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 doesn’t 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. There’s 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-can’t-find-them-just-now-but-I-will-look-them-out-and-get-back-to-you. It’s 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, you’d better be ready for a grilling; just ask John Young – and he had photos.
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 community’s 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.
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. It’s 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 doesn’t appear among the rankings on Tony Palliser’s “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 didn’t 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 it’s 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 observer’s 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 doesn’t 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 Young’s search for the bird shows that even a highly-skilled naturalist can be foxed for many years before successful detection. John’s 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 needn’t even be considered.
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 don’t 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 doesn’t 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 we’re chasing. We need to be cautious of treating people like bunyip-hunters or Nessie “researchers” when they might have seen one. It’s a real bird, it’s 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.
NB: If you’re 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.