Ruffled Feathers

Steve Murphy was ascending a small spinifex-covered mesa when the night parrot exploded from a clump of the spiny grass beneath his feet. What might once have been a lifetime thrill was no longer quite so unexpected. He’d begun to lose track of how many times he’d encountered the long-lost species, which he’d been keeping tabs on for nearly three years.

What was unexpected was the timing. It was well after dark, and normally the bird would have left its daytime roost to feed. It was a bumper season, with both summer and autumn rains, and Murphy had been recording calls he hadn’t heard before. The birds weren’t following their usual pattern of behaviour. He flicked on his torch. There, buried deep in the spinifex, were two white eggs.

His first urge was to flee. “We’ve got to go,” he said to his partner, Rachel Barr, dismayed to have disturbed the bird at such a critical time. She reminded him to take a photograph, and then they left. “It was spine-tingling,” he says.

Over the following week, Murphy and Barr kept watch on the nest from a safe distance using a night-vision device. “We were acutely aware of the risks associated with excessive visiting of that nest,” he says, “but we were also acutely aware of the opportunity that this gave us to better understand the bird.”

A miniature surveillance camera was ordered from Brisbane but by the time it arrived, Murphy had a bad feeling. As he advanced upon the nest for the second time, the bird didn’t flush, and when he examined the clump, he found only fragments of eggshells inside. The nest itself was entirely intact, indicating that a tiny predator – probably a marsupial mouse or other small mammal – was the likely poacher.

Poachers of another kind have loomed large in discussions surrounding the night parrot since the first live photographs of the species were taken by naturalist John Young in 2013. The parrot is Australia’s “grail bird”: two specimens, a mummified roadkill from 1990 and a juvenile found decapitated under a barbed-wire fence in 2006, were the only undisputed evidence of its continued existence in more than a century.

Both birds came from the Channel Country of south-west Queensland, and it’s on Brighton Downs, a cattle property just north of Diamantina National Park, close to where the 2006 bird was found by a ranger, where Young discovered a sedentary population estimated at 20 to 40 birds. A single bird, or its eggs, might be worth a six-figure sum on the black market.

The previously closely guarded location, a chunk of which has since been purchased by the non-government conservation group Bush Heritage, was leaked by a journalist last month. This enraged Murphy, the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and the night parrot recovery team. Information management was seen as crucial to the team’s strategy.

The Queensland government has since made what is now known as Pullen Pullen nature reserve subject to an interim conservation order, which places it off limits to both birders eager to see the famed species and poachers intent on trafficking. It is also under surveillance. Any unauthorised person entering the 56,000-hectare reserve is subject to a fine of $353,400 or two years’ imprisonment.

But the placement of birdwatchers and poachers in the same sentence has alienated the small Australian birding community. It feels not only aggrieved at being bracketed with criminals, but deprived of the chance to find other populations of the species using the best tool available: its call, which has proved critical to locating it, has not been publicly released. Playback of the call encourages the territorial birds to respond.

Only two people are known to have the call: Murphy and Young who, in a curious twist, is now working for another non-government conservation body, Australian Wildlife Conservancy, and is looking for more parrots in Diamantina and Astrebla Downs national parks.

Young is a polarising figure in ornithological circles. After rediscovering the species, he vowed never to involve government scientists in its conservation. He was later persuaded to work with Murphy, who had been developing predictive modelling tools with the CSIRO to find the birds, but the pair soon fell out.

Young refused to be interviewed, but not before railing against Murphy for disturbing the birds. Murphy declines to elaborate on the cause of their disagreement, and reserves praise for his predecessor’s skills. “We wouldn’t be sitting around talking about night parrots if it wasn’t for John.”

Mark Carter, an Alice Springs-based wildlife guide and consultant with a background in bioacoustics, points out that Brighton Downs is unlikely to be the sole surviving refuge of the parrot, once known from all mainland states. The problem is that until now, no one knew how to find them in the vastness of the outback: one may as well thrust one’s hand into the spinifex in the hope of extracting a needle.

“Birdwatchers could be their biggest ally in this, in terms of resources, time and money, but instead we’re treated like lepers,” he says. “If these parrots at [Pullen Pullen] were the only birds, then they may have done the right thing, but no one really believes they are. We’ve had three years now where people have the tools to look for them, but they’re not sharing those tools.”

The threat of human disturbance, he adds, pales in comparison to the number of land-clearing permits issued across the outback in the intervening years, especially in the Pilbara of Western Australia, which is highly likely to contain night parrots and where he was contracted by a mining company to search for the birds only months before Young’s discovery.

Murphy is acutely aware of these arguments. “We’re torn here. We’re copping a lot of flak for not releasing information.” He describes the public release of the call as a matter of when, not if. “The recovery team [doesn’t] need to be told of the value of getting this call out,” he says. “It’s obvious. It’s been obvious since day one. But there’s other issues involved.”

He knows, too, that the threat of poachers is as remote as the bird’s country, in which an ill-prepared traveller could easily die. Still, a species that was once completely inaccessible now seems tantalisingly proximate to those who have dreamed all their lives of glimpsing just one. “The fact is we still only know about a single site,” Murphy says, “so the stakes are still quite high.”

There is an inherent contradiction in the recovery team’s position. Murphy’s own research shows call playback disturbs the species; on the other hand, he is permitted to trap and handle the bird, one of which was fitted with a miniature GPS device to log its movements. Even ornithologist Penny Olsen, with whom Murphy is writing a book on the parrot, says, “There is a strong argument to leave the birds alone.”

But without Murphy’s work, we would still know next to nothing about the parrot’s behaviour or requirements. The habitat at Pullen Pullen is a mosaic of spinifex-clad hills, ironstone pavements and flood plains, upon which the birds forage. The broken-up nature of the landscape has protected the bird from fire, and dingoes have suppressed numbers of cats and foxes.

Further, the GPS-fitted bird showed itself capable of movements of up to 40 kilometres a night. The information all has implications for how landscapes are grazed. Brighton Downs, Murphy says, has been conservatively managed, and not overstocked. It might be necessary to trap another bird in a dry spell, to see how it sustains itself in drought conditions. In the meantime, he pleads for patience. He aims to publish his findings within a year.

Even Australia’s peak ornithological body, BirdLife Australia, is keeping at arm’s length. Its CEO, Paul Sullivan, said on Twitter that the bird was more likely be found by co-ordinated searches by scientists than by “vigilante efforts”, a comment that provoked fury from his own membership. While he expressed regret for his choice of words, he also declined to be interviewed.

In the meantime, every decision Murphy and the recovery team has made is a tradeoff inviting scrutiny and criticism. “We’re out there because we care about these birds. We’re certainly not there to do anything that’s going to jeopardise them.” His voice is full of frustration. “I’ve even written verbal descriptions of what this bird sounds like to try and satisfy people.”

He reflects on the nest, and the broken eggs. “Here these birds were, doing their bit to try and bolster their numbers. If ever I needed strengthening or reinforcing the need to do what we do, to try and get these land management practices right, that was it. The birds are doing [their] thing. It’s absolutely essential and incumbent on us to do the same. It’s a partnership.”

Or it should be.

First published in The Saturday Paper, 25 June 2016

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