Chris Watson

Citizen Science

The Platypodes of Coranderrk

Citizen Science, ResearchChris Watson

The platypus Ornithorhynchus anatinus, by John Lewin 1808. CC.

“In retrospect, it involved a world of darkness in which the water was definitely very, very cold, our clothes constantly dripping and soft mud clinging and oozing at every step…”

This is how David Fleay vividly recalled his “platypusing foray” with my great-great-uncle, Cecil Milne, in a letter to The Age published on the 20th of June 1989. These forays, in the early years of the 1940s, were in the waters of the Watts and Graceburn Rivers and Lake Yumbunga, not far from where Healesville Sanctuary is today. In those days, Fleay was the director of what was then known as Badger Creek Sanctuary, Healesville.

The subject of the great naturalist’s letter on this occasion was the capture of a few pairs of platypus to be translocated to streams within Flinders Chase NP on Kangaroo Island in 1940 at the request of the South Australian Government.

But it was a few years later, in November 1943, that Fleay and his team were to have their greatest success. As the world beyond Healesville churned through the daily horrors of intensifying war in the Pacific, Badger Creek became home to the first platypus bred and hatched in captivity.

The enormity of this achievement is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that it remained the only successful captive breeding of a platypus until 1998.

The single female puggle, Corrie, was named after the lands of the local Wurundjeri people, Coranderrk, many of whom had been instrumental in Fleay and uncle Cecil’s efforts to maintain the platypusary at Badger Creek during the lean wartime years. For keeping up the supply of food to, “the gluttonous little creatures”, Fleay singled out one Wurundjeri woman for particular praise:

“Mrs. Jemima Dunolly, too, the last of the old Aboriginal people at Coranderrk, supplied us consistently in all weathers for years with the important platypus food items until practically the day of her death in early January 1944, at the reputed age of 102.” – David Fleay, The Victorian Naturalist, Vol. 61 – No. 1. May 4th, 1944

Their success is all the more impressive when we consider that it occurred during WWII when supplies and funding for anything not directly related to the war effort were surely in short supply. Indeed, Fleay describes, “days when even our butcher’s order had to be dropped in favour of using up ancient horses” - a phrase that’s destined to come back to me next time I’m grousing about how tough it is getting research funding these days.

David Fleay’s account of this historic first in The Victorian Naturalist is gripping reading and I can’t recommend it highly enough. A PDF, of his full article, with photographs, is available HERE. It’s earthy field biology writing at its best and his warmth and affection for the creatures he once described as, “the most wonderful of all living mammals”, positively beam from the page.

Chestnut Teals on Koonung Creek: the only duckbills I've seen here so far but I'm still looking...

The story of Coranderrk’s (and Melbourne’s) platypodes warms me also. I only recently learned of the role that uncle Cec played as Fleay’s deputy at Badger Creek Sanctuary, but I’m tickled to have any sort of connection with such significant events in Australian wildlife research. My own interest in the platypus has been rekindled since I started living on Koonung Creek in Box Hill. There is some great parkland and some good stretches of creek that look promising. I’m out most evenings looking for platypus here; not a sausage so far but I’m optimistic.

There are platypus in Mullum Mullum Creek around 8 kilometres to the east and there have been recent sightings in Ruffey Creek just a few kilometres to the north. In just the last few weeks there have been platypus photographed in the Yarra River at Kew and even as far downstream as Abbottsford.

I know about these sightings thanks to a mob who are continuing the great work of people like David Fleay and Cecil Milne. Supported by Melbourne Water’s Urban Platypus Program, a team called platypusSPOT are conducting research into platypus using the waterways in and around Melbourne. If you use social media, you can follow their work on Twitter and Facebook. Smartphone users who are out spotting wildlife can also download their free platypusSPOT app and make their own citizen science contribution by letting them know details of their own platypus sightings. It turns out that platypodes are turning up in all sorts of urban waterways where they might be least expected. So keep your eyes peeled the next time you’re down by a creek or river in the ‘burbs.

No doubt the platypusSpot team’s experience of ‘platypusing forays’ are similar to the great men and women from the early days of Badger Creek: cold, wet, dark. Such is the nature of field biology sometimes. Maybe there are a few more plastic bags and abandoned shopping trolleys to deal with, along with the oozing mud and dripping clothes.

The platypodes have certainly got a few more challenges to face with poorer water quality and myriad choking hazards resulting from our fondness for discarding circular plastic rubbish: 6-pack holders and promotional ‘cause’ wristbands among countless other examples. Discarded or illegal fish and yabby traps add an ever-present risk of drowning to the urban platypode’s lot.

If you need to remind yourself what your imaginary mate would do in any given situation, how special can he be? Regardless, if he'd choke a platypus you probably need to get a new friend.

Life for Melbourne’s platypodes is not all meal worms and caddis fly larvae like the Coranderrk duckbills of yore, but I hope they will endure. We all owe thanks to Melbourne Water and the team at platypusSPOT and I hope that they can keep up their urban research program and their work maintaining healthy waterways for Melbourne in perpetuity.

CBW

 

Platypus: the extraordinary story of how a curious creature baffled the world by Ann Moyal - Buy it from Andrew Isles

 

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The Night Parrot: A bird in the hand but how many left in the bush?

Opinion, Citizen Science, ResearchChris Watson

Night Parrot Pezoporus occidentalis. by kind permission John Young

In 2005 the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology published its report of the rediscovery of the iconic Ivory-billed Woodpecker Campephilus principalis, rightful claimant to the title of Grail Bird in US ornithology, and presumed extinct since the 1940s. Exhaustive searches of the Cache and White River systems ultimately produced no further evidence and the "rediscovery" is now widely discredited. The similarly elusive Pink-headed Duck Rhodonessa caryophyllacea, may have been sighted in 1988 on the banks of the Brahmaputra (north-eastern India), by Rory Nugent and Shankar Barua - but we can't be sure. The only known photographs of this species alive are from 1925, and the last specimen was shot in India, in 1935. That much of its habitat lies in remote and poorly surveyed parts of Myanmar is a cause for some optimism and its official classification is Critically Endangered, rather than Extinct. But despite a few reports in the last decade, no evidence of its continued existence has ever been produced. In Australia there still remains one living species that, despite being seen and identified by a few determined birders in its difficult north Queensland home in most years, no photographs of a live specimen have ever been produced* - the Buff-breasted Button-quail Turnix olivii.


The world of birds offers many tantalising mysteries to the intrepid adventurer, but pre-eminent among these has always been the Night Parrot Pezoporus occidentalis - a bird tailor-made for controversy and a species which eluded some of the best field ornithologists in the land for a century. A fair dinkum enigma.


The Night Parrot has laboured under many unfortunate monikers; The Loch Ness Monster of birds, The Tasmanian Tiger of birds, The Holy Grail of Birding, The Fat Budgie, or simply, The Ex-Parrot. If you have been following this story however, you will understand that none of these epithets is fitting, if indeed they ever were. While it will almost certainly remain the Holy Grail for some birdos, some of the mystery surrounding the species was banished forever on Big Wednesday. On the 3rd of July 2013, Australian naturalist John Young revealed at an exclusive, invitation only, private function at the Queensland Museum, irrefutable evidence of the species' continued existence at an undisclosed site in the southwest of the state. Marking the culmination of many years of fieldwork and study including 17000 hours at the one site, John Young, with his mate John Stewart holding the torch, managed to capture high quality digital photographs and 17 seconds of video footage of the species, very much alive, in its native habitat of thick spinifex. Only a few photographs were displayed at the strict no-cameras and no-recorders event, and only 6 seconds of the video footage, but the images have been studied around the world and there is no doubt that they're the real deal. John’s stunning images graced the cover of our national bird magazine, Australian Birdlife, and one of them now graces my wall.


A more demure and heavily-watermarked image appeared on the front page of The Weekend Australian accompanying an article by Tony Koch on June 29th 2013. The online edition of that story can be found here.


Since this first appearance in the media, John’s story has done the rounds and an online search will take you to any number of articles that have summarised the find with wildly varying degrees of accuracy. Among the coverage that has been less burdened by truth, rectitude, and research, I got a particular chuckle out of the following that claims the species can be "commonly found" while still being one of the "world's most mysterious birds" in the same sentence. It also credits the discovery to a "Mr John King", (there's been a second discovery?) and accompanies the news with a stolen picture of a Ground Parrot Pezoporus wallicus, here.


Suffice to say that the coverage in the media has been patchy at best, and is a nice reflection of a conversation that is gaining momentum across the country about the loss of good science journalists. Other reports unnecessarily perpetuated some old myths and even started up a few new ones. Chief among these is the fallacy that the species was presumed extinct. Very few, if any, people with any interest in the subject thought that the species had already gone extinct. This would be a difficult assumption to maintain in the face of much evidence to the contrary. Although the last specimen was actively acquired in 1912, two dead specimens were found more recently within 200 kilometres of each other in western Queensland; one in 1990 and the second in 2006. Dead birds have to come from living populations. 


Other news reports claimed this to be the first time the bird was seen alive in over 100 years. This is another clear exaggeration - the excitement in the ornithological community was over the first photographs of a live specimen, ever. It would be unusual for more than a few years to pass without one or two reports emanating from the outback of observations of the species. While many of these reports have common and questionable characteristics (they occur in poor light, observers had fleeting glimpses, observers were not bird experts or even practised bird-watchers) and are rightly treated with some skepticism, not all of them are likely to be apocryphal or mistaken. Some observations have been by highly respected, experienced field ornithologists, and some have been well-documented and ratified by peer review as recently as 2005 in Western Australia.  Add to this the fact that anyone seeking or claiming to have seen the Night Parrot has often been treated to raised eyebrows and some level of derision with labels like "Yowie Hunter" sometimes thrown around. In such an atmosphere it's easy to understand that there are probably other sightings that have gone unreported due to the fear of ridicule or the loss of professional credibility. Furthermore, if we look at other examples of species whose former range covered much of the continent inside the 280 millimetre isohyet, Greater Bilby Macrotis lagotis, say, it's possible that there remain remnant populations at widely separated locations - it's unlikely that John discovered the last of the Night Parrots. He just happened to be the only one with the talent and the grit, and let’s be fair perhaps a bit of good luck, to find them. At the time of writing he remains the only living person to have found a population of Night Parrots.

John’s photographs are spectacular, and provide satisfying evidence of the bird's continuing existence, but they don't really provide any advantage to other people looking for the species; we already know what the bird looks like and we have 24 museum specimens to study at close quarters.


Make no mistake - it is a recording of the Night Parrot's call that professional ecologists have been really excited about. This will provide an immeasurable advantage in any attempts to locate populations of this bird elsewhere. As, by John's own accounts, the bird is so difficult to observe, knowing what it sounds like will be the crucial tool for professional scientists hoping to identify remnant populations in other locations, and prevent the destruction or disturbance of their habitat. For professional ecologists working on the site of a development, the key to halting or modifying the extent of habitat disturbance or destruction comes down to proving the presence of listed species. So seen through the eyes of an ecologist conducting pre-clearance surveys in remote areas with undisturbed tracts of potential Night Parrot habitat about to be flattened, the importance of this recording is difficult to overstate. As it stands, field ecologists have Buckley's chance of actually observing a bird, and even less chance of being able to authenticate the sighting unless they also manage to photograph the bird. However, if they know what to listen for, or better yet, have an automated recording device allowing them to screen both audibly and visually for the bird's vocalisation after several weeks or months of constant recording, the chance of verifying the species' presence, and stopping land clearing, heads into the realms of practicality.


Withholding such a crucial tool for establishing the species’ presence hampers attempts to locate the birds in other locations. John kept his recordings of the bird’s call to himself in the weeks and months following his announcement and I was too hasty to be critical of him for this at the time. I’ve since got to know John quite well and have come to understand the immense pressure that he must have been under at the time. He had a lot of different interests competing for his attention and his response, and in hindsight perhaps the best thing he could have done, was to keep the welfare of the bird in the front of his mind and keep the recordings under wraps. Once the dust had settled he had the unenviable task of trying to work out what to do next and the rest, to coin a phrase, is history.

I know nothing of the supposed acrimony surrounding John’s parting of company with the current research team at Pullen Pullen Reserve so there is no point engaging in baseless speculation. But the availability of acoustic data remains a pertinent and pressing question three years on. Why can’t it be released? Bush Heritage, or people operating on their property, are in possession of an unprecedented library of calls. Just a few call recordings is all it would take for ecologists operating in potential Night Parrot habitat elsewhere to positively confirm the species’ presence. The species range once took in most of inland Australia so they might not necessarily occur in habitat identical to that at Pullen Pullen Reserve; we should be looking and listening far and wide. Just a few individuals and organisations have been in possession of this critical piece of knowledge for some years now, while potential Night Parrot habitat has been going under the dozer blade for developments of all types across the outback. Bush Heritage and the team they have researching the Night Parrot at Pullen Pullen deserve full credit for the work that they are doing. It will be a landmark publication when the findings of their study finally see the light of day but we have no way of knowing how far off that publication will be. Their lack of engagement has some in the conservation community pessimistic that the call will ever be released.

Courtesy: social media commentators


A common cry from supporters of the current status quo, in rebuttal to those requesting the release of call recordings has been, "go and record it yourself". Apart from being the sort of argument I'd expect from a petulant eight year old, this demonstrates a particular backwardness and a deep misapprehension of the process of scientific investigation. I'm not going to be so naive as to suggest that the scientific community is free from spats, rifts, and schisms - there are even a few famous examples of what might be termed long-running feuds. By and large though, these are intellectually driven and rarely internecine. Scientific competition and rivalries drive opposing teams to greater rigour in their experimentation and investigation to disprove the counter position - thereby driving the process of understanding. We all benefit from the hard graft of our predecessors, hence the much-quoted saying attributed to Sir Isaac Newton of those who achieve greatness doing so only by, "standing on the shoulders of giants".

The time has well and truly come, for those in possession of Night Parrot call recordings and findings about the species’ ecology to put their cards on the table, hoist any critics to their shoulders and let them see what else they can see. 


At the time of John Young’s initial rediscovery of the Pullen Pullen population, the one thing that there was little disagreement on, across the board, was that it would probably be best if the location of the population remained tightly controlled. There was sound reasoning for allowing a small team of researchers in to commence a detailed study. Beyond that though, even hardcore twitchers, rabid birders, and fanatical photographers were in rare, if slightly grudging agreement - the site should remain protected for as long as possible. This, despite the fact that it's arguable the site was adequately protected already. If it was anywhere within any sensible interpretation of John's description of "southwest Queensland" then it had the benefit of being remote, probably not accessible on sealed roads, and probably difficult to get to from any major centre with anything less than a fairly costly field expedition. In an area as remote as that, any such expedition could be fairly sure of attracting attention before they'd got within a stone's throw of the site. 


Once again though, the long-standing fallacy of the "twitching hordes" was wheeled out for another tired lap around the forums and social media sites. It’s a myth; albeit a persistent one. Of all the numerous threats facing Night Parrots, the occasional unethical happy-snapper is the least of them. The slightest acquaintance with other cases where the binocular-wielding bogeymen of the twitching hordes have been invoked, shows it to be pure fantasy.

Courtesy: social media commentators

The excitement of Princess Parrots Polytelis alexandrae, present west of Alice Springs in 2010, attracted fewer than 150 people to travel out to see them. Of these, more than half were the families and friends of locals connected to authorities charged with the protection of the site - mostly not birders, just curious locals going for a gawk because they could. Sure there were a few car-loads of interstate twitchers, and a few knobs who did the wrong thing by going out there without permission too, but what are we talking about? 5 people? Maybe 10? Remember there were hundreds of Princess Parrots, probably with the Night Parrot, the most sought-after species on the Australian List. Admittedly, there was one confirmed report of sinister activity from a prominent aviculturist during this event (let's just call him "Ladder Boy"), but twitching hordes? Hardly. 


Then Princess Parrots turned up again in 2012. This time they were on publicly accessible land, just a short drive from Alice Springs at the Australian Wildlife Conservancy's (AWC) Newhaven Sanctuary. You could leave Alice Springs after breakfast and be on-site by lunchtime. This has a well-serviced and beautifully set up campsite too - hot showers even. AWC had volunteer wardens guiding people to see the birds every morning and afternoon. Again, there were flocks of over a hundred birds, super reliable every day for close to a month! How many of the horde, twitching or otherwise, came to see them? Fewer than a hundred is my information from AWC's managers. Again, a good portion of these were locals. I went out there twice; the first time the only other visitors were a few members of the Alice Springs Field Naturalists Club, and four people from the nearby community of Nyirripi who didn't even have binoculars! On my second visit I shared the campground with only two other people.

Courtesy: social media commentators


What about a situation perfect for the terrorisation of a bird by unethical birders and photographers? A first for the Australian mainland list in a suburban garden. When a Forest Wagtail Dendronanthus indicus, appeared in Alice Springs in April 2013, many prognosticated the end of the town as we knew it. The hordes were saddling up and galloping to the Red Centre to swamp us; supermarkets were emptied of baked beans and cockroach spray and locals hunkered down in their panic rooms. Sure enough though, a few birders came for a dekko, but again, the greatest visitation was by locals. The total number of people who have this bird on their list eventually, and in a very polite and convivial atmosphere, crept north of 100 during the bird’s almost three month occupancy of the Cormacks’ back lawn. In a garden. With chairs, and shady trees, and cups of tea, scones, toilets. Around the corner there are cafes, and shops, and fuel stations, and hotels. If this twitch was too arduous for the twitching hordes, what’s the likelihood of them going after a bird that foxed one of the greatest bushmen in the country for 5 years? In a fly-blown, spinifex-covered gravel-pit in western Queensland?


No, the whole myth of the twitching hordes, while it might be a concern in similar situations in the UK, is just a red herring in an Australian setting. More than alerting us to the dangers of over-zealous birdwatchers it raises the valid question of why those who perpetuate the myth, continue to do so.

Bulldozers: an actual threat to bird conservation

In contrast, I have stood in broad daylight with not a twitcher in sight, in very remote parts of Queensland, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia and watched people, fully sanctioned by Australian law, driving 49 tonne bulldozers through hundreds of kilometres of pristine, potential Night Parrot habitat. I often feel like the reality of this land clearance is elusive to the majority of Australians with little experience of the outback, but land clearing has been identified by numerous bodies as one of the greatest threats to Australian ecosystems and the primary cause of species extinctions on the mainland. The outback can seem so big and indomitable that a few cuts of a dozer blade might seem inconsequential in the vast scale of things. If you’re at all uncertain of what a serious threat this is to our environment, just do a Google search for “reflection seismology” and have a read of what you find. This is a common practice in mineral exploration in Australia and it is cutting lines right across the outback every single day. At present, the only thing likely to stop this is professional ecologists confirming presence of Night Parrot (or other listed species) on exploration tenements. Again, this brings us back to the urgency for a survey methodology informed by acoustic data.


The protection of the location of Bush Heritage’s Pullen Pullen Reserve, while condoned by most in the Australian conservation community, is certainly less critical than the search for other populations in potential Night Parrot habitat under imminent threat of such clearing. Considering the number of journalists that Bush Heritage have been flying in and out of the site, how long can the site remain a secret anyway?  


In fact, it turns out, the site is now all but common knowledge. In The Weekend Australian published yesterday, Greg Roberts reveals that the cattle property John Young found the birds on is Brighton Downs Station, from whom Bush Heritage recently negotiated the purchase of the 56,000ha Pullen Pullen Reserve. With Google Earth and SatNav, even Blind Freddy can find Pullen Pullen Reserve now. Not that it really matters though. This still makes not a jot of difference to the likelihood of the site receiving any unwanted visitors, be they birdwatchers, egg-collectors, Jehovah’s Witnesses or otherwise. The site is under 24-hour surveillance, with intensive coverage of camera traps and listening devices and… it’s still a bloody long way from anywhere.

The Outback: if you think it's going to be an easy twitch.... you're wrong

In the mess that this story has now become, birdwatchers are still being touted as among the top threats to the well-being of the Night Parrot and Bush Heritage’s efforts to protect it. This is so far beyond ludicrous that I’m genuinely surprised at the readiness with which the birding community has been prepared to sit back and wear it. By far the biggest threats to the conservation of the species now are the mishandling of public interest and goodwill, the clearing of potential Night Parrot habitat elsewhere, feral cats and foxes, uncontrolled fires and the continued and inexplicable hoarding of acoustic data that should be informing pricked ears and automated recorders right across the outback rather than just taking up space on a hard drive somewhere.

Courtesy: social media commentators

In the three years since John Young’s historic find, the site, to the best of our knowledge, has received no unwanted visitors. Nil. It’s time to dispense with the twitching hordes bullshit. It just doesn’t add up and any further attempts to perpetuate it should be seen as a deliberate attempt to deflect attention and a pointless attack on a group who continue to make a valuable contribution to conservation and our understanding of birds in this country.

It’s also an interesting measure of the mishandling of both the media attention and the overwhelming goodwill of the birding community toward this project that, in the wake of Greg Roberts’ revelatory article, the internet was comparatively silent on the matter.

People have finally got Night Parrot fatigue, something I wouldn’t have thought possible. A bird that once set the birdwatching forums, blogs and chat rooms alight with spirited conversation and debate barely rated a few short threads on Facebook and a few fairly pedestrian posts on Birding-Aus. Bush Heritage may well be protecting the Night Parrot to the best of their ability but their media team seem to have killed the bulk of the public interest in it stone dead. The scientifically incompatible use of secrecy as a marketing tool and the drip-feed of same-old same-old titbits masquerading as news updates, clearly isn’t working.

As it stands, there are probably a few individuals out there who have become infinitely more knowledgeable about the ways of the Night Parrot than anyone else in history. This is some consolation. Publication is a slow process at the best of times and anyone can understand the need for researchers to guard their work until after publication. We can assume they’ll share this knowledge one day, but time is getting on. There are almost certainly populations of Night Parrot elsewhere in the outback that don’t enjoy the same level of habitat protection afforded to the birds at Pullen Pullen Reserve. As long as we don’t have a widely available acoustic survey methodology, every other population of Night Parrot is in imminent danger of being bulldozed into oblivion even before we know where they are.

Another source of great consolation is that John Young now has the full backing of AWC and is back out bush where he belongs. AWC, working with Queensland National Parks and Wildlife (QPWS), have committed to building one of the largest feral predator-proof enclosures in the country at the Diamantina and Astrebla Downs properties in western Queensland. This is in the middle of prime Night Parrot and Greater Bilby country and it’s not revealing any secret at all to state that these properties are right next door to Brighton Downs. So with the only man with a proven track record for finding Night Parrots spearheading their operation, you’d have to say that it’s a pretty safe bet that, in due course, AWC will be sitting on Night Parrots too and that can only be a good thing.

And besides, it’s fitting that John Young continues to be the Night Parrot man. That’s a title he never asked for and actively shuns. At every public occasion he has stated repeatedly that he wants the story to be about the bird and not about him. But you can’t always get what you want. The name of John Young is now irretrievably linked with the Night Parrot whether he likes it or not. If it weren’t for John Young I wouldn’t be writing this, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, and the internet would be even more silent (on this topic anyway) than it has been in recent days.

For this, we all owe John our thanks.

Good times in The Alice with John Young (centre) and the committee of Birdlife Central Australia

 

Postscript

This is an instructive conversation to be having at any time but perhaps particularly so in the lead-up to another federal election. We’ve watched science and conservation funding whittled away by successive governments and officially sanctioned environmental vandalism and negligence on an unprecedented scale in recent years. With the fair dinkum work of conservation increasingly being left to private organisations like Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Birdlife Australia and Bush Heritage, such groups need all the support they can get.

If it seems like I’m unfairly or overly critical of any organisations or individuals it is only because I care about the iconic landscapes and animals in Australia’s outback which I often suspect of being consistently overlooked by those who make the decisions about what is worth preserving and what research is worth funding. I can only write with the information that I am privy to, but if there are any errors of any kind, feel free to get in touch and I’ll straighten them out.

 

 

NB: *There have been persistent rumours in recent weeks that we should expect some big news regarding this last holy grail in Australian ornithology. We can only wait for more information.

 

The Princess & Lady Luck

Herping, birding, Tourism, Citizen ScienceChris Watson

“Remember it’s all luck.

… understanding that you can’t truly take credit for your successes, nor truly blame others for their failures will humble you and make you more compassionate.”

Tim Minchin, UWA graduation address, September 2013. Watch the entire thing on Speakola.

 

Congratulations. Well done. Great work. The sorts of things that birders say to each other all the time. But what do we mean by these things?

I’m just back from co-leading and driving for Mark Carter Birding & Wildlife’s Princess Parrot Expedition into the deserts west of Alice Springs. I’ve driven countless hundreds of thousands of kilometres through these deserts over the years, and I love it. The driving that is. A lot of people see driving as the unfortunate chore that must be endured to get to the places we go to look for birds, but I’ve always found it as much a part of the appeal of birding as the cheese scones and coffee-breaks. Driving, particularly, I would argue, in the desert, is cathartic. It’s great time to ruminate on things. If you’re fortunate enough to have pleasant travelling companions, it is the perfect opportunity to chew over ideas and hear a few stories from other peoples’ lives.

So I got a lot of thinking done on this trip.

The stark honesty of outback road signage.

Mostly, I got to thinking about luck. There’s something in Tim Minchin’s shared nugget of wisdom that I think birders, all of us at one time or another, tend to gloss over. Despite the hackneyed image of the conventional birder as something of a swot – studious, scholarly, minutely researched – there is a central role for luck in the pursuit of wild things. Good fortune, malesh, kismet; call it what you like. It can’t be denied.

Perhaps we tend to put it to one side because when we find a bird, we want to be able to suggest that it was our superior understanding of the bird’s relationship to its habitat that led us to it. Or perhaps it was our peerless vision, knowledge of bird behaviour and plumage characters that enabled us to pick it from a vast flock of similar birds. Without a doubt, that is certainly the case some of the time. Perhaps even most of the time.

There are some species that are site faithful and fussy about the type of habitat they will occupy and foods they will consume. So if you’ve done your reading and have the chops to distinguish healthy habitat from disturbed in the field, then maybe you really can target and track down a bird. If you’ve got the eyes and the experience behind a scope to pick a lone Little Stint from a flock of 10,000 Red-necked Stint, you have my admiration and it would be only a curmudgeonly fool that would deny your skill. But even then… if there isn’t a vagrant Little Stint in the flock you can look all day and see nothing but Red-necked Stint, so there is still an element of luck. We can all agree, however, on the clear difference between that scenario and some duffer walking into his mate’s back yard to stumble on a Forest Wagtail. Whatever that duffer’s knowledge of the species may be, he didn’t truly find the bird did he? If anything, the bird found him; or perhaps they met each other halfway. Such is the nature of many vagrant ‘finds’. While the above scenarios might fairly be described as great finds, the latter is probably more accurately termed a ‘discovery’.

Where does that leave other species that aren’t vagrant, may not even be rare, but are yet nearly impossible to find? Perhaps a species that might be nomadic? What about a species that has a massive possible (or actual) home range that exists entirely within remote and difficult terrain? By now you can see where I’m headed with this.

Just for once, I’m not on about the Night Parrot either. But as you bring it up, it illustrates the point about luck quite neatly doesn’t it? Very few people have had anything but the most profuse praise for John Young’s tenacity, skill, patience, and hard work in tracking down that bird. But in acknowledging that, we also have to acknowledge (and John has said as much in his many talks) that there were numerous strokes of luck along his journey of discovery as well – feathers on the wire, the dead specimens, being in the right spot to hear and record that historic first call. It’s the ultimate intersection of skill and good fortune.

But the other side of that coin is just as undeniable. There were several, if not dozens, of similarly talented, highly skilled and educated researchers, bushmen and ornithologists out in the field and poring over maps and papers at home or in museums and laboratories, across the outback and around the country, looking for the Night Parrot and what did they come up with?

Zero. The centre of a doughnut.

"There's no grip here; just a dip that'll make you wish you were born a herper."

Are they all just hacks and duffers? All of them? Surely not. In fact, among them are some of our most senior arid-zone ecologists, including some who are now in the thick of it, participating in the ongoing research into that species. Despite all their experience, study, bushcraft and years spent scouring the bush, they just didn’t have luck on their side.

But before we disappear up our own fundaments in a maelstrom of epistemology, there's a piece of wisdom that Mr. Minchin failed to pass on. For every neat aphorism there is an equally tidy and contradictory platitude. Some of you will already have thought of a pertinent one here. You make your own luck. Yes indeed. Through hard work, diligent study, astute networking and imaginative connection of apparently disparate data, you may increase the likelihood of success in various endeavours. But, again, we’ve covered this. Life isn’t fair. History is filled with talented, hard-working, deserving people who had all the facts and still just missed out.

So we have to acknowledge the role of luck in our successes and our failures.

This is a concept we need to popularise in birding. Despite the swaggerish title of this blog, anyone who has met me will vouch that it was chosen in the most ironic spirit of self-deprecation. The whole idea of the birding grip off is, I hope, clearly farcical and best reserved for use only amongst the very best of friends. You can scour your Dolby & Clarke and pick apart your Thomas & Thomas but in the end, with a nod to the caveats discussed earlier about identification of healthy habitat and the like, finding birds has as much to do with good fortune as your knowledge of the field guide. If you’re prepared to contest this, you should take care; you may be leaving yourself wide open to public ridicule every time you dip. And there will be many dips. Oh yes. There will be dips.

A natural born Dipper.

What has any of this got to do with Princess Parrots, I hear you ask? I’m glad you brought it up. My central thesis is this: nobody finds Princess Parrots.

 The distribution map for Princess Parrot from the Department of the Environment. Easy, just look in the red bit right?

The distribution map for Princess Parrot from the Department of the Environment. Easy, just look in the red bit right?

There’s a pernicious rumour that the Princess Parrot falls into that class of birds that, with the right knowledge, equipment and your jaw set at the right angle to depict heroic and imperturbable single-mindedness, you may go forth into the wilderness and find. Furthermore, there is a wild fantasy harboured by some in our midst, that one can just nip out to Neale Junction or Jupiter Well and catch them dozing in the Desert Oaks. It's a simplistic 'just add water' approach to arid land birding. To the more sober among you, this is as ludicrous as it sounds. Nonetheless, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t attempt to disabuse you of this illusion.

As I wrote earlier, I recently ‘nipped out’ to Jupiter Well with Mark Carter and a small party of Australian listing heavy-hitters to give them a chance at ticking off this Australian-breeding mega. Truman Capote once wrote that, “…failure is the condiment that gives success its flavour”. If that’s so, then this was a tasty trip, and not just because of Mark’s form at the camp oven. (The man lived two years in North Africa and evidently picked up a thing or two about knocking together a fierce lamb tagine.) The abridged version: in 7 days ex-Alice Springs, spent fudding about Jupiter Well, Lake Mackay and parts west, we didn’t see a single Princess.

The trip was meticulously planned. As the mad bastard who conceived of this trip in the first place, all credit for that planning has to go to Mark. We received exceptional permits to camp in the region and head off-track to get up to Lake Mumu (freshwater) and Lake Mackay (salt and at the time, dry). These permits were a critical difference between this trip and most other visits to the area, and took a good deal of organising. A transit permit is required to traverse the Gary Junction Road, but this is precisely as it sounds – a permit to pass along the road corridor and nothing else. Technically, stopping for anything other than answering the call of nature is against the conditions of the permit. Certainly it doesn’t permit camping anywhere along the road. So, the Gary Junction Road transit permit limits you to a single crack at Princess Parrots in the vicinity of Jupiter Well, then you have to continue on your way.

We also had permission to head off the Gary Junction Road to investigate the localities of other recent sightings of the species, away from Jupiter Well. The most recent sighting that we were aware of was Richard Waring’s encounter with 19 birds on the Gary Junction Road near Walangurru (Kintore, NT) in April 2015.

Other than that, there really wasn’t a lot more to go on. It was a bold move by Mark to put on a trip seeking such a notoriously unreliable bird. Everyone on both sides of wildlife tourism knows full well that there are never guarantees, but from the guide’s perspective there is still an immense amount of pressure and a deep sense of obligation to show people everything they hope to see.

From fairly early on in the trip it was clear that conditions were dryer than we had anticipated. Insectivores were everywhere. We saw some very large mixed flocks of Masked and White-browed Woodswallow in association with a moth emergence. In the same area we were counting White-winged Triller by the hundred as they passed through following abundant swarms of insects. We saw groups of Varied Sittella, usually a very unreliable bird in Central Australia, at almost every place we stopped to bird. But granivores were all but absent. A few Zebra Finch flitted here and there if water was at hand, the occasional small mob of Budgerigar ripped through overhead, but that was about all we saw from the seed-eating guild.

Despite passing through some of the most extraordinarily well-managed spinifex sandplain that Mark or myself had ever seen, there was just nothing eating seed. It didn’t bode well for parrots. The mornings and late afternoons were spent at listening posts hoping to pick up the distinctive sounds of The Princess, or slow-cruising tracks interrogating every Desert Oak and Bloodwood. During the warmer part of the day we covered more distance and investigated a few different habitats. We walked some dune fields, checked out leaky water tanks and open water sources and scoured the horizon until we went cross-eyed. If there were Princess Parrots in the area, I’m confident we would have seen something. With so much time in the area, with so many pairs of eyes and ears set to the task – we’d have seen them if they were there. My own feeling is that they just weren’t in the area.

So to the painfully obvious question – where are they?

If they were out there, they certainly weren't showing themselves.

If anybody knows, they aren’t saying. If you look on a map you’ll see that Jupiter Well and Neale Junction, the two most routinely cited ‘occasionally reliable’ locales for the bird, are not actually that far to go. The usual precautions for remote travel in desert regions apply, but with the right car, communications gear and the right attitude you actually almost can ‘nip out’ from Alice Springs to Jupiter Well. It’s really only one big day of driving to get out there (and a similar trip from Kalgoorlie to Neale Junction in WA). It’s by no means a doddle but it’s within the capabilities of any birder with outback driving experience. If there were birds out at Jupiter Well with anything approaching the reliability that the birding grapevine might suggest, there would be carloads of birders departing Alice Springs every single weekend. The fact that there isn’t, says everything we need to know.

It’s no exaggeration to say that, with the wild ecology of the Night Parrot all but ‘in the bag’ thanks to John Young and the ongoing research being conducted by the team at “The Queensland Site”, the movements of the Princess Parrot is a strong contender for the title of Australian ornithology’s new holy grail. How you go about researching a bird that moves with apparent ease across such a large chunk of the continent will be decided by someone smarter than me, but if I had to guess I suspect it’ll come down to another John Young-style effort. There are few hi-tech approaches that seem likely to yield results. An individual or small team driving the country confirming presence or absence at various points and making feeding and breeding observations seems as good an approach as any. The literature on the species is sparse and we can only hope that an individual or institution will step up soon to fill in the blanks.

So we missed The Princess, but as Jack Black’s character in The Big Year says at the end of the eponymous travails, “…we got more. More… everything”. It was extraordinary and life-affirming just to be out there amongst it. It’s a very new-age, Dennis Denuto sort of sentiment, but it really is the vibe of the thing. Setting off into the desert on a wildly ambitious adventure of pure discovery, could hardly have been more exciting and the results more edifying. Only the cold and dead of heart could have felt otherwise. We saw parts of the desert that even seasoned travellers of the arid lands have never visited. We slept in the soft sand amid whispering Desert Oaks – the wind harps of the Western Desert. We spent perfect, still mornings birding among thronging flocks of feeding woodswallows, chats, and trillers. We saw Brolga reflected in the disc of a freshwater lake between red sand dunes with the sun setting on our backs. We stood on the shores of Lake Mackay, an expanse of salt rivalled in size by few others on the continent and seen by few non-indigenous visitors since the days of Warburton, Giles and Beadell. We tracked the wanderings of innumerable nocturnal mammals across the sand in the crisp mornings. We encountered iconic desert wildlife like Thorny Devil and the endangered Centralian Carpet Python.

Atop all of this, during a fairly dry and quiet period in the desert life-cycle, we still managed to see more than 100 species of bird including cripplers like Banded Whiteface, Sandhill Grasswren, Chiming Wedgebill, Crimson and Orange Chats, Painted Finch, and Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo.

It’s a big list, with a lot more than just a parrot-shaped hole.  

It’s a list to be proud of, despite the parrot-shaped hole.

 

*****

 

A short, meandering postscript. In seven days of driving there are a lot more thoughts that can be neatly summarised in just a few hundred words.

As well as the nature of luck and its relationship with birding, another common topic of energetic conversation in my car was the obvious, but rarely mentioned, relationship between scientific discovery and commerce. Exploration has often been funded by wealthy benefactors or sponsors. Increasingly, we can cast wildlife-seeking tourists in this role without fear of overstating things.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when pelagic trips leaving Australian shores were a pretty specialised and exceptional event. In recent decades this has been changing gradually and now there is barely a weekend that goes by without pelagic trip reports from one or more trips reaching our inboxes. While these trips are still mostly costed so they reach the break-even point rather than generating serious profit, it is the patronage of birding tourists that keeps them going. Our understanding of seabird diversity in Australian waters has increased along with the frequency of pelagic birding trips. Anyone who has been on these trips can attest that the organiser/leader is usually someone with a deep knowledge of pelagic wildlife and a keen interest in the collection of data. This is as clear an example as you could want of tourism directly providing the means for data collection and scientific research. We pay to get out to the shelf and see some albatross and petrels and an inquiring mind is provided with the means to get into the field and access the populations they need to observe and sample to further our collective understanding. It’s a beautiful thing.

It’s not limited to pelagics either. Anyone who has birded in Africa or Central or South America is likely to have encountered numerous examples of local communities supplementing (and even replacing altogether) sometimes destructive subsistence industries with the income provided by wildlife tourists to see preserved habitat and the specials animals within it. Angel Paz and his extraordinary knack for habituating various species of Ecuadorian antpitta, springs immediately to mind. Whatever your stance on feeding wild birds, Angel has become deservedly famous for rendering once near-invisible birds, accessible and easily-viewed for paying visitors to his cloud-forest reserve, which may otherwise have been levelled long ago for crop-farming. How would you go about seeing lekking Andean Cock-of-the-Rock if it weren’t for the numerous protected stake-outs of known lekking sites for this astonishing species?

It’d be good to see an elevated and enlightened discourse develop around professional bird and wildlife guiding in Australia. Professional bird guides in Australia have often been on the receiving end of some fairly thoughtless and small-minded criticism in the past. This is by no means prevalent, but common enough to be troubling. Just as pelagic trips have drawn back the curtain on pelagic wildlife in Australian waters, there are a number of exceptionally talented and highly-skilled individuals who have been doing the same on terra firma.

Whether it's pelagics on the blue paddock or expeditions inland, someone has to go looking or we never learn anything.

Particularly to those who have pioneered the difficult business of inland birding, we owe a great deal of thanks. The birds are hard and the country even harder but the rewards are obvious. It’s a staggeringly large continent that we live on and there are still many, many blanks on the map. Mark Carter is by no means the only guide offering birding trips in our vast deserts, but it took chutzpah to take on a bird like the Princess Parrot – the sort of chutzpah that will inevitably pay dividends. Diamonds owe their value to their scarcity and this is just as true for birds like this. An encounter with the bird is priceless, but even to search for it brings ineffable rewards. If I had my way, Mark would be rewarded with a flood of inquiries for subsequent trips. Trips like this are the beginning of understanding. In an age where dedicated research funding is as elusive as some of the animals it might be spent studying, citizen science and tourist-funded expeditions are where we will get our baseline data.

SPECIAL THANKS

No expedition of this nature comes together without help from many quarters. The country we visited looked fantastic and credit must go to Traditional Owners and ranger groups for their efforts managing this large area. The country is administered by the Ngaanyatjarra Council and their staff were helpful at every step of the permit application process. The wonderful folks running the store at Kiwirrkurra were always smiling and welcome, despite our regular demands for fuel and service at irregular times - thanks a million, you should all know how important you are to regional tourism. And the same goes to the friendly folks at the store at Watiyawanu (Mt. Leibig).

Thank you all - your blood's worth bottling. 

Species Lists

Birds (in roughly the order seen)

  1. Magpie-lark
  2. Galah
  3. Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater
  4. Little Crow
  5. Black-faced Cuckooshrike
  6. White-plumed Honeyeater
  7. Yellow-throated Miner
  8. Willie Wagtail
  9. Pied Butcherbird
  10. Zebra Finch
  11. Black Kite
  12. Black-breasted Buzzard
  13. Whistling Kite
  14. Rock Dove
  15. Australian Ringneck
  16. Crested Pigeon
  17. Singing Honeyeater
  18. White-winged Triller
  19. Peregrine Falcon
  20. Brown Falcon
  21. Collared Sparrowhawk
  22. Black-faced Woodswallow
  23. Crimson Chat
  24. Black-chinned Honeyeater
  25. Grey-headed Honeyeater
  26. Australian Hobby
  27. Western Gerygone
  28. Red-backed Kingfisher
  29. Rainbow Bee-eater
  30. Australian Magpie
  31. Crested Bellbird
  32. Rufous Whistler
  33. Chiming Wedgebill
  34. Banded Whiteface
  35. Australasian Pipit
  36. Red-browed Pardalote
  37. Little Button-quail
  38. Variegated Fairy-wren
  39. Australian Bustard
  40. Striated Pardalote
  41. Black-shouldered Kite
  42. Budgerigar
  43. Varied Sittella
  44. Rufous Songlark
  45. Weebill
  46. Major Mitchell's Cockatoo
  47. White-backed Swallow
  48. Masked Woodswallow
  49. White-browed Woodswallow
  50. Diamond Dove
  51. White-necked Heron
  52. Mistletoebird
  53. White-fronted Honeyeater
  54. Black Honeyeater
  55. Little Eagle
  56. Brolga
  57. Red-necked Avocet
  58. Sharp-tailed Sandpiper
  59. Orange Chat
  60. White-winged Fairy-wren
  61. Sandhill Grasswren
  62. Brown Goshawk
  63. Red-capped Plover
  64. Nankeen Kestrel
  65. Spotted Harrier
  66. White-faced Heron
  67. Australian Reed Warbler
  68. Black-fronted Dotterel
  69. Grey Teal
  70. Wedge-tailed Eagle
  71. Great Egret
  72. Tree Martin
  73. Ground Cuckooshrike
  74. Hooded Robin
  75. Little Grassbird
  76. Hoary-headed Grebe
  77. Australasian Grebe
  78. Tawny Frogmouth
  79. Little Pied Cormorant
  80. Australian Spotted Crake
  81. Australasian Swamphen
  82. Southern Boobook
  83. Eurasian Coot
  84. Southern Whiteface
  85. Grey-crowned Babbler
  86. Yellow-rumped Thornbill
  87. Mulga Parrot
  88. Pink-eared Duck
  89. Grey Shrike-thrush
  90. Dusky Grasswren
  91. Painted Finch
  92. Western Bowerbird
  93. Inland Thornbill
  94. Slaty-backed Thornbill
  95. Red-capped Robin
  96. Splendid Fairy-wren
  97. Spinifex Pigeon
  98. Masked Lapwing
  99. Australian Owlet-nightjar
  100. Sacred Kingfisher
  101. Brown Honeyeater
  102. Little Woodswallow
  103. Grey Fantail
  104. Fairy Martin

Reptiles

  1. Gehyra purpurascens
  2. Bynoe's Gecko
  3. Sand-plain Gecko
  4. Carlia triacantha
  5. Blue-tailed Ctenotus
  6. Centralian Blue-tongue
  7. Long-nosed Dragon
  8. Central Military Dragon
  9. Central Netted Dragon
  10. Thorny Devil
  11. Central Bearded Dragon
  12. Spiny-tailed Monitor
  13. Pygmy Desert Monitor
  14. Gould's Sand Monitor
  15. Centralian Carpet Python