Chris Watson

wildlife

The Orange-bellied Parrot: extinction, taxes and conservation realpolitik

Opinion, Current Affairs, BirdingChris Watson

Orange-bellied Parrots at Werribee in 2015. Perhaps as much as 10% of the wild population in a single (crummy) photograph.

“Don’t tell me what you value; show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” – US Vice President Joe Biden.

 

Heading down the Geelong road the other day it was impossible not to think of the Orange-bellied Parrots. I write the Orange-bellied Parrots, not in the sense of the species as a whole, but in the sense of those specific Orange-bellied Parrots there. This is virtually what it has come to. Driving past the Western Treatment Plant (WTP) at Werribee I could be fairly confident that we were passing within just a few kilometres of some of the only individuals of their species that had been seen on the mainland this year. Maybe two birds; three on a good day*. This from a remaining wild population of 50 birds; or maybe even half that. Estimates vary.

This will not be news to birdwatchers. The precarious dance with oblivion that Neophema chrysogaster has been stepping for the last few decades is well-documented and widely-known in birdwatching and scientific circles. For the last few years the Gang-of-Four at Werribee (two colour-banded pairs) have been the only regular sightings of the species during the annual surveys conducted across their potential wintering range and among very few mainland sightings overall. My information this year is that the gang has dwindled by at least one of its female members who was observed being taken by a goshawk during the summer season at Tasmania.

What occurred to me as we zipped down the Geelong Road was: how many of the tens of thousands of other folks using the same road that day, and every other day, knew about these birds and, if they did, who among them cared?

It might sound a bit wishy-washy but it’s an important question. We can talk and write about conservation and how special our animals are ad infinitum, but it doesn't mean a thing if we aren't getting the rubber on the road; we need to take effective action or it's all so much hot air. This was driven home to me recently by a superb article by Australian ecologist Dale Nimmo et al on The Conversation. That article presented the plain facts about the widespread changes and degradation assailing Australian ecosystems and native animal populations. Frogs, birds and mammals; forests, reefs and savannah are all struggling.

That article introduced me to the stellar quotation from Joe Biden which I’ve pinched for the top of this post, “…show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.” The stark truth of that statement is inescapable. So what do we value? Considered in the context of Australian government spending, it illuminates a nation whose values are wildly out-of-touch with reality.

The Gang of Four at a distance in 2015 over the shoulder of Steve Davidson, a long-time leader of OBP winter surveys in Victoria.

The Orange-bellied Parrot is vanishing before our eyes on the doorstep of one of our largest cities. A large portion of our remaining small and medium-sized mammals are on a similar trajectory. There are swathes of Australia’s remote interior that remain poorly-sampled and numerous species that are virtually unknown. The Great Barrier Reef is knackered. Our forests are riddled with dieback. The last of our south-eastern tall, wet forests are still under threat from an antiquated and unprofitable logging industry. Dangerous and barren legacy mines dot The Outback, uninhabitable and toxic. The scars left behind by unsuccessful mineral exploration criss-cross even the remotest regions of the continent's interior. They are rehabilitated in the most perfunctory manner permitted by law and left to testify to our rampant disregard for the natural heritage to which we are all heirs. Most of our frogs aren’t having a good time. The oceans are increasingly full of plastic and empty of fish. The entire continent is awash with feral cats, foxes, camels, horses, donkeys, fish, goats, pigs, deer, rabbits, ants, toads... and then there are the weeds. Changed fire regimes often shadow the spread of weeds laying waste to further remnant habitat and wildlife refugia. We’ve already cleared a fair whack of the native vegetation anywhere that might be good for a farm and there are many out there who don’t seem to grasp the folly of proceeding to clear the rest. Both of Victoria’s faunal emblems (Leadbeater’s Possum and Helmeted Honeyeater) are classified as Critically Endangered. There’s only one classification worse than that. And on top of all this we’re entering an increasingly unstable and erratic climatic future characterised by changes in temperature and rainfall that are already proving too rapid for some species to successfully adapt to.

Faced with all of this, as Dale’s article concludes, it is difficult not to question exactly how urgently we need to spend $50 billion on submarines when expenditure of just a few hundred million dollars could mitigate or eliminate many of the problems listed above. Do we really need to cut $54 billion from public health spending in order to provide tax cuts (coincidentally totalling a very similar figure) to the wealthiest individuals and overseas business owners?

When did Australian democracy jump the shark?

Our leaders wring their hands and furrow their brows with earnest sincerity while explaining, apparently without an ounce of irony, that the savings must come from the smallest funding pools: human services, health, science, education, the environment. The burden of funding cuts must be shouldered by the most vulnerable and least represented in our society. Never mind that just a handful of our wealthiest individuals, chipping in just a fraction of their combined wealth, could fund everything we could ever need and not notice the slightest difference in their standard of living. This while the Australian Taxation Office seems to be legally incapable of ensuring that the businesses and individuals who accrue the most wealth from Australian resources pay proportional taxes on that wealth, while simultaneously falling over themselves to hound lower income earners and hold them to account for their pittance.

It’s not even the stuff of conspiracy theory to suggest that our government is now led by a corporate class which serves any interest but the national interest. This much is observable. At best, we now live in a thinly veiled oligarchy; the cynic in me might suggest outright kleptocracy.

This is only occasionally contested, half-heartedly, by those in Parliament House and nobody with the capacity to think for themselves would believe them. It isn’t happenstance that some individuals at the top of Australian politics rank among the wealthier in Australia, and have friends and associates among the wealthiest. Neither should it be a surprise that they might collude and go out of their way to preserve the status quo.

The same people who helplessly hold up their hands when exposed for exploiting loopholes that allow them to needlessly consolidate their already obscene economic advantage, are the same people who are uniquely placed to close those loopholes and render the system more equitable.

On top of saving billions on unnecessary submarines and corporate giveaways, we might not have to look too far to find funds that could return to government coffers if they simply decided to make it so.

Stop imprisoning innocent people. Tax the church. Legalise marijuana. Tax wealth.

These ideas are simply expressed here but I acknowledge they would not necessarily be simple to put into effect. These are concepts that have been spoken about and debated at length for decades and their time has well and truly come. Are they really that revolutionary? Is it objectionable to demand a government that takes clear action toward building an equitable society that looks after the weak rather than endlessly reinforcing privilege among a tiny few? Is it pie-in-the-sky to expect our leaders to engage honestly and intelligently with experts and harness their learning to develop the best practices to benefit society? Is that unreasonable? Is anyone really so dull that they’re content to entertain the prospect of living in a barren post-mining landscape, drained of its mineral wealth, ravaged by climate change and depauperate of its unique fauna?

Anyone with rudimentary arithmetic skills (or the faintest shred of human decency) can tell you that our current refugee and immigration system is a millstone around the nation’s neck that serves entirely political, rather than practical or humanitarian, ends. Aside from being completely ineffective, it is costly; and cruel. Why are we so intent on displaying this barbarous side of our nature to the world? If we simply stop imprisoning and brutalising the most vulnerable people on Earth, we’ll save a truckload of cash and we can all feel better; win/win.

Next, tax the church. I’m not religious myself but I don’t mind if other people are. We shouldn’t care what people believe – we should care about what they do. Religious institutions rank among some of the wealthiest businesses on the planet, they offer a “service” which is faulty at best and plainly fraudulent at worst and religious observance has been dropping steadily for decades. Their continuing tax-exempt status is a farce which demeans and burdens us all. The first counterclaim to this proposition is usually to point out the variety of charitable and social services that various religious organisations provide which would otherwise need to be picked up by the government. But this is easily dismissed by a simple calculation of the amount of extra tax revenue we’d have to lavish on those services if religious tax exemption were revoked. The religious are always happy to point out the moral and charitable aspects of the organisations they support while sweeping their large catalogue of misdeeds under the carpet. If they’re genuinely keen on helping their fellow humans, they should be stepping forward to welcome taxable status with open arms and ululations of divine joy. They should be happy to do their bit and we should afford them the opportunity to do so.

To these measures you could add: rational defence spending based on realistic strategic assessments rather than hyper-politicised scare campaigns; a rebuilt corporate tax system to stop large businesses heading offshore with billions of dollars owed to Australian tax-payers; social welfare payments that equal a living wage; an end to the negative gearing nonsense; an increased minimum wage and a rebuilt personal income tax system which taxes wealth rather than income.

Implementing even a couple of those measures would have the nation so flush with cash that finding the paltry $10 million per year estimated to be sufficient to prevent the extinction of ALL Australian bird species, would be a matter for petty cash.

Our leaders have all benefitted from our (previously) free education system. They have grown up among the riches of our (seriously imperilled) natural heritage. Many of them have parents who were (welcomed as) refugees and some of them are immigrants themselves. They should be ensuring the same freedoms are available for generations to come, not dismantling each of them systematically.

I don’t even know what any of this has to do with parrots anymore. I guess I’ve had a creeping feeling for a long time that throughout the span of my life the government has been steadily extricating itself from responsibility for the environment. The Earth is just one giant ecosystem and one upon whose function we, and our economy, rely upon for our continued existence. Increasingly, conservation, and the broad base of scientific endeavour that underpins it, is left to not-for-profit NGOs: Birdlife Australia, Landcare, Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Zoos Victoria, Bush Heritage Australia, Greening Australia and countless others. Our national parks have had their funding and staffing progressively slashed to the extent that some reserves are virtually un-managed and many others run on a skeleton crew of rangers who function more as groundskeepers and maintenance crews than natural resource managers or wildlife ecologists.

There’s an election coming and I just hope that the shark which Australian democracy jumped some time ago can be returned to the open sea without fear of culling and we can forget the entire ghastly episode.

Sometimes you jump the shark... sometimes the shark jumps you.

Make your vote count. I can’t, and shouldn’t, tell you who to vote for and neither should anybody else, but I implore you to look hard and make your vote do something surprising and good. Buck the beige status quo. Look for people with less to gain financially from remaining in power. Look for people who don’t offer simple answers to complex problems. Look for people who admit uncertainty. Look for people with character and a background that takes in adversity as well as privilege. Vote for someone who’ll fund science, the arts and maybe even support a Great Forest National Park (protecting at least one of our faunal emblems would be a good start wouldn’t it?) Vote for someone, ANYONE, with a background in science, rather than the endless stream of bankers and lawyers we seem so fond of hoisting to high office. Such people are likely to do a better job of governing than the conga-line of wealthy old men with the laughably obvious commercial interest in public office that we are repeatedly lumped with.

But back to parrots...

A fellow parrot-lover, and a much better thinker and writer than me, Douglas Adams, summed up the travesty of our overuse and destruction of the Earth’s resources when he addressed the University of California, Santa Barbara only a month before his death in 2001. The full talk is highly recommended and can be found here but, in part, Douglas said:

“… there is a kind of terrible irony that at the point that we are best able to understand, and appreciate, and value the richness of life around us, we are destroying it at a higher rate than it has ever been destroyed before. And we are losing species after species after species, day after day, just because we’re burning the stuff down for firewood. And this is a kind of terrible indictment of our understanding.”

Orange-bellied Parrots on their wintering grounds in coastal Melbourne**. It's a very distant picture but I'm just glad to know they're out there.

Extinction, like death, is a crucial and inescapable component of life on Earth. Things will continue to go extinct, and not all extinctions will be caused by human malfeasance. But, if a parrot is going to go extinct on our watch, it should be because an annual trans-Bass Strait migration is an unsustainable evolutionary strategy, not because… jobs.

 

*In the interests of accuracy: OBP sightings on the mainland are, very sensibly, not publicised. So there may have been some outlying reports that I’m unaware of. We can only hope. This is an illustrative anecdote.

**I'm grateful to Steve Davidson for showing me some Orange-bellied Parrots on a cold and dreary day, about a year ago this month. Hopefully the gang's recruitment starts to improve and gains in size in coming years.

Review: Birds & Animals of Australia's Top End - Darwin, Kakadu, Katherine and Kununurra by Nick Leseberg & Iain Campbell

ReviewChris Watson

Here at the Box Hill Laboratory of Ornithology we love books and we love getting mail. This being the case, there is no more welcome kind of mail than fresh-from-the-press bird books. So it was a wonderful augment to a slightly overcast Wednesday to find this new book in the mail box.

Straight off the bat, it’s worth noting the technical redundancy in the title. This guide covers birds AND animals of the Top End. This has attracted comment elsewhere along predictable lines so I should deal with this before moving on – yes, birds ARE animals. Thanks professor. Seriously though, this is a redundancy that many of us have difficulty avoiding. Just do a search for tour operators offering birding AND wildlife tours and you’ll get an idea of the magnitude of the problem.

To describe yourself as a birder, birdwatcher, or ornithologist, at each level glosses over a good portion of your other interests and skills. Many birders also keep lists of mammals, reptiles, butterflies and moths. It would be a rare birdwatcher that didn’t derive as much pleasure from an encounter with a possum or goanna as the birds that share the same habitat. Any qualified ornithologist will almost certainly have passed through training in general zoology before specialising, so has skills and interests beyond the world of feathered things. So we often feel compelled to explicitly state that our interests and skills extend to furred, scaled and even spineless things also. As I’m known to say perhaps too often, birds are a ‘gateway drug’.

So yes, the title is somewhat redundant, but it points to something you’ll enjoy; there’s a good deal more than birds within.  

Just one of the glorious frog plates.

Nick and Iain (who together produced the recent Birds of Australia: A Photographic Guide with Sam Woods covered here) have gathered around them a ‘who’s who’ (or should it be ‘whom’s whom?’ – I can never work it out) of esteemed wildlife photographers to deliver this new guide. Up front, it is acknowledged that this is a guide targeted specifically at beginners. The experienced birder will find a fragmented and incomplete account of the region’s birdlife here, but the authors state as much in many parts of the book. The novice will find plenty within its pages to keep them busy and set the hook for further explorations, but if you’re looking for a comprehensive treatment of Top End fauna, other more complete books are readily available and, if you’re that way inclined, you probably already know what they are.

With that out of the way though, there is still plenty within this guide to recommend it to more experienced birders. The introductory section gives a good grounding in the geology, climate and habitats of the Top End. There is also a brief guide to some of the more popular wildlife-watching sites.

The layout of the images is up there with the best I’ve seen and, for a few tricky confusion pairs, it provides some neat comparisons. (If you’ve never sat on the beach at Lee Point, beset by sandflies, sweat lashing off you, trying to convincingly separate Greater and Lesser Sand Plover, then you have yet to truly earn your Top End birding stripes. In December it can feel like even your fingernails are sweating.) For novices, the plates for herons and egrets will be handy too, as will the section covering terns in breeding and non-breeding plumage, at rest and in flight. The notorious LBJs of the tropical mangroves (Green-backed, Mangrove and Large-billed Gerygone) would be intimidating to the new-comer but they are beautifully compared on the one page allowing quick assessment of the salient field marks. Again, though obviously handy for the beginner, there will be experienced birders breathing a sigh of relief quietly to themselves. These species don’t always appear together so neatly to offer clean comparisons when you’re ankle-deep in black mud out the back of Palmerston sewage works! This is a great reference.

One of the finch pages: flawless images with simple, beautiful presentation.

The layout of the images has been done with great care and the result is effective and very easy on the eye. Multiple species from similar habitats are blended into the one scene to allow easy comparison. There is only one drawback with this approach – when the same care isn’t applied to the scale of images. There are a couple of obvious examples, neither drastic, where this might cause some difficulty for a novice birder. In one example I think the size of the Australasian Grebe is too close to the Green Pygmy-Goose it is depicted beside. This is not a great problem as they are distinctly different-looking birds. A greater challenge for an inexperienced observer is that Great-billed Heron, a monster among wetland species, is depicted beside the dainty White-faced Heron with their sizes being far too similar on the page to suggest the significant difference in bulk that will greet the observer in the field. Putting the massive size difference to one side, these two species look similar enough that a first time observer might easily be confused. But this is the only potentially negative aspect of this approach that is otherwise user-friendly, accurate and beautiful.

Mostly the scale of the images is spot on as in this page of Top End doves.

So what of the other animals sections? The book reflects the fact that when we go in search of wildlife, it is mostly birds that we see. Birds fill the first three quarters of the book, with other fauna treated at the back. All of the pictures are of a similar high quality to the bird section. The difficulty of finding mammals is reflected in the slim coverage but this is fair enough. Again, this book is targeted at the novice and probably at the international visitor, so identifying the many different macropods is a priority over mice, rats and dunnarts. Even the ardent and trained observer will be lucky to see these animals at all, let alone well. But there is much more than just kangaroos and wallabies for the fur-lovers. I’m particularly glad that there are a few microbats treated, as I always see these charismatic little creatures as the unsung heroes among mammals. They make up almost a quarter of our mammal list but are often relegated to the too hard basket by recreational wildlife seekers; this needn’t be the case. Acoustic detection gear is now quite affordable and user-friendly for the amateur enthusiast and the Top End offers many locations for observing bats leaving and returning from roosts; a situation where they are quite identifiable to species level with a bit of practice.

Herpers too will be satisfied with the tremendous imagery of frogs. There are more than enough confusion species among Top End frogs to trip up even a practised observer. I was emphatically reminded of this fact during a recent stint on the Arnhem Land Plateau. But having the likely candidates laid on a single plate in gloriously sharp colour is a great help. Sadly, the snakes and lizards of the Top End have fared pretty badly since the arrival of the Cane Toad, with many species noticeably more difficult to find now than they were even 5-10 years ago. The obvious snake species are covered, a few of the agamids, skinks and happily, a good variety of the geckos; once again, with some excellent comparison plates presented.

There is only one major typographical error that got past the editors and I suspect the authors will have been mortified as soon as the book was in print and they found it. It’s nothing that can’t be fixed with a sharpened HB pencil. On page 225, both accounts for the two turtle species presented are headed “Northern Long-necked Turtle Chelodina rugosa”, despite the images and the body of the text depicting different animals. A quick check of the Australian Reptile Online Database (AROD) website, which is actually the source for one of the photos here, quickly clears up any confusion: the bottom species is Northern Long-necked Turtle Chelodina rugosa. The top species is Northern Yellow-faced Turtle Emydura tanybaraga. No problem.

The only other puzzling references I found are as likely to result from my ignorance as actual errors. I’ve never heard of Intermediate Egret referred to as “Plumed Egret Ardea plumifera”. I understood plumifera to be a subspecies of Intermediate Egret Ardea intermedia. Similarly, I’ve never heard of Pacific Emerald Dove being referred to as “Brown-capped Emerald Dove”. But this could just be the authors singing from a taxonomic songbook that I’m unfamiliar with. While we’re being pedantic, sharp-eyed birdos will spot on page 113 that the scientific binomial of Little Shrikethrush is incorrectly given as Colluricincla harmonica, which is actually Grey Shrikethrush – just a typo.

All in all, this is another high quality production from these authors. As with Birds of Australia: A Photographic Guide, the images are a testament to the dedication of the talented photographers who have contributed their work.

This will be a tremendous introduction to wildlife-watching in the Top End for first time visitors – authoritative, clear, attractive and small enough to go in a camera bag or day-pack. Although this is openly targeted at novice wildlife seekers, I’d suggest that there will still be many experienced naturalists and locals out there who will find this a useful reference.

The essentials:

Soft cover, 272 pages

Published by Princeton University Press

Price varies between sellers from around $18 up to $50

Happy reading.

CBW

 

Support a local and buy it from Andrew Isles.

The birds and other wildlife of the Top End won’t watch themselves; it’s time to start planning your trip.

The NT is blessed with numerous experts who can assist with the planning and execution of your ultimate Top End birding trip. Get in touch:

Mick Jerram in Katherine at Gecko Canoeing and Trekking

Mike Jarvis in Darwin at Experience The Wild

Luke Paterson in Darwin at NT Bird Specialist