Chris Watson

Twitching

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.

 

Night Parrot – a possible sight record from the Northern Territory

Twitching, ResearchChris Watson

Sunset over the Wakaya Desert, Northern Territory in the vicinity of the report. A varied landscape.

The phone went off early the other morning (12 Feb) with the new email tone. Only the subject line of the email was visible on the screen but it was enough to take me from bleary-eyed and recently woken, to bolt upright and running, screaming downstairs to the office.

Probable Sighting of Night Parrot Pezoporus Occidentalis [sic] Qld-NT border.

The mainframe of the Moonee Ponds Laboratory of Ornithology slowly came to life and the email continued (excluding salutations and other niceties):

Driving West on the Barkly Highway near Kiama Creek, at approximately 07.00 hrs N.T. time with sun rising behind me, I saw, what at first I identified as a Ground Parrot scuttle out of thick 30cm high growth on the edge of the bitumen, stopping 40 cm onto bitumen. I was able to swerve onto centre of road avoiding the parrot.

It is only now as I log my sighting that I realise that there is every chance that I saw a Night Parrot Pezoporus Occidentalis [sic]. Sighting was perfectly clear, brightly lit by full morning light.

I processed the information and its possible import. Then I sought permission to post it straight to Birdlines and Facebook groups to get the report as widely known as possible. (My next thought was to contact Taxonomy Hulk to smash the mortal who doesnt always use lowercase for species name, but I let it go.)

The report went out on the various social media and Birdlines and some busy threads of discussion rapidly got going. These mostly fell into one of two categories that will be entirely predictable for anyone familiar with birding groups on Facebook: a) over-the-top congratulations, or b) forensic analysis. Theres often not much grey area in these instances. There is a third category which may be described as c) oh-yes-I-used-to-see-those-all-the-time-and-have-an-extensive-video-collection-of-them-at-my-bird-bath-here-would-you-like-to-see-them-oh-it-seems-that-I-cant-find-them-just-now-but-I-will-look-them-out-and-get-back-to-you. Its not quite a grip-off; I like to call it the crank-off.

The Night Parrot is a bird that is held up to exceptionally, and uniquely, high evidentiary standards. Beyond a certain level of diligence this can be counterproductive. Sight records of Buff-breasted Button-quail are regularly accepted despite not a single photograph of this species existing. But if you see a Night Parrot, youd better be ready for a grilling; just ask John Young and he had photos.

The Wakaya Desert is a landscape of extensive native grasslands with immense fire scars, ephemeral swamps, chenopod, and gibber. 

The observer in this case, Steve McKenna, is unknown to me. The email he sent came via the organisational account for BirdLife Central Australia rather than directly to my personal email. Steve would later join the Australian Twitchers Facebook group and contribute several further comments to the discussion. It seems safe to assume from the tone of many comments, that no-one involved in the thread knew the observer either.

To the original details in the email report above, the observer added the following details during the Facebook conversation:

Further to my possible sighting of Night Parrot. The terrain was flat and poor soil with dense herb growth of samphire and or saltbush growing to about 40cm high. Herbs grew to very edge of bitumen. The road was a straight stretch on a heading of 255 degrees. I suspect the bird was chasing a grasshopper when it can only be described as scurried out from under cover. With its plump body and head low to the ground, stopping as if it was surprised to have a run into the clear. Even giving a comic had turn in my direction. Fortunately it did not attempt to fly. The N. Day illustration is very accurate with my specimen having more distinct mottling on the cheek clear in the bright morning light. Definitely a Pezoporus. If not night parrot must be ground parrot. Pale dusty green with distinct mottling, no other colouration. Size about 1.5 times the size of a budgy. provided here exactly as written including errors.

So there you have it; a fairly confident claim.

As usual, the Facebook audience offered everything from outright dismissal to high pronouncements of congratulations and everything in between. The communitys response also offers an instructive example of how, I think, our responses to reports of this species have gone wrong in the past and how they might improve.

The Wakaya is exceptionally flat with local relief changing only a few meters over hundreds of kilometres. Periodic rains can flood extensive areas for weeks at a time.

We know next-to-nothing about the observer. In another post, Steve felt the need to explain that he is a trained investigator, but without any other details to suggest what sort of training he has had. Its unclear whether Steve has birded this part of the outback before, or even if he is a regular birder. One thing that we have some basis to assume about the observer is that he is probably not a keen twitcher. He doesnt appear among the rankings on Tony Pallisers birders totals page, nor does he seem, prior to this report, to have been active on any of the national or state-based Facebook groups devoted to birding or twitching despite being active on Facebook for some time. Perhaps most importantly, he saw what he describes as definitely a Pezoporus on the Barkly Highway and didnt think it worthwhile stopping for a closer look. Any bird from the genus Pezoporus in this part of the country is almost equally extraordinary, albeit for very different reasons.

Despite all birders understanding that vagrancy is a very real phenomenon, we all know that it has its limits as well. A Forest Wagtail in Alice Springs, while extraordinary, is conceivable in the sense that it is a migratory species that routinely covers long distances. If such a bird encounters extraordinary weather its plausible that it might end up somewhere unusual, and by a further, ridiculous stroke of luck, it might be found and identified by a birder. But for an Eastern or Western Ground Parrot to appear at Kiama Creek NT, a minimum of 2100km from the nearest known population requires a complete re-assessment of the species habits, habitat requirements, movements, and distribution. Considering that there are known populations of Night Parrot only a few hundred kilometres from Kiama Creek, this seems the more likely possibility, if it was indeed a Pezoporus species.

Which brings us to confusion species. There are a number of contenders, but knowing very little of the observers experience and skill level renders this activity entirely speculative and not very helpful. We can spend all day tossing up whether the observer had the skill to discern the difference in size between a Budgerigar and a Night Parrot, but it doesnt really contribute much to the assessment of the sighting.

The little we do know about the Night Parrot, suggests a readjustment of the standards of evidence for reports of the species. John Youngs search for the bird shows that even a highly-skilled naturalist can be foxed for many years before successful detection. Johns story also demonstrates that even once the presence of the bird is confirmed at a particular site, it is still highly unlikely that you will be able to observe it in the open. The possibility of obtaining photographic evidence of a sighting, especially a chance sighting while driving, is so remote that it neednt even be considered.

The outback remains one of the world's largest and most pristine wilderness areas. Helicopter and even camel are sometimes an ecologist's only hope of getting to surveys sites. 

The outback maintains its sense of mystery and remoteness. But despite this, it is now comparatively well-travelled and regularly birded by tourists, very few of whom dont carry camera equipment. Indeed Steve McKenna had a dash-mounted camera recording his journey through the windscreen for posterity but it stopped recording (it is not clear whether he turned it off or it ran out of batteries) before he saw this bird; a salutary lesson for all those driving outback routes with dashcams and GoPros. If Night Parrots were regularly out and about we would have more photos of them.

Now that we have proof that Night Parrot persist in at least a few pockets of the outback, it is time to start mapping its contemporary distribution. This will only be possible if we lower the bar slightly and encourage people to come forward with their reports. This doesnt mean opening the floodgates to every crank report and throwing aside all diligence, but it might mean recognizing that this is no longer a yowie were chasing. We need to be cautious of treating people like bunyip-hunters or Nessie researchers when they might have seen one. Its a real bird, its really out there and, thanks to John Young, we may soon have the survey methodologies to detect their presence much more effectively. We know the bird exists, we know something about the habitat it prefers, and we know that its habits make it very hard to observe. Sight reports in recent years have come from as widely scattered localities as western Queensland, north-western Victoria, the Pilbara in WA and now the NT.

If we only accept, and follow up on, reports by expert observers accompanied by photographs then I suspect we will be waiting a very long time before someone finds another population.

 CBW

NB: If youre interested in hearing about the Night Parrot from the man who knows it best (and seeing the only photographs and moving footage of a live bird ever produced), John Young will shortly be visiting Melbourne to deliver a talk about his historic 2013 re-discovery of the Night Parrot. This event is at 6:45pm on Sunday the 1st of March at the Deakin Edge auditorium at Federation Square. Tickets are $40 and are available at the shop page of this website or you can simply click this link.

John Young presents: Rediscovering the Night Parrot. Get your tickets while they last.



Forest Wagtail - BARC Submission for an Australian Mainland First

TwitchingChris Watson

This post is a result of a few requests that I've had about producing a rare or vagrant bird report for submission to the BirdLife Australia Rarities Committee (BARC).

In fact, I've only had cause to make a single submission to BARC and that was in the fairly celebrated case of the Forest Wagtail that was present in Alice Springs during 2013. There have probably been few, if any, other BARC submissions that have been so straightforward. Leaving aside for a moment that many of the members of the committee had actually travelled to Alice Springs to see the bird themselves, it was a long staying bird which was very site-faithful and was an outstanding photographic subject. After a few months of being viewed by dozens of birders, with who-knows-how-many-thousands of photographs taken, there was no doubt as to its identity and this submission was really just a formality to get the observation on the official record. 

As such, this report is perhaps less detailed than one that you might produce for a bird which is less straightforward to ID (a Lesser Black-backed Gull say), but if you ever have occasion to write such a report, you might find that the research, and the process of consulting with experts is part of the enjoyment of the exercise.

The BARC website has all of the resources and instructions that you might need to guide you through the process and I've always found the members of the committee to be approachable. If you are fortunate enough to find a vagrant species, or a rarity listed on the BARC review list, I'd urge you to take the time to produce a report, however brief, to ensure that our national list is as accurate and up to date as it can be.

So for the interest of those who have requested it, below is the original submission in its entirety. I've copied it over with just a few minor formatting changes but otherwise intact. The original photographs that were included with the report can be found at the bottom of the text.

 

 

Forest Wagtail Dendronanthus indicus at Alice Springs, Northern Territory, April - September 2013

 Submission to BirdLife Australia Rarities Committee, 16 February 2014

  CHRISTOPHER WATSON(1), WILLIAM CORMACK(2) & ANNE CORMACK   

 Preface 

A Forest Wagtail Dendronanthus indicus, was identified at a private residence on Cromwell Drive, Alice Springs, Northern Territory on 4 May 2013. The bird was reported to have been present (noted as unusual but otherwise unidentified) since 29 April 2013, but had not been noticed before this date. It was present in the area, and observed at this site by at least 52 visiting birdwatchers from all states of Australia (Will Cormack pers. comm.), and was last seen on 1 September 2013. This is an account of the occurrence, which is believed to be the first record of the species for mainland Australia, following a single photographed record from Christmas Island, 17 May 2009.       

Habitat 

Well-watered private garden with thick lawn at the rear of the house and terraced garden sloping up sharply to the rear of the property with a variety of flowering bushes and a large Date Palm Phoenix dactylifera, shading the eastern side of the garden. The neighbouring properties on either side had less well-watered and vegetated gardens with extensive paved areas. The back of the property is joined with crown land consisting of low acacia scrub containing buffel grass Cenchrus ciliaris, Witchetty Bush Acacia kempeana, and a variety of native grasses (Aristida spp.) on a rocky knoll. North-east of the crown land, roughly 100m from where the bird was observed, is the seventh fairway of the Alice Springs Golf Club providing extensive areas of open, well-watered grass. 300m to the south-west of the property, is the tenth fairway of the course, which has a 250m long water trap. 500m to the south-west is the golf club’s main water feature, an artificial lake approximately 120m at its widest, which is frequented by numerous cormorants, herons, coots, ducks, and other waterbirds.

Sighting conditions

The day that the bird was first positively identified was a fine, still morning, with clear skies and approximately 27°C. The sun was getting high, providing fairly good viewing from all directions. As the bird continued to be observed in following months, it was viewed during a range of climatic conditions, typical of central Australia for the time of year. Temperatures ranged from overnight lows of 2.6°C to daily maximums as high as 35.1°C. Approximately 15mm of rain fell during 12 and 13 May, with a further 47.2mm falling by the time of the final record of the bird. 

Optical aids used

8 x 42 binoculars and a Canon 5DII camera with a 100-400mm f5.6 lens.

Additional Observers

Will Cormack and Anne Cormack, the residents at the property who first noted the bird’s presence, were both present at the time of identification and had seen the bird the previous day as well. They both agreed with the identification of the bird. Before the possibility of Forest Wagtail was presented, they had already rejected the possibility of any of the vagrant species of wagtail (Motacilla sp.) known to have already occurred on mainland Australia and depicted in the Pizzey & Knight field guide, based on lengthy clear views of the bird on this date and the previous day. All three observers are 100% confident of the identity of this bird.

Will and Anne Cormack can be contacted on their home phone: XX XXXX XXXX

Physical Description of Bird

1)    A single live bird was present. 

2)    None of the observers have sufficient experience with the species to accurately estimate age and sex, but in comparison to field guide images it appeared to be a sub-adult bird, due to a less pronounced second white bar on each wing. No sexual dimorphism is suggested or depicted in the available field guides (Robson 2002, Robson 2005, Svensson et al 2009). 

3)    In both size and general shape the bird appeared to be broadly similar to wagtails of the genus Motacilla that WC and CW have observed on numerous occasions in Alice Springs, Zimbabwe, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. 

4)    We were unable to determine any details of moult due largely to a paucity of reference material. The crown of the head was a dull grey-brown which continued down across the scapulars and on to the upper back. The upper portion of the folded wings had some of the same grey-brown colouration of the upper back, but the remainder of the wing was a dark black colour with strongly contrasting white markings visible at two points while the wing was folded. The upper tail appeared to be a similar grey-brown but the underside of the tail was pale – almost pure white. 

The belly and sides were a similar clean white. The breast was also a clean white colour but with two strongly contrasting black bands – the lower of the two incomplete (coming part way across the breast but not meeting in the middle.) Above the upper black breast band, the throat was a clean white. There was a clear, broad supercilium that joined the upper portion of the bill and extended back well past the eye. There was a strong grey-brown line passing through the middle of the eye and the ear coverts were a very slightly buff, off-white colour. 

5)    The upper mandible was dark grey and the lower mandible was a pale, perhaps slightly fleshy colour. The iris appeared to be a very dark brown colour. The legs and feet were a very pale fleshy pink.

6)    The bird was not heard to call at all during the initial observations. It was later heard to call very occasionally by WC and other observers and was described as sounding vaguely similar in character to the call of Mistletoebird Dicaeum hirundinaceum (Will Cormack and Rohan Clarke pers. comm.).

7)    The bird was predominantly terrestrial in its habits but was twice seen to perch in the lower branches of acacia shrubs. The first time the bird flew up to perch approximately 100cm from ground level in the branches of a Witchetty Bush, where it stayed for approximately 2 minutes. The second time, it flew in to perch in the branches of a different bush of the same species about 30cm from the ground in the neighbouring yard, but still visible through a chain-mesh (cyclone) fence. 

The remainder of the time the bird walked slowly around the garden except for one flight from the western to the eastern side of the garden (approximately 25m). Only the flush was seen of this flight as the flight path was obscured by terraced garden beds, but the bird was relocated in the opposite corner of the garden. The bird was not heard to call in flight.

When the bird was stationary it swayed its tail constantly from side to side in quite a gentle, but continuous, motion – not at all as vigorous as a Willie Wagtail Rhipidura leucophrys or a Grey Fantail R. albiscapa, with which all observers are familiar. It occasionally picked something from the ground, and it once picked at some low seeds hanging from a grass stalk, but it did not appear to eat anything and did not persist in these behaviours. 

The only other birds detected in the garden during the period of the observations was a Mistletoebird, heard in a nearby tree but not seen, and 3 Australian Ringneck Barnardius zonarius, which flew through the garden calling at a height of some 10m above the ground level at the rear of the house. None of these birds appeared to disturb the subject.

Potentially Confusing Species

This bird could conceivably be confused with any of the Motacilla wagtail species were it not for the distinctive breast markings, strongly contrasting black and white wing markings, and the constant lateral tail motion. 

If this bird was seen briefly or in flight, on shape and size alone it might be easy to confuse with any of the Motacilla wagtail species. However, having viewed this bird through binoculars at ranges as close as 7m, with the bird walking slowly on the ground and at times stationary, for approximately 50 minutes, we are confident that the characters described above can safely eliminate all of the Motacilla wagtail species.

Documentation

This description was written from memory while consulting the 407 photographs taken during the observation period. Three sequences of high-definition video footage were also taken with the same camera, totalling 1min 51secs of footage, which amply depicts the behaviour and tail motion of the subject. Five photographs have been attached to this submission, which we believe provide sufficient material for a positive identification, but further photographs and video footage can be provided on request.

A brief clip of HD video footage of the bird can be viewed here.

Acknowledgements

Mark Carter, Tim Bawden, and David Stowe each assisted with identification of early images of the bird posted to social media. Mike Carter and Samantha Hopley provided helpful comments on a draft of this submission.

References

Pizzey, G., & Knight, F. (2012). The Field Guide To The Birds Of Australia. Sydney: Harper Collins.

Robson, C. (2002). Birds Of Thailand. London: Princeton University Press.

Robson, C. (2005). Birds of Southeast Asia. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Svensson, L., Mullarney, K., & Zetterstrom, D. (2009). Collins Bird Guide: The Most Complete Guide To The Birds Of Britain And Europe. London: Harper Collins.