The night parrot’s secret sanctuary

By John Pickrell | August 25, 2016

A private reserve has been created in western Queensland to nurture back to health a recently discovered population of Australia’s rarest and most mysterious bird – the night parrot.

IT’S 7PM AND dark, but still oppressively hot in this pocket of central-western Queensland. Here the tough Triodia grass, or spinifex, would usually only be illuminated by the moon and thousands of stars across the clear outback sky, but tonight the beam of a head torch is methodically moving through the hummocks of spiky vegetation. The bearer of the light is wildlife biologist Dr Steve Murphy, and as he walks he carries ahead of him a large, grey, boom mic. It’s not really what you expect to see in the bush, but Steve – a fellow at Charles Darwin University and the world expert on night parrots – knows precisely what he is doing.

Shortly after dark, and before they leave roosts carefully snipped into clumps of spinifex, night parrots are most likely to call, and this is when you have the best chance of detecting these incredibly cryptic creatures. The most common call, composed of two high notes, is unmistakeable, “a sweet, ringing, parrot-like ‘ding-ding’,” says Steve, who adds that the parrots make at least seven other calls, including one that sounds like the croak of a frog.

These small, green ground parrots are so elusive that only three people, including Steve and his partner, fellow biologist Rachel Barr, have ever seen one alive. That’s something that these scientists and conservation charity Bush Heritage Australia are very much hoping to change. With luck, dedicated conservation work led by Steve will bring this mysterious species back from the very cusp of extinction. And to this end he has already captured more than 100,000 hours of sound data using this manual method as well as automated sound loggers left at strategic locations.

night parrot

A night parrot as photographed at the Pullen Pullen Reserve by Steve in 2016; even he has only seen the bird on a handful of occasions, more often using its call to track the behaviour of the species. (Image: Steve Murphy)

Europeans first discovered the night parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis) in 1845, but it must already have been on a precipitous population decline, for shortly afterwards it disappeared almost completely. A specimen was taken in Western Australia in 1912, but then – save for a series of fleeting glances and claimed sightings – its existence wasn’t confirmed again for 78 years until 1990, when a dead bird was discovered on a roadside near Boulia, south-western Queensland, by Australian Museum scientists Wayne Longmore and Dr Walter Boles (the pair claimed a $25,000 reward for the rediscovery of a night parrot stumped up by this journal’s founder, Dick Smith).

The search for a live bird continued Australia-wide, with obsessive birders scouring remote locations in the hope of one day discovering another. Finally, many years of persistence – and an estimated 17,000 hours of searching – paid off for naturalist John Young, who got the first ever photographs and footage of a night parrot in a spot west of Longreach in 2013. His historic discovery made the front page of The Australian newspaper.

Soon after this, the Queensland government and Bush Heritage became involved in the push to conserve the small population and the charity purchased a 56,000ha chunk of the station on which the discovery had been made, turning it into their new Pullen Pullen Reserve in April 2016. Pullen-pullen is the name of the night parrot in the language of the local Maiawali people, and the reserve contains a number of culturally significant sites. According to Judith Harrison, one of just a handful of Maiawali alive today, her ancestors once used night parrot feathers in their headdresses for ceremonies. “That’s what they did in the olden days,” she says. “They used them for dress-ups – special ceremonies, not all the time.” Judith described the rediscovery of the bird here as spiritual and emotional, and she praised the conservation work to protect them.

pullen pullen reserve night parrot sanctuary

Pullen Pullen Reserve, Queensland. (Image: Dean Saffron)

Steve believes there is something unique about the landscape in and around the reserve that means night parrots have been able to survive better than in other parts of central Australia where they were once common. Part of this may be to do with the natural sparseness of the vegetation in this very arid region. Here clumps of spinifex are relatively widely separated, offering a modicum of protection from huge, hot bushfires that have spread unchecked through much of the outback since Aboriginal people left the land, and its management through controlled burning ceased. Spinifex here forms large individual hummocks, some of which may not have burnt for more than 50 years, providing a “long-term, spiny, stable refuge”, Steve says, and making these lands unusually suited to protecting parrots from the predators that stalk them.

The charity and scientists have worked hard to keep the location of the reserve a secret, but following the publication of the details of the property online and in a newspaper in May this year, the Queensland government created an exclusion zone, which means that birders or anyone else encroaching on the site without permission face a fine of more than $350,000 or up to two years in prison. The night parrot has now also been added to a priority list of 20 birds targeted for urgent attention under the federal government’s Threatened Species Strategy.

Steve says that because the night parrot is beautiful and scarce, and because there has been so much interest in finding it over the past century, there is a real risk that poachers might attempt to acquire birds and eggs for an illegal trade in rare pets. He has been warned by experts in wildlife trafficking that there is a market for these elusive birds. Keeping the location of critically endangered species secret is unusual in Australia, but not unprecedented, with stands of Wollemi pine 150km north-west of Sydney being another notable example, necessary for safeguarding a tiny population at great risk of extinction.

With the help of experts at the Zoological Society of London, which has developed technology to prevent wildlife poaching in Africa, Bush Heritage is using camouflaged, solar-powered camera traps to monitor any people or vehicles detected at the reserve and send pictures by satellite link to station managers on site and the conservation group’s Melbourne headquarters.

night parrot

Dr John Read has developed a high-tech ‘grooming trap’ for feral cats; it sprays them with poison that they later lick off, and which kills them within an hour. (Image: Dean Saffron)

“We’re very concerned that the disclosure of the location of the night parrot will lead to poachers and that’s why we’ve taken this somewhat unprecedented step,” Queensland environment minister Steven Miles told the ABC in June when the exclusion zone was announced. “For an animal as rare as the night parrot, poaching and disturbance are two of the greatest threats, and we’re working to keep it secure.”

Steve has now captured the bird on film several times. In 2015, using a mist net, they were able to capture a night parrot, take feathers for DNA analysis and attach a tiny radio tracking device, which allowed them to uncover totally new aspects of its biology. For 21 days they followed the bird, discovering that, rather than being largely ground-dwelling as previously supposed, the species flies distances of up to 7km to forage each night. The scientists also now know that these particular birds at least are not nomadic as once suggested, and each morning find their way back to the same roost to sleep through the day.

“Once we started the work here, a lot of the things we were finding were contradicting those earlier impressions and assumptions about night parrot biology,” Steve says. “We know with absolute certainty that these night parrots have been sedentary in this spot since at least August 2013 and that covers periods of above average rainfall and severe drought… They have persisted through periods of time here where conventional wisdom suggested they should have disappeared.”

Steve has now detected night parrots at a number of locations within a 40km radius of the original discovery and he puts the overall population here at between 30 and 100 birds.

On one occasion this year, a bird froze when it was discovered, allowing Steve and Rachel to get within several metres of it and photograph it. This response to danger may partly explain why the species has fared so badly against introduced cats and foxes right across outback Australia. The pair also found and photographed a nest with several eggs, but discovered these had been taken by an unknown predator when they returned to it six days later.

Cats are by far the biggest threat to the birds at Pullen Pullen, and Bush Heritage has invested significant funds into high-tech ‘grooming traps’ developed by wildlife biologist Dr John Read. These computer-controlled traps produce the recorded calls of a variety of distressed birds and rodents at infrequent intervals, which has been shown to successfully attract wily felids.

When a cat crosses the path of an array of sensors on the trap, it triggers the device to spray it with fast-acting poison gel, which the cat then ingests when it licks itself during grooming. The traps have been programmed not to fire when other animals such as dingoes, foxes and kangaroos cross their paths, and cameras keep a detailed record of every time a sensor is triggered.

Rob Murphy, the charity’s executive manager for northern Australia, is confident that with work to control cats and manage fire regimes at Pullen Pullen, they can return the population of parrots here to healthy numbers and may even in the future be able to consider the possibility of captive breeding, which is being attempted to aid the recovery of a related species, the western ground parrot, in south-western WA. But more than that, “we’re hoping that there might be other populations still out there.

And part of Steve’s role is to do just that and find other populations,” Rob says. The fact that there was a likely sighting of a bird in WA’s Pilbara in 2005 and a dead night parrot was found in 2006 in western Queensland’s Diamantina National Park means it’s highly likely other populations are out there and the birds are simply so elusive that we’re not spotting them. Surveys now using the new knowledge about the bird’s call and nocturnal behaviour mean there’s a much better chance of detecting them. If more can be found and protected, the future for night parrots may become far less bleak than had recently been feared.

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This was originally published in the Sep-Oct 2016 issue of Australian Geographic (AG#134).