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.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

In Search of the Night Parrot

Night Parrot - Pic by John Young
Anyone planning on searching for the Night Parrot in western Queensland will be disappointed to learn that almost all suitable habitat in the vicinity of known sites is inaccessible due to state government conservation orders that have locked up a staggering 300,000ha of the state, including the prime scenic features of its biggest outback national park.

Area of likely Night Parrot sighting at Lark Quarry
Among other things, the conservation orders were intended to keep at bay an anticipated invasion by hordes of twitchers. In the view of the Queensland Government, the Night Parrot Recovery Team and Bush Heritage Australia (BHA), insensitive and selfish twitchers are a major threat to the survival of the species; how this is so has not been explained. Instead of being an obvious ally in efforts to save the Night Parrot, the birding community is persona non grata. It can be revealed now that a grand total of three vehicles in search of the Night Parrot have made the trek independently to the inhospitable Queensland Channel Country since John Young revealed his remarkable rediscovery of the species there four years ago.

Our little expedition was one of those three. I've returned recently from a Night Parrot hunt (April 3-April 8, 2017) with Melbourne birders Scott Baker and Bernie O'Keefe through this part of the world. (We spent additional time bird-watching in other areas as there were several species we were chasing.) The Night Parrot is now recorded from a multitude of sites in BHA's Pullen Pullen Reserve (where Young found his birds); the neighbouring Mt Windsor cattle property and Diamantina National Park; the nearby Goneaway National Park and - revealed here for the first time - Lark Quarry Conservation Park.

Checking out the spinifex
We failed to definitively connect with a Night Parrot. But we were treated to a feast of sensational birds as well as enjoying highly convivial company and time out camping in this harsh but glorious landscape of rugged sandstone escarpments and mesas framed by sweeping plains of Mitchell grass, sparse mulga woodlands and Coolabah-lined waterholes. All that was missing was a certain parrot.

Night Parrot killed by barbed wire fence in 2006 
Pre-trip preparations involved pouring over Google Earth maps, researching available information and extensive communication with interested parties. The only party that declined to be helpful was BHA management. BHA recently constructed a barbed wire fence along the western boundary of Pullen Pullen, notwithstanding concerns raised about potential risks to low-flying parrots; it was the finding of a Night Parrot decapitated by a similar fence just 17km from the southern end of the Pullen Pullen fence in 2006 that prompted Young's search. 

Rock cairn at Holmes Night Parrot site, Lark Quarry
There is no clear delineation on the ground between the southern boundary of Pullen Pullen, the adjoining northern boundary of Diamantina National Park, and various stock routes and road easements. I was keen to avoid the prospect of a $353,000 fine or 2 years in jail (courtesy of the Queensland Government conservation order) if we inadvertently crossed into Pullen Pullen. (As I reported recently, those willing to pay $25,000 for a glamping trip in the hope seeing a Night Parrot on the property, on the other hand, are most welcome.) However, BHA northern manager Rob Murphy ignored my repeated pleas to clarify the boundary situation; more on the boundary problem later.

We calculated that we needed six nights camping in the field to seriously undertake a Night Parrot search while allowing time to look for other goodies. It was necessary to carry drinking water and extra fuel; we would be travelling 700-800km between petrol bowsers, mostly on gravel roads in reasonable condition. Because of good rains late last year, the countryside was in relatively fine shape with plenty of ground cover and an adequate supply of water in dams and creeks for washing. The weather was unexpectedly hot for April; flies could be mildly maddening at times.

The line in red on the map above shows our main route through potential Night Parrot habitat where we focused on three main sites: Lark Quarry, Old Cork Road and the Diamantina Development Road. We travelled from Winton in the north to Windorah in the south through Diamantina National Park.

Glenn Holmes
As I reported early last year, I was contacted in late-2015 by Glenn Holmes, a highly regarded birder who told me he saw a Night Parrot along the Winton-Jundah Road in May 2012. Glenn wanted to get in touch with Steve Murphy, the then lead Night Parrot researcher at Pullen Pullen, to pass the record on. Holmes wrote to Murphy but did not receive the courtesy of a reply. To my knowledge, the sighting was not passed on to the Night Parrot Recovery Team.

I was unable to pursue the matter with Glenn at the time because I was travelling overseas. Sadly, soon after my return, he passed away. It was not until last September that I learned from Glenn's wife, Jenny, that he flushed a Night Parrot early one morning while camped near the junction of the Winton-Jundah Road and the road to Lark Quarry Conservation Park, 110km south of Winton. According to Jenny, Glenn was in no doubt about the bird's identity. Moreover, I learned in recent weeks of two unrelated incidents of bird calls being heard at night in the same area which reportedly sounded very like those of the Night Parrot. (The main calls of the species are publicly accessible on this site.)

Lark Quarry
It was evident from our research that the Night Parrot in western Queensland favours old growth spinifex hummocks on gently undulating slopes below the red sandstone escarpments that are a prominent feature of this country. The hummocks may be separated from each other by considerable areas of ironstone pavement or other rocky ground with little or no other vegetation: it is this feature which likely has protected the habitat from wildfires that have been so destructive of spinifex over much of inland Australia. The terrain in the area of Lark Quarry where Glenn Holmes saw his bird looked eminently suitable. We found a cairn of rocks in the vicinity of where his bird was flushed.

Camping at Lark Quarry
To conduct our daily searches, we would spread out shortly before sunset, positioning ourselves about 200m apart and listening intently for the next hour or so. The peak calling time for parrots begins about 15-20 minutes after sunset, when there is still a little light around and the last of the diurnal birds are shutting up. The calling continues intermittently for about 15 minutes, during which time birds may be seen in silhouette as they fly about low over the spinifex before departing their area of roosting sites for feeding areas further afield. The birds are more vocal after rain and when nesting but they call throughout the year.

Searching for Night Parrots is therefore not dissimilar to searching for Ground Parrots as calling times and duration - and the birds' behaviour - are alike. There is no evidence that spontaneous playback of calls helps to detect Night Parrots, although playback would presumably be useful for seeing birds after detecting calls. We searched for two evenings in the valley where Glenn Holmes saw his bird, and a third evening in the vicinity of the airstrip, where an interesting call had been reported to me separately. We repeated the survey process before dawn the following morning on each occasion. We had not a whisper from a parrot but did see other excellent birds, including Grey Falcon and Rusty Grasswren.

Flies were a nuisance at times
The Lark Quarry site is 115km north-east (as the parrot flies) of where John Young found his parrots in what is now Pullen Pullen but was then the southern end of the sprawling Brighton Downs cattle property. The habitat at Lark Quarry is not dissimilar to that of Goneaway National Park where Young, who works for the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, recently found a new population of the species. The spinifex is more heavily clustered and interspersed with more trees at Lark Quarry and in Goneaway than in the harsher Night Parrot environs further west. Interestingly, the birds seen recently in Western Australia appear to frequent quite different habitat to the Queensland birds - large areas of densely clustered spinifex growing on what appears to be sand dunes, as opposed to sparse hummocks in rocky terrain.

Habitat near Old Cork Road
The road from Winton to Lark Quarry was in much better condition than when I last travelled it many years ago, although there was scarcely any habitat that looked potentially suitable for Night Parrots; most of the spinifex could not be described as old-growth, a crucial element. The road further east from Winton to Opalton may be better, as may be the road south of Lark Quarry to Jundah, neither of which we tackled on this trip.

Camping by Old Cork Road
After our delightful stay at Lark Quarry (notwithstanding an absence of parrots) we headed west along Old Cork Road past Cork Station and through Muellers Range. I expected from looking at Google Earth maps that plenty of good habitat would be close to the road, but there were just two accessible spots that looked to have some potential. We checked out one of these, camping a little way north of the road and walking a few hundred metres to the base of the sandstone escarpment for our evening survey.

Scott and I separately heard distant, high-pitched musical bird call notes after sunset. As is now well-known, the Night Parrot has quite a repertoire of calls, not all of them publicly available. It is impossible for us to know whether what we heard was of interest. The calls were not repeated, and were not heard the next morning when we repeated the pre-dawn survey exercise.

Old Cork Homestead
Now firmly in the Channel Country, temperatures soared to decidedly uncomfortable levels (38-39 maximum) as we turned southwards at the historic Old Cork Homestead down the Diamantina River Road towards Brighton Downs and Pullen Pullen. Again, Google Earth maps were highly suggestive of good habitat along the 75kms between Old Cork and Brighton Downs, and we had permission to camp wherever we liked on Brighton Downs. 

Along the Diamantina Development Road
However, the only potential habitat was in a few inaccessible spots distantly to the east. There was nowhere else to look before we turned up at Brighton Downs homestead, the home of Peter and Carol Britton. Since the Brittons sold 55,000ha of Brighton Downs in 2015 to Bush Heritage Australia for the creation of Pullen Pullen, the BHA management and research team have been occupying the homestead's staff accommodation. It is not known how much this is costing BHA, which had to take out a $1.5 million mortgage as part of a $4 million acquisition and management program for Pullen Pullen, or indeed for how much longer BHA's presence will be welcome on the property.

Pullen Pullen's new fence
We continued south of Brighton Downs along 25km of the Diamantina River Road to the northern boundary of Diamantina National Park. Pullen Pullen begins a few kilometres south of the station, and it is here that the above-mentioned fence begins, extending all the way to the park boundary. The fence quite likely separates Night Parrots roosting in spinifex at the base of the sandstone escarpment of the Mayne Range from feeding grounds to the west of the road on the Diamantina River floodplain.

Off limits: habitat in Pullen Pullen
According to Pullen Pullen manager Alex Kutt, in a blog post published on February 14, the risk of birds being killed by barbed wire would be minimised by running a 40mm strip of bright white tape along the top wire, with bright orange flags placed every 100m "as a bit of extra flappy bird deterrent".

Off limits: habitat in Pullen Pullen
We saw no sign of flags or tape along the fence, but there was plenty of very nice-looking potential Night Parrot habitat in evidence. It extended along almost the entire western boundary of Pullen Pullen. But the habitat was on the wrong side of the road if you wanted to look for parrots. A relatively short distance east of the road  - just a few hundred metres in places - were lovely stands of old-growth spinifex at the base of the escarpment, but they may as well have been a few hundred kilometres away. To step across the fence risked a $353,000 fine.

Main entrance gate to Pullen Pullen
The locked entrance gate to the main Pullen Pullen research sites 10 km to the east of the road is immediately before the Diamantina National Park boundary, but the problem of accessing decent habitat does not end there. Good habitat continues southward for a few kilometres on the eastern side of the road in the national park, before and beyond another historic relict - the Mayne Hotel ruins.

Mayne Hotel ruins
But here again the habitat was off-limits, with sternly worded signs warning of heavy penalties for anyone venturing east of the main road bisecting the park. That means 240,000ha of national park is off-limits, including the beautiful mosaic of mesas and sandstone ridges in the north of the park - arguably its top aesthetic feature.

Off limits: habitat in Diamantina National Park
We were in a bind, with beautiful habitat in view but nowhere to look because of the twin state government conservation orders. Moreover, we had been warned that BHA, angered by recent publicity about its glamping tours, would be on the look-out for us. We decided to play it safe and camp close to the road in what appeared on the maps to be a narrow area of public space - either a road easement or stock route.

Buzzed by a helicopter
Here we were buzzed by a helicopter that flew in from Pullen Pullen, possibly participating in one of BHA's media extravaganzas. We were seriously limited in how far we could walk for surveying because of the risks of inadvertently straying either into Pullen Pullen or the wrong half of Diamantina National Park. Very early the next morning, Scott and I glimpsed a bird in the half-light flying low over the spinifex that looked interesting and parrot-like, but the view was way too brief to know what it was. 

Diamantina River from Janet's Leap
We had one more evening of camping up our sleeves with limited supplies, but keen to look for other birds, we camped at Gum Hole in the national park, taking in a fine view of the Diamantina River from Janet's Leap on the way. On the Mitchell grass plains we were to find another suite of nice birds, and here at last we didn't have to worry about Big Brother looking over our shoulders.

Welcome to Diamantina National Park

UPDATE 22/04/2017

I've been given additional information by the Queensland Environment Department in response to questions about the excluded areas of Diamantina National Park and Pullen Pullen. Its response is reprinted below.

Diamantina National Park

The area on Diamantina National Park (the park) that is referred to is... defined as the most suitable Night Parrot habitat based on surveys conducted in partnership with The Australian Wildlife Conservancy. It has been declared a Restricted Access Area (RAA) within the park.

This RAA is declared under the Nature Conservation Act and enables the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) to better manage access to the habitat. Access to the habitat is possible (and can be issued as an authority to enter the area) through a permit. The RAA enables QPWS to enforce unauthorised access when detected and undertake compliance and enforcement actions as necessary.
QPWS will work within its own legislative framework and local police to investigate unauthorised access to the area.

The RAA will apply while QPWS works with researchers to better define habitat and the extent of the population in order to better protect it from impacts including disturbance. Restricting access to the area is a reasonable step to better manage the area and access to it.

Pullen Pullen

The Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (EHP) has not approached BHA regarding private tours to Pullen Pullen Reserve Nature Refuge. Note that Pullen Pullen Reserve Nature Refuge is not currently under an Interim Conservation Order (ICO). The last ICO, issued on 2 August 2016, expired on 30 December 2016.  ICOs are valid for 60 days and only able to be extended once for an additional 90 day period.

Pullen Pullen Reserve is private land. As such, entry onto the land is at the discretion of the landholder (i.e. BHA) unless there are specific restrictions through an ICO. Neither EHP nor the Department of National Parks, Sport and Recreation has been approached with any proposal to conduct commercial night parrot tours into the Pullen Pullen Reserve. Such tours do not require specific approval under the conservation agreement for Pullen Pullen Reserve Nature Refuge. Any unauthorised disturbance to the birds may be a breach of the Nature Conservation Act 1992.

[Information in the last paragraph seems to be somewhat at odds with what Environment Minister Steve Miles told me two weeks earlier: "Any unauthorised activities conducted on the property resulting in disturbance to the birds may be a breach of the Nature Conservation Act 1992, and therefore any ecotourism activity proposals for this area, commercial or otherwise, would be highly scrutinised."]


  1. Excellent story Greg. I am impressed by your courage to expose this damaging trend in elitist conservation management.

    Total restriction of public access to all potential habitat is fake conservation protection. This negative management style generates resentment from the very people who are needed to provide public support to the poltical system that is essential for successful long term protection of wildlife and conservation land.

    Many environmental scientists have a narrow and negative view about public involvement in conservation management. I have seen examples of where scientists tag legitimate public users of National Parks as vermin and lowlifes. Such views completely ignore the fundamental objective of Public Conservation Land management; Public use and enjoyment. This potential conflict is often a major problem in effective national park management.

    And this Night Parrot management fiasco is about the best example of why just scientists must never be given more than a consultative role in conservation land management.

    I hope there will be enough concern about this evolving harmful elitist management style that an organised political lobby group to pressure Govt to allow responsible public access is formed.

    1. Thanks Ian. I agree entirely. It seems that the Night Parrot Recovery Team has been given carte blanche on everything to do with managing this species, when as you say, its role should be purely advisory.

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  3. Many thanks , Greg & Ian, for this report and views expressed. Both clarified as well as angered. I was a planning such a look see in the coming year or so but will now rethink. It seems pure celebratory observations are unwanted and considered a 'threat' for now, the lowest common denominator seen as bustling horde of insensitive 'twitchers or exploiters' wins again.