Chris Watson

Research

What was the first name for grasswrens?

ResearchChris Watson

“The valid name of a taxon is the oldest available name applied to it, unless that name has been invalidated or another name is given precedence by any provision of the Code or by any ruling of the Commission.” -  International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, Article 23: Principle of Priority

Clearly, the ICZN only applies to names provided through the Linnean system of scientific names. If this were not the case, our catalogue of scientific names for organisms should be peppered with the words of the Earth’s surviving Indigenous languages. Humans have been knocking about the planet for a couple of hundred thousand years or so and they must have always had names for the plants and animals familiar to them. Where those names persist, why do we not admit them to the Linnean system?

I only pose this question half-seriously. I’m not suggesting that the system of scientific naming which has served us perfectly well to this point needs such a shake-up. But it is an interesting thought to follow.

Dusky Grasswren Amytornis purnelli, an adult female in the MacDonnell Ranges. 

My current research interest is the grasswrens of the endemic Australian genus Amytornis. The range of these birds takes in a lot of Australia in which the human inhabitants are more likely to list an Indigenous language as their first, rather than English.

In Pitjantjatjara country therefore, we know that the local name for Rhipidura leucophrys is tjintir-tjintirpa. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the scientific name, if you’re musically inclined and have an ear for Australian bird songs, you might recognise tjintir-tjintirpa as an onomatopoeic rendition of the ratcheting call of the Willie Wagtail. Similarly, Taeniopygia guttata is nyii-nyii (Zebra Finch), Epthianura tricolor is miititi (Crimson Chat), Malurus splendens is mirilyirilyi (Splendid Fairy-wren) and, my personal favourite, Oreoica gutturalis is panpanpalala; a clearer evocation of the ringing song of the Crested Bellbird is difficult to imagine.

I’ve got dictionaries and bird lists in most of the Indigenous languages of Central Australia and the Western Desert. They’re all fairly comprehensive but, when it comes to grasswrens, all of my references either turn up a blank or provide confounding and imprecise results.

If I limit my search to just those species which occur in Central Australia, we’re dealing with a maximum of four species: Dusky, Sandhill, Thick-billed and Eyrean – Amytornis purnelli, A. oweni, A. modestus and A. goyderi respectively. In most of the references that mention grasswrens specifically, the Western Desert name given is the same as that applied to all three species of Malurus fairy-wren which occur in the region – mirilyirilyi. If it is the case that fairy-wrens and grasswrens are “lumped” in this fashion by Western Desert speakers then I have no qualms accepting that.

But I’m interested in putting the right name to things wherever possible. Being scientific means sometimes having to settle for a degree of imprecision if the available facts don’t support one conclusion or another. And species are mutable entities so no classification can ever be truly final. But vagueness is only acceptable after all lines of investigation have been exhausted. And my research certainly hasn't been exhaustive yet.

I think it unlikely that no distinction was drawn by early desert-dwellers between the fairy-wrens, with their males cycling through brightly-coloured breeding plumage and the grasswrens, whose males do not. At a passing glance the grasswrens and fairy-wrens share a superficial resemblance, but we’re not talking about casual acquaintance here. We’re talking about many millennia of co-habitation between humans who are highly attuned to their environment and the animals they share that environment with. Aside from obvious plumage differences, grasswrens are much more restrictive in their use of the landscape. So while fairy-wrens often occur in the same habitat as grasswrens, they also occur in an array of habitats in which grasswrens are decidedly absent. Certainly the two groups sound distinct from one another also.

Splendid Fairy-wren Malurus splendens - even to the untrained eye; pretty difficult to mistake for a grasswren.

So I'm trying to find the specific names for grasswrens species in the Indigenous languages of the country where they occur. I have a few leads already, but if anyone can help confirm or enrich any of the following I’d be overjoyed to hear from you.

1.       The bird list in the University of South Australia’s Wangka Wiru: a handbook for the Pitjantjatjara language learner, provides tjinytjililinpa as the name for a bird listed simply as “wren”.

2.       The Native Tribes of Central Australia by Baldwin Spencer & F. J. Gillen dating from 1899 mentions the “Striated Wren Amytis striata” (which is an anachronism for A. oweni), being referred to as lirra-lirra in the local tongue.

3.       Handbook to the Birds of Australia by John Gould gives nyern-de and jee-ra as names for Amytis macrourus (an early epithet for A. modestus), in the language of the “interior of Western Australia”.

4.       Eastern and Central Arrernte to English Dictionary by John Henderson and Veronica Dobson gives a lengthy list of bird names under the entry titled “types of small bird” with no further specific information. I’d love to hear from anyone who can give me an English name for any of the following:

akake-atweye,

alerterrperterrpe,

alpiltherriltherre,

alpilthwerrilthwerre,

ampeltyelkere,

antenye-arteperrke,

antenye-arteperrpe,

arntenye-teperrke,

artenye-artepe,

ntinye-arteperrke,

artetyeltareltare,

artityerrityerre,

atenyekarnpe,

atenyekirnpe,

atnemetyerrtye,

atwintengintenge,

inentyerlaperlape,

nentyerlaperlape,

ipenye-apetyeme,

irlpwerre,

tyarrwe,

tywetalpe

5.       The same reference as (4), lists the name lyerre-lyerre as “wren” which agrees with (2) and (8).

6.       Ngaanyatjarra & Ngaatjatjarra to English Dictionary by Amee Glass and Dorothy Hackett gives an encouragingly restrictive listing. Tjinytjirlirlin(pa) is given as the name for both “Striated Grasswren: Amytornis striatus” – until recently, conspecific with A. oweni, and “Dusky Grasswren: Amytornis purnelli". This is tantalising and tallies well with the reference at (1) but even these two species of grasswren are quite visually and acoustically distinct and occupy different habitats.

7.       Kaytetye to English Dictionary by Myfany Turpin and Alison Ross has the name for Striated Grasswren (after recent taxonomic work now A. oweni in Kaytetye country) as ntyalkarlenye. Dusky Grasswren also occurs in Kaytetye country so clarification is needed.

8.       Central & Eastern Anmatyerr to English Dictionary by Jenny Green provides lyerr-lyerr and lyerretyelyerr as names for, “types of wrens, including fairy-wrens and grasswrens”. Again Dusky Grasswren occurs through this country as well so it would be good to get clarification. It also agrees well with Spencer & Gillen’s information at (2) and the reference at (5).

9.       Alyawarr to English Dictionary by Jenny Green provides antyarlkarleny as the name for “Amytornis sp.”, which in that part of the country could also be either A. purnelli or A. oweni.

In this search I have already been greatly assisted by comments and information from Marg Friedel, Mary Laughren, David Nash, and Bob Gosford has been immensely helpful in tracking down many of these references.

Can you help?

Perhaps you are (or know/work with) a native speaker of Central Australian languages. If you think you have any information that might clarify the use of any of the names that I have set out above please get in touch and let me know. I can be emailed at birdscentral@gmail.com or you can use the “CONTACT CHRIS” form on this page.

If you are an Indigenous Ranger from Central Australia, or work with an Indigenous Ranger Group, perhaps you could spread these questions among your colleagues and see what turns up.

1.       Do you know grasswrens (as distinct from fairy-wrens)?

2.       Where do they live?

3.       What are they named?

My research is, so far, restricted in scope to Central Australia. However, grasswrens of different species occur in much of northern Australia as well. If you have any information relating to the Indigenous nomenclature of any species of grasswrens in any Indigenous languages, I’d enjoy hearing about your knowledge.

Thanks in advance for your help and thanks for reading.

CBW

Owl Pellets: what are they and what can they teach us?

Raptors, ResearchChris Watson

Going through some old notebooks the other day, I found an owl pellet. I’d collected* it back in 2012 near the banks of the Finniss River in the Northern Territory during a fauna trapping survey. I decided to pull it apart over the weekend and go through the remains to see what I could identify. This is always an instructive exercise and this was long overdue. After posting a few pictures on social media I was surprised by the amount of interest they generated and how many questions I was fielding about the nature of owl pellets. So it seemed appropriate to put together this short post for those who haven’t encountered an owl pellet before.

Firstly, pellets are not faeces. Pellets are a regurgitated mass of the indigestible parts of a bird’s prey; they cough them up. Many different types of birds produce such pellets but they are probably best known from owls and diurnal birds of prey. Depending on the diet of the bird in question, the bulk of the pellet is usually made up of hair and feathers encasing varying quantities of bones, insect casings, beaks, teeth and claws.

A Grey Falcon Falco hypoleucos, straining to eject a pellet. I collected this pellet too and it was composed almost entirely of Budgerigar bones and feathers.

Despite not being faecal, pellets can contain infectious material so when dissecting them it is prudent to use surgical gloves and to thoroughly clean all instruments afterwards. Having said that, inspecting the contents of pellets is not as unpleasant as you might imagine. In fact it’s not unpleasant at all. Pulling pellets apart to identify the prey species of a bird is like Lego for biologists; I enjoy it immensely. The pellet is soaked in warm water to make it easier to separate and the only odour that might be detected is a bit of a ‘wet dog’ smell from all of the wet animal hair.

Mmmmm... wet dog smell. All that remains of the pellet after soaking in warm water; a lot of hair.

When I’m analysing pellet contents, I use paper kitchen towel as a blotter to dry the pieces as they come out of the water. Then I transfer them to a shallow dish for the painstaking work of separating all the hard pieces from the hair and feathers. For this I use a pair of surgical tweezers and a sharp penknife. Others prefer a pointed implement like a splinter probe or a safety pin.

Larger items like skulls and femurs are obvious and come out fairly easily but the smaller bones can be fiddly to extricate from the matted hair. I know some people who like to use a magnifying glass to see more clearly; I have a 200x USB microscope for dealing with the really small bits. Frog and smaller rodent bones, and teeth if they’re separated from the skull, can be tiny.

The bones are then arrayed on a second piece of paper towel for sorting through later. I lay them out in broad anatomical groups – arms, legs, vertebrae, teeth and miscellaneous. Once there are no more bones or other hard remains left in the pellet, the hair can be sent for further analysis. This requires a powerful magnifying glass or microscope and a fair deal of practice. A skilled observer can usually identify a good portion of individual hairs to species level. I don’t have this God-level skill yet so if I require hair analysis I usually send them away to be identified.

The identification of hard remains is more straightforward but still takes some practice and methodical work. There are a few references for this but probably the best and most widely-used is the trusty old Triggs. Tracks, scats and other traces: a field guide to Australian mammals by Barbara Triggs is a revered classic among Australian ecologists and an indispensable reference. As it says on the tin, it’s handy for identifying tracks and scat but it also has references for skulls and other skeletal remains that are usually sufficient to identify bones to at least genus level and sometimes species. Another handy reference is the Field Companion to the Mammals of Australia by Steve Van Dyck, Ian Gynther and Andrew Baker. This is a larger book which contains detailed keys to identification, but these don’t always include skeletal references. All the same, it can sometimes be useful for narrowing the number of candidates.

These references, combined with the knowledge of the collection locality can usually identify most bones satisfactorily.

This pellet had been collected at the base of a fairly large old stag (dead tree). It was about 8m tall and had a hollow opening upwards at the top. The pellet was large (~45mm in diameter) which narrowed the origin of the pellet to two likely species.

This pellet was found at the base of this burnt out tree. It's difficult to make out from this picture but it has a large hollow opening upwards at the top of the trunk. The beastie may well have been in there for all I know.

The fact that the pellet was found beneath a large hollow gave me further useful information. Rufous Owl Ninox rufa is found through this area but tends to stick to fairly dense areas of monsoonal vine thicket – the collection locality was open woodland. The pellet might have been from any of a few different diurnal raptors found throughout the area but it didn’t seem like an obvious roosting spot for any of those.

Another nocturnal raptor of wooded Top End areas: a Rufous Owl on the upper Daly River.

The Australian Masked Owl Tyto novaehollandiae kimberli, is uncommon to rare and not well-known across most of its range in the Northern Territory. The majority of NT records of Masked Owl seem to have come from the Cobourg Peninsula about 150km to the north-east of Darwin, the Tiwi Islands to the north of Darwin (which would be a different subspecies T. n. melvillensis) or Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria (T. n. kimberli again) a long way to the east. When I collected this pellet I was less than 100km almost due south of Darwin. Masked Owl are known to roost in tree hollows during the daytime whereas Rufous Owl roost by day on the branch of a large tree, usually in a well-vegetated area.

Putting all of this together (size, habitat preference, roost selection, distribution) made me tentatively confident at the time, that the pellet was from a Masked Owl. Sadly, the nature of the survey had me accommodated in a motel in a nearby town rather than camped out as would be more usual. This meant there was no opportunity for spotlighting or broadcast surveys which might have yielded a positive identification. Even so, equipped with knowledge of the prey species found within the pellet, I’m still fairly confident that it is from a Masked Owl.

 All the remains that I could identify were rodents including two complete skulls and the lower mandibles from a third animal. The humerus of most rodents has a distinctive crest on the shaft which distinguishes them from other mammals.

Skeletal remains of Pale Field Rat Rattus tunneyi, from within the pellet. The prominent crest on the humerus (labelled with an "H") is distinctive.

The larger skull is likely to have come from a Pale Field Rat Rattus tunneyi. This was the most common species we were getting in our nearby trap lines and matches both the skeletal remains and some of the lighter-coloured hair in the pellet.

What a Pale Field Rat looks like on the outside. Our nearby traps were full of this native species every morning. Not as bitey and more pleasant to handle than Long-haired Rat.

The smaller skull is from one of the native mouse species. The introduced House Mouse Mus musculus, can be ruled out as it has a prominent notch on the inside of the upper incisors; even in a live animal you can quickly check this by running your thumbnail up the inside of the animal's front teeth. The teeth in this skull didn’t have the tell-tale notch. It’s impossible to say with 100% certainty, but the pellet contained some hair with slight rufous/orange colouring so the skull might be from a Western Chestnut Mouse Pseudomys nanus. This was another species that was turning up in our trap survey most mornings so was certainly fairly common in the area.

If the pellet was from a Rufous Owl I’d expect there to be at least some sign of remains from Little Red Flying Fox Pteropus scapulatus, which was common in the area and a well-known prey item for Rufous Owl. Also with this species, I would expect there to be some remains of gliders or possums and probably also some feathers. These were all absent.

Dem bones dem bones dem...

Masked Owl is fairly well-documented as preying primarily on terrestrial animals and all the remains that I could identify were terrestrial mammals. For now at least, I'm pretty sure that there was a Masked Owl knocking about the upper Finniss River back in 2012. Let's hope there are still a few about in 2016.

So there you go, next time you’re at an owl roost and you see some suspiciously non-bird-poo-looking lumps on the ground beneath it, you can have a fair idea of the sorts of things those pellets might contain.

CBW

 

*This was collected under permit in the course of a commercial fauna survey. It is illegal to collect pellets without the proper wildlife research permits. In fact, it is technically illegal to collect any animal remains, including bones, feathers and road-killed or beach-washed carcasses. This is an area of wildlife legislation that I don’t entirely agree with; feathers, bones and other animal remains can be great teaching aids and kids get a real kick out of collecting them. But it’s not that simple either. Wildlife permits and regulations are probably a topic for another blog post on another day.

 

Buy Tracks, scats and other traces: a field guide to Australian mammals by Barbara Triggs from Andrew Isles.

Buy Field companion to the Mammals of Australia by Van Dyck, Gynther and Baker from Andrew Isles.

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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.

 

Mysterious Princess of the Western Deserts

Twitching, Research, birdingChris Watson

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

– Albert Einstein, The World As I See It

The Princess Parrot Polytelis alexandrae, is a staggeringly beautiful animal for a variety of reasons. It’s a fractal bird. There's a new layer of contradiction, conundrum and surprise revealed at each level it’s examined: the long, long tail, the males’ odd little wing spatules, the dissonant colour scheme, the preference for an extremely unpredictable desert habitat, the wide-ranging movements. Even the fact that it is common in captivity but so difficult to observe in the wild gives a strange familiarity to a bird which is seen by only a lucky handful of people most years.

Marble Gum Eucalyptus gongylocarpa, along the Connie Sue Highway, WA: a known favourite for Princess Parrot nesting.

If you’re like most birdwatchers, the first place you will observe this species is in an aviary. With luck, it will be a bird of the wild colouration rather than the product of aviculturists’ bizarre fascination with breeding unnatural colours into birds; apparently they’re particularly fond of blue Princess Parrots. Weirdos. The real bird lives in scattered populations out in the wilds of inland Australia. Even the remote inland city of Alice Springs is a solid day of driving on unsealed bush roads from any of the habitat where the bird is seen with anything that could be termed 'regularity'.

Viewed sitting on its perch in an aviary, the dissonant colours of the parrot will probably seem at odds with a bird supposed to be at home in the sandy deserts of Central and Western Australia. This is most likely due to the observer’s lack of familiarity with these environs. For those yet to travel there, the Western Deserts are as surprising as the creatures that call them home. If the word ‘desert’ traditionally conjures bleak images of dusty, desolate plains and bare rock, then no habitat could be more unexpected. The range of the Princess Parrot covers a wide swathe north/south along the border of Western Australia with South Australia and the Northern Territory, from the top of the Canning Stock Route south of Halls Creek WA, down to around Neale Junction in the Great Victoria Desert. Being anywhere in this part of the country is far from a guarantee of seeing the bird, but this is where they lurk.

The blue skies near Neale Junction WA, a well-known locality for Princess Parrot, on a more cloudy afternoon.

The palette out here is rich beyond anyone’s expectations; the sand is a deeper and more lustrous red than you think, the trees are a lusher and more verdant green, the grasses a saturated golden yellow. Due to the interplay of contrasting colours and how they’re processed in our brains, the skies here are literally among the bluest on Earth. Following rain the flowers appear in every colour. So crypsis is relative. If you’re a nightjar wanting to blend in with decomposing leaf litter, then mottled browns, blacks, and greys are fine. But to survive above ground level in the riot of colour that is the Western Desert demands something a bit more… Matisse.

A pair of Princess Parrot enjoying the mid-morning sun during a winter visit to Australian Wildlife Conservancy's Newhaven Reserve west of Alice Springs in 2012.

So when it is at home, the Princess Parrot’s lime green shoulders vanish into the fresh growth on a Desert Bloodwood. The powdery pinks and sky blues are by turns shaded and brightened in flight by the reflected hues of earth and sky. And then there’s the thing you’ll never get from a caged bird: the jizz. That ineffable but distinctive movement and posture that is unique to a species. Like its congeners this is a high-speed mover. When the deserts dry and the water holes are distantly separated, the birds are capable of covering the necessary distance in short order. Counter-intuitively for a bird with such a long tail, it has the strange habit of perching along a branch. Not always. I’m sure you’ll find plenty of pictures of them perching in the conventional fashion with their elongated rectrices spearing earthward at a right angle to the branch, but they are often observed with those feathers laid flat along the length of the branch – almost frogmouth-like. Perhaps another concession to crypsis? Maybe all the Polytelis parrots do this, I’m not sure. I’ve seen Regent Parrots do it, but I’ve never seen Superb Parrots.

....sitting quietly in a Desert Bloodwood Corymbia opaca. Very easy to miss. I wonder how many birds like this I've driven straight past over the years. 

In any case they’re a special animal. Certainly they deserve their reputation as our second most-desired bird after another desert parrot, the perennially unfindable Night Parrot Pezoporus occidentalis. There are many senior Australian birders who are yet to mount the necessary expedition out west to see Princess Parrot in the wild, and many who have and still missed the birds. Even for those who live in the outback, those who in most years may stumble on Grey Honeyeater, Grey Falcon, and various grasswrens, all merely from frequenting the right habitat, will still be unlikely, and consider themselves very fortunate, to see Princess Parrots – just ask Richard Waring.

As someone who has been exceedingly fortunate and seen these birds on numerous occasions, I can certainly vouch that it is worth the immense effort to get out and spend some time looking. Since 1996 I’ve probably spent a total of many months in Princess Parrot habitat, and only seen the birds on 5 occasions, but even without Princess Parrots, it is entirely worth the cost and time to get out there and look around.

It is an enriching experience. This is birding as it was always meant to be. Once you see this country it becomes part of you.

This is your chance. Alice Springs’ resident birding guide Mark Carter and I, are headed out to this magnificent country in September, to give a bunch of visiting birders their best chance at seeing these birds in the wild this year. Other than having a good chance at finding wild Princess Parrots, we should see plenty of other desert wildlife along the way. At time of writing there are only a couple of positions left on this trip so you’ll need to bite the bullet and get in quick. If it’s a part of the country you are yet to explore, I encourage you to take this opportunity if you can. All the details are on Mark’s website at THIS LINK HERE.

Expeditioners can expect many similar vistas. This is the Sandy Blight Junction Road near the Schwerin Mural Crescent, WA.


Further reading:

As mysterious as the Princess Parrot is, there are researchers out there peeling back the layers and revealing more about its extraordinary life cycle. There are few papers in peer-reviewed journals documenting the ecology of wild birds but this paper is the most recent and will give you a starting point for further literature searches.

The breeding and foraging ecology and abundance of the Princess Parrot (Polytelis alexandrae) during a population irruption. Chris Pavey et al.