|A Night Parrot at the WA site where a bird was captured: Pic by Bruce Greatwich
The following news story written by me was published in The Weekend Australian of 24-25 February, 2018.
Rare night parrot vanishes after intervention by recovery team
A critically endangered night parrot disappeared after being caught and fitted with a radio transmitter in Western Australia by the team of experts charged with saving the birds from extinction.
No surveys were undertaken to determine how many parrots survived in the remote East Murchison site before the night parrot recovery team netted the bird.
The news emerged as it was revealed that almost half the nests of the night parrot found in Queensland were deserted after being discovered by scientists. Critics say misdirected, if well-meaning, interference in managing the species may contribute to its demise.
|Researcher Neil Hamilton with the captured Night Parrot: Pic from Twitter
The parrot once was widespread across inland Australia, but numbers plummeted from the late-1800s. The first photograph of a night parrot was taken only in 2013, by naturalist John Young.
As few as 20 night parrots survive in a small area on and near Pullen Pullen Reserve where Mr Young took his photographs. Three nests uncovered by scientists working for Bush Heritage Australia, which owns Pullen Pullen, subsequently failed to produce offspring. BHA says one nest failed due to heat stress; a snake is believed to have eaten the eggs in another nest; and it is not known why a single chick in the third nest died. A BHA spokeswoman said five other nests successfully produced birds.
In March last year, the night parrot was discovered at the Each Murchison site in WA by four ornithologists. Details of the site were sent to recovery team head Allan Burbidge, who led an expedition to the area last August.
Dr Burbidge and his team strung fine nets in an area of spinifex where ornithologist Bruce Greatwich has photographed a night parrot. Researchers walked through the spinifex in a line, hoping to drive parrots from their day roosts into the nets.
A parrot was caught and fitted with a GPS and radio tracking antenna.
Researcher Neil Hamilton was photographed handling the bird soon after its capture. No trace of the bird was found subsequently despite extensive land and aerial searches; its fate is unknown.
The antenna was intended to allow researchers to track the movements of night parrots. Two parrots were captured and tagged in Queensland - one in 2015 and one in 2016. Some experts believe no more birds should be caught until comprehensive surveys are undertaken to determine population numbers.
|WA site where the Night Parrot was found: Pic by Bruce Greatwich
Ornithologist Ian May, an authority on arid zone parrots, said the role of recovery teams for endangered species should be restricted to the management of habitat, predators and disease control.
“They should not be handling wild birds except for the purpose of disease control and only then in the most extreme circumstances if an obvious problem exists,” he said. “Handling critically endangered birds in the wild should cease and shouldn't be permitted until all other management options are exhausted and then considered only if numbers... have substantially increased."
Dr Burbidge, principal research scientist with the WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, said the radio-tracking antenna was “presumed to have failed”.
Dr Burbidge said monitoring a parrot in WA was necessary because its habitat differed from where the tagged Queensland birds were studied.
“Our understanding of foraging habitat is limited. A sound understanding of feeding habitat preferences is required in order to inform management decisions,” he said.
While government sources confirmed no surveys were undertaken before the capture to determine parrot numbers in the area, Dr Burbidge said “various levels of monitoring” were under way at four WA sites.