‘Probable’ night parrot discovery in the Northern Territory

By Ellen Rykers May 25, 2017
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Zoologists captured the call of the mysterious night parrot in audio recordings from southern NT.

THE ELUSIVE NIGHT PARROT has been found in a new location, after two zoologists captured its call in an audio recording in the Northern Territory.

Chris Watson and Mark Carter spotted the unusual call in a recording from January 2017. The pair was initially unsure that the series of bell-like whistles, which were longer than other recorded night parrot calls, could be definitively attributed to the enigmatic bird.

“It’s a tricky call to pick out from the environment sometimes, and there’s a number of birds we could have mistaken it for,” Chris said.

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Heard, but not seen

Independent experts have since positively matched the call to the night parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis). “The recordings have been analysed by independent acoustic technicians who don’t know anything about birds in order to get a blind test,” Chris explained. “They’ve verified that it matches the reference calls from western Queensland.”

The call was not a one-off occurrence either. “We’ve had a couple of other birdwatchers spend some time at the site to independently verify it, and they’ve heard the same call – in one case within just a couple of metres away, coming from the spinifex grass,” said Chris.

According to Chris, the habitat is also a “perfect match” to the known populations in Queensland and Western Australia.

These factors have made Chris and Mark confident they’ve found the night parrot. “We wouldn’t have come out with this statement unless we were very confident that we’ve got the bird we’re after,” Chris said. The pair have decided not to release the location of site, in the interest of landholders and the bird’s conservation.

Night parrot call recordings made by Dr Steve Murphy on Pullen Pullen Reserve, QLD, released online earlier this year. (Photo and recording by Dr Steve Murphy)

“We’ve underestimated how secretive this bird is”

The night parrot had not been seen alive for about 100 years until its sensational ‘rediscovery’ by John Young in western Queensland’s Pullen Pullen Reserve in 2013. Since then, a second population has been found in Diamantina National Park, also in western Queensland. Earlier this year, birdwatchers made the “sighting of a lifetime” when they captured photographs of a night parrot in Western Australia – the first confirmed glimpse of the species in WA for 100 years.

Chris says this previous work has been instrumental to the serendipitous Top End discovery. “We haven’t seen birds, we haven’t seen tracks in the sand – all we’ve done is heard these sounds,” he said, “And purely on the basis of sounds recorded elsewhere, we’ve been able to, with a high level of confidence, confirm that these are night parrots”.

As for the recent spate of new sightings, Chris speculates that the night parrot may be more common than we thought. “We’ve probably had the bar for evidence set a little bit too high over the years because it is so cryptic. We’ve underestimated exactly how secretive this bird is,” he said.

Chris is optimistic that more night parrot populations will be discovered. “Hopefully, this won’t be big news for too much longer. It’s simply a case of a bird which is really secretive and we’ve lacked the tools to find it. Now those tools are available, and as predicted, we’re finding them much more regularly now,” he said, adding, “There’s a lot of good habitat out there and not a lot of people looking, so lots of possibilities.”