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, 4 February 2017

Night Parrot: Longer Between Drinks Than We Thought

With recordings of calls of the Night Parrot finally if belatedly being released to facilitate wider searches for the species (more on that later) attention has turned to fresh analysis of historical records. Before a road-killed Night Parrot was found in 1990 near Boulia in western Queensland, the evidence now indicates that the last confirmed record of the species is much older than was previously thought.

The word “confirmed” is a little subjective. There have been several definitive sight records of Night Parrots from various sites over the decades, but with a near-mythical species – as would be the case with, say, Coxen's Fig-Parrot or Paradise Parrot as well – it is reasonable to expect photographs or specimens to confirm a record in the absence of solid evidence over a prolonged period.

In the case of the Night Parrot, the last confirmed record prior to 1990 was supposedly a specimen taken in 1912 by amateur ornithologist Martin Bourgoin at Nichol Spring near the Ashburton River; the site is east of Newman in the Pilbara of Western Australia. The next confirmed record post-1990 was a dead bird found in Diamantina National Park, also in western Queensland, in 2006. John Young subsequently photographed and filmed a Night Parrot for the first time in 2013 not far from the national park site in what is now known as the Pullen Pullen Reserve. Since then, Night Parrots have been found in several places across this region.

John Young has questioned the validity of the 1912 specimen, and it seems he has a point. Martin Bourgoin was not on a collecting expedition at the time but was shooting "bronzewings" (most likely Crested Pigeons or Spinifex Pigeons) for the pot. The parrot was one of four flushed from what he described as thick spinifex on limestone hills. Here is the first problem with this "specimen". All the evidence gathered in recent years at the western Queensland sites by John Young, Steve Murphy and most recently by James Watson and Nick Leseberg, suggests it is highly unlikely that four Night Parrots could be flushed simultaneously. With intensive field work in areas where Night Parrots are known to be resident underway over several years now, flushing even a single bird is a very rare occurrence.

Night Parrot: Pic by Rachel Barr
On the face of it, Bourgoin's record looks impressive. His notes describe the plumage as “dark green barred with a light yellow edge on each feather of the back and breast”. The abdominal surface and underwings were yellow. The crop contents were spinifex and herbage seeds. However, the specimen was poorly prepared in Bourgoin's camp and most of its feathers soon fell out. By the time the specimen was shown a year later to Colonel E.A. Le Souef, the only bits remaining were the head, wings, tail and legs; these were evidently disposed of in the belief they were insignificant.

South Australian Museum collections manager Philippa Horton tells me the existence of the specimen can not be traced, adding: “Most likely it was thrown out.”

This means that the 1912 “specimen” can not be regarded as anything more substantive than an unconfirmed sighting. The record has no more or less weight than many subsequent sightings. Anybody can write up a suitably impressive description of a bird. The published records do not contain collaborative material to confirm the record. Western Australian Museum birds curator Ron Johnstone agrees; Ron tells me the most that can be said is that this was "probably" a Night Parrot. 

So we need to go further back to determine the timing of the last confirmed record prior to 1990. The bulk of the 25 known specimens of Night Parrot in existence - 19 in total – were collected by self-employed taxidermist Frederick Andrews in the 1870s and 1880s in South Australia, most from the Gawler Ranges north of Eyre Peninsula. The most recent of these appears to be one in the American Museum of Natural History, New York, with a label noting it was collected “About 1890?” between Lake Acraman and Lake Gairdner.

However, the last of the Andrews specimens appears to have been collected in 1884, which is the closest of the 25 specimen dates to the 1912 record. In that case, the time span between the finding of the Boulia bird and the last confirmed record before that was at least 106 years and not 78 years, as is generally - and, as we can see, mistakenly - assumed.

Meanwhile, the release of Night Parrot call recordings is a welcome development, although it should have been done much earlier. Some of us have argued long and hard that the conservation interests of the species were not advanced by a cloak of secrecy that surrounded its study. A self-appointed elite had refused to release call recordings in the fanciful belief that to do so would unleash an invasion of illegal egg-collectors and over-eager twitchers with no regard for the welfare of the bird. Australia's generally responsible and environmentally aware birding community was unimpressed with being treated with such disdain.

Night Parrot - Pic by Rachel Barr

Call recordings for such a cryptic species are crucial to finding new populations of Night Parrots. What was to stop a huge new mining development going ahead in Queensland or Western Australia because consultants had no substantive means of locating this critically endangered species? A consultant in WA was reduced to cobbling together notes of the Bell Miner in a recording in a sad attempt to copy the parrot's call. 

I was criticised by some when I decided last year to reveal the name of the property where the Night Parrot was photographed by John Young, although I was careful not to identify the specific site on the sprawling cattle holding of almost 500,000ha. My objective in publishing this and a raft of other information was to point potential searchers in the right direction so that other populations could be looked for in the absence of call recordings being available. 

The Night Parrot Recovery Team claimed it was constrained from releasing the calls, variously because of copyright issues surrounding calls collected by researcher Steve Murphy (he was working at the time under a Commonwealth offsets program for Fortescue Metals) or because of opposition from the Queensland Government. 

Night Parrot habitat - western Queensland
Before the calls were released last week, I had learned that Fortescue Metals had no problem with releasing the calls. Neither did the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, for which John Young presently works studying Night Parrots in Diamantina National Park. Most importantly, I discovered that the Queensland Government was happy for calls to be released. A Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection spokesman told me the government had never had the regulatory authority to prevent the release of calls, and that the recovery team had been told as much.

When I put this information to the recovery team last week through Bush Heritage Australia, which operates the Pullen Pullen Reserve, I was greeted by a wall of silence. Steve Murphy has told people that because of my sins of publishing material without permission, I have been blacklisted by the recovery team. Then, two days after approaching BHA, I saw on social media that the calls had finally been released. The timing is pure coincidence perhaps. The recovery team has also published at long last – along with the calls – an informative website with plenty of useful information.

Australia's leading expert on parrots, Joe Forshaw, tells me he is baffled why it took almost four years after John Young's photographs for the calls to be released. “I never did understand why there was an embargo on releasing calls of the Night Parrot,” Joe says. “Paranoia on the part of some persons involved…. The authorities need to be vigilant against feral cats, rats, foxes and wildfire rather than birdwatchers.”