View Full Version : Misguided do-gooders risk world's rarest bird species

The Bigfella
05-15-2016, 09:06 PM
This Australian bird species wasn't sighted for a century


That's the elusive (insert understatement) Night Parrot

Uncle Rupert has the story about misguided attempts to secure it's future:

For Peter Britton, a fifth-generation cattle grazier, it was a dream come true when his family signed a $12 million contract in May 2013 with the giant Australian Agricultural Company to acquire the 420,000ha Brighton Downs holding in western Queensland’s channel country. The Britton family had long coveted the live cattle export property on the banks of the Diamantina River. “We had wanted that all our lives,” Britton said at the time.

Two weeks after the signing came some frightening news for the Brittons. As revealed by The Australian, renowned naturalist John Young photographed and filmed for the first time the enigmatic night parrot, which had long been feared extinct. He discovered it in the heart of Brighton Downs.

The night parrot is regarded by the Smithsonian Institution as the world’s most mysterious bird. There had been no confirmed sightings of the night parrot since 1912; almost a century later, a population of this holy grail of Australian wildlife has been discovered.

Britton was concerned that the finding of this critically endangered species might prompt government intervention to stop grazing on his cherished property. “I didn’t know what to think; it was a worry,” says Britton, speaking publicly for the first time about the discovery.

However, government authorities commendably kept their distance, allowing Britton to sell 12 per cent of Brighton Downs to the private nature reserve organisation Bush Heritage Australia.

BHA announced last month it had acquired 56,000ha to establish the Pullen Pullen Reserve and protect the night parrot population discovered by Young, estimated at 20 to 40 birds; Pullen Pullen is the local Aboriginal name for the parrot.

According to Britton, the area is one of three large patches of ideal night parrot habitat — old-growth spinifex amid rocky ridges — on Brighton Downs, separated by distances of 30km to 40km, that together comprise about 30 per cent of the property.

However, significant barriers remain to secure the long-term future of the species. BHA was forced to take out a $1.5m mortgage to acquire Pullen Pullen — an unusual arrangement for such organisations — and is $3.5m short of its $5m target for a three-year program covering acquisition, research and management.

Now BHA is embroiled in a heated dispute with Australia’s other big nature reserve organisation, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, over AWC plans to build a predator-proof fence in the Diamantina National Park, which abuts the southern boundary of Brighton Downs.

Meanwhile, BHA and its night parrot researcher at Pullen Pullen, Steve Murphy, are under scrutiny by the natural history community for shrouding their project in secrecy. The BHA website shows a blank map of Queensland as the site for Pullen Pullen; journalists taken there by BHA are given no clues about their destination.

Recordings of the parrot’s call are not being distributed to allow others to search for more night parrot populations; the birds, extremely difficult to see, are most easily detected when they respond to playback of their call. In essence, all the night parrot eggs are being put in BHA’s Pullen Pullen basket.

The whereabouts of the parrots were made known to Inquirer by well-placed sources who fear BHA is pursuing an agenda that may not be in the interests of the species.
Britton is concerned about the parrot’s future. “This bird has been living out here side by side with cattle forever without any problems,” he says. “Now with all this attention, will that continue? I worry it might be like the last three prime ministers: the media grabs a hold of them and before we know it they’re extinct.”

The parrot’s discoverer, John Young, now works for AWC after falling out with BHA and Murphy, his former collaborator, who caught the first live night parrot in April last year. Young has lashed out at Murphy for using nets to catch the bird. “It beggars belief that he netted one of the birds from my site,” Young says on his Facebook page. “What would have happened if it died in the net! We are playing with one of the least known birds in the world. Leave them alone.”

Murphy is unapologetic and has signalled his intention to use nets to catch two more parrots later this year. He is backed by the Queensland Environment Department’s threatened species unit. “The department is working with the night parrot recovery team to protect the population and supports decisions made by scientific experts in the field,” a spokesman says.

Ironically, the threatened species unit enthusiastically backed claims by Young to have discovered a new species of fig-parrot in southeast Queensland rainforests in 2007, until those claims were challenged at the time by The Australian. Since then, government authorities have distanced themselves from Young. Recent government statements about Young’s night parrot site fail to acknowledge the naturalist’s key role in discovering the birds.

The rival AWC revealed this week an ambitious $3m plan involving the construction of a fence to enclose 8000ha of the 507,000ha Diamantina National Park. The fence will protect bilbies and other endangered animals from feral cats and foxes. The federal government is providing $1.2m towards what would be the largest philanthropic investment in Queensland national parks.

However, BHA and its allies in the night parrot recovery team have come out fighting against the plan, fearing birds will be killed by flying into the fence.

In 2006, park ranger Robert Cupitt found a dead night parrot in the northern sector of Diamantina National Park, relatively close to Pullen Pullen. The bird was decapitated by striking a barbed-wire fence; this was the last record of the species before Young’s 2013 discovery.

Recovery team chairman Allan Burbidge says Murphy’s research shows parrots fly up to 7km from their spinifex roosts at night to feed but they may fly much farther. “It is known from other work in Diamantina and elsewhere that species with nocturnal activity patterns are more susceptible to collisions with fences,” he says. “It seems likely that a predator-proof fence within night parrot habitat might pose a threat to a bird that flies 15km or so each night. For a population with perilously low numbers, the effect could be highly significant.” The recovery team is demanding to know what action will be taken if parrots are killed by the fence. Murphy has contacted journalists with the aim of undermining the AWC plan.

AWC chief executive Atticus Fleming responds that the fence will cover just 1 per cent of the national park. Fleming says the fenced reserve will protect a population of 800 bilbies — double the entire Queensland population of the endangered mammal — as well as the kowari and other threatened species. “There is broad scientific consensus about the urgent need for more cat and fox-free areas,” Fleming says. “AWC is recognised as the leader in establishing predator-free areas and is the only organisation in Australia to have established multiple large (1000ha plus) areas. In our experience, such fences have not had any significant adverse impact on other species.”

Feral cats are considered to be the main danger threatening the future of the bilby and the night parrot. In 2013 and 2014, government officers shot 3000 cats in nearby Astrebla Downs National Park, where the main bilby population survives.

Young will be hired by AWC to search for new night parrot populations around the Diamantina fencing site and in other areas where AWC is working, including Astrebla Downs.

“John is the only person who has found a live night parrot population,” Fleming says. “That is an outstanding achievement. We wouldn’t all be talking about night parrots if it wasn’t for him.”

Murphy has recorded eight vocalisations from the parrot; the main call is described as a flutelike, two-syllable cadence. He promised last year to release recordings of the call so searches could be undertaken for new populations of the parrot, which is so cryptic that he has seen just three in three years of research.

“Nobody argues about the benefits of that and it will be done,” Murphy said at the time.

Now Murphy claims he is unable to release the call because he has been prevented from doing so by the threatened species unit. “The policy of non-disclosure is being driven by the state government,” he says.

The Bigfella
05-15-2016, 09:07 PM

However, a spokesman for the unit says it is guided by Murphy’s advice. And Murphy’s advice is clear. He fears the site will be invaded by illegal egg-collectors and birders keen to “twitch” a much prized rarity if the call is released. “There are risks to the integrity of my data and risks also to the birds themselves,” he says. BHA has set up satellite-controlled cameras on the reserve to detect intruders.

BHA chief executive north Rob Murphy (no relation to Steve Murphy) says distributing the call could hinder research and management work.

“Steve’s research shows the birds are highly sensitive to disruption from people and are easily disturbed,” Rob Murphy says.

But the admission by Rob Murphy that parrots are easily disturbed by people raises doubts about the wisdom of intensive research strategies such as netting and tagging. Birds frequently die or are injured after flying into nets. Young’s supporters believe data collected from the parrot caught last year by Steve Murphy was sufficient to establish the necessary facts about habits and movements, without the need for more birds to be netted.

The government’s threatened species unit has form on the subject of secrecy. The 2006 discovery of the dead night parrot by ranger Cupitt in Diamantina National Park was kept secret, notwithstanding its huge significance. The find was revealed by The Australian six months after the event. Critics argued at the time that an opportunity for a comprehensive survey to detect more parrots was lost.

A lesson in avian history may be instructive. In 1976, another rare nocturnal bird, the plumed frogmouth, was discovered in the rainforests of the Conondale Range in southeast Queensland.

At the time, the frogmouth had not been seen or collected for several decades and its call was unknown; authorities feared it was extinct. Instead of the discovery being kept secret, multiple recordings of the bird’s call were distributed. Surveys were conducted across an extensive area and several populations were detected. There was no invasion of egg-collectors and twitchers; the plumed frogmouth today is safely secure.

Regardless of the debate over management and research, the developments on Brighton Downs are an excellent example of how grazing and environmental interests need not be incompatible across Australia’s vast arid zone.

And whatever his reservations, Britton is hopeful that the future of the species can be secured. That’s why he sold Pullen Pullen for what he and BHA agree was a fair price.

“I didn’t want it on my conscience if the bird goes missing,” Britton says. “I had no interest in exploiting the situation to make money. Like plenty of people, I want the best possible outcome for this animal.”