54’19.4”. This new road dog-legs a short distance further on, at S22º55’20.7” E141º53’32”, signposted right to Boulia, but we stayed on the Diamantina River Road, heading for Mayne Station. We pressed on down the Diamantina, passing by Brighton Downs homestead, heading for the mesa features of the Mayne Range, visible on the horizon.The Range forms the northern boundary of the Mayne River channels and is well worth some walking time. Amazingly, cattle climb to the tops of the mesas, where they graze on leaves during times of flood. The Mayne Range sits at the northern end of Diamantina National Park; Welcoming visitors at the northern doorstep of the Park are the ruins of the old Mayne Hotel.

However, people should remember that this is still a remote and potentially risky neck of the woods. Such is the remoteness and size of Brighton Down that the homestead on the Diamantina River Road is 70km from the centre of the property. Tragedy struck in 2013 when two young jackeroos working on the property were involved in an accident while driving the 200km from Winton, the most accessible town of any size. The driver was killed. Although on the main access road to Brighton Downs from Winton, it was the best part of two days before his mate was rescued.

Towards Diamantina National Park - Outback Travel Australia
Meanwhile, Bush Heritage Australia and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy have denied they are in dispute over plans by the AWC to build a predator-proof fence around 8000ha of Diamantina National Park. As reported in The Australian, the Night Parrot Recovery Team, which is working closely with BHA, believes parrots may be killed by flying into the fence. BHA and AWC have released a joint statement declaring the two organisations are "working together and with governments, scientists, traditional owners and the local community to protect the precious places and animals that desperately need our support".  For the record, I believe both organisations are doing excellent work. 

There is a worthy contribution on birding-aus from Kurtis Lindsay (see here) which provides further evidence suggesting that foxes, which are largely absent from northern Australia, may be the main threat to night parrots and other threatened species. As others have suggested, Kurtis points out that fox (and feral cat) numbers can be kept in check by dingoes. Foxes are absent from Pullen Pullen; feral cats and dingoes occur there in small numbers. 

Finally, a note on the name Pullen Pullen, which BHA says is the local Aboriginal term for the Night Parrot. The name is uncannily similar to "Bulan Bulan", a documented Aboriginal name for the barnardi race of the Australian Ringneck. A coincidence perhaps.



  1. Good call about the media scrum which worried me at the time.

    Also good that there appears to be less friction between BHA and AWC.


  2. I presume John Young has recordings that could be released, if he was willing?

    1. I have asked the question. No reply as yet.