Chris Watson

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.