Tagged: Night Parrot

Rats of spring

In Ronald Strahan’s revised edition of The Mammals of Australia, C. H. S. Watts describes the Plains Rat as among “the loveliest of Australian rodents”. While its loveliness might be in the eye of the beholder, it’s certainly among the most tenacious, being adapted to some of the driest, most inhospitable country: the stony gibber deserts and cracking clay soils of the Lake Eyre Basin.

There, it can survive without drinking, obtaining water from food starches, aided by its highly concentrated urine and absence of sweat glands. During the day, colonies shelter from predators and the intense heat in complex burrow systems that can be more than 40 kilometres long, yet separated from each other by only a matter of metres, interconnected by runways on the surface.

Plains Rat. Minden Pictures/Alamy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not that water is a problem for the plains rat right now. Surveys at Andado Station, a cattle property in the south-east of the Northern Territory abutting the western edge of the Simpson Desert, are showing a spike in numbers following unseasonal winter and spring rains. And it’s places such as Andado, and animals like the plains rat, that are helping prompt a rethink of how we might save what is left of our desert fauna.

It’s well known that Australia has one of the worst mammal extinction rates in the world, with 30 species – more than 10 percent – lost since European settlement. Many more are at imminent risk of extinction. What might seem unusual is that most of those extinctions have occurred in our remote areas, far from the major urban centres of the eastern seaboard.

Cats and foxes take much of the blame, but the causes of the ecological catastrophe are multifaceted. Changed fire regimes are a big problem, so too overgrazing, not only by cattle but feral herbivores including rabbits, goats and camels. But there’s another, more subtle factor at play: in a country of climatic extremes, our native fauna often rely on small pockets of the landscape in which to take refuge during drought.

Once, the Plains Rat (Pseudomys australis) was thought to be far more widespread, from the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range straddling Queensland and New South Wales, and from the Nullarbor east all the way to the mouth of the Murray. It’s thought to have declined by up to 90 per cent since European settlement, and it’s nationally listed as vulnerable under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Andado – where the gibber plains of the Lake Eyre Basin, the sand dunes and spinifex of the Simpson Desert and the runout of the Finke River all intersect – is a plains rat refuge, a place where it has always survived through the bleakest times. It booms and busts according to prevailing conditions; at least some of the historic records from further afield were probably never an indication of stable populations.

Overlooking Andado swamp at dusk, Andado Station, March 2015

Many of our arid-zone animals and birds have existed this way forever. The Flock Bronzewing, a pigeon that still occasionally darkens desert skies in aggregations of hundreds of thousands, is one. The Long-haired Rat is another, and the Letter-winged Kite – the world’s only nocturnal hawk – follows its periodic irruptions: as the rats spread, only to die off as conditions return to normal, so too do the kites.

It follows, then, that if a refuge is excessively degraded or disturbed, we go a long way to wiping out the animals that depend upon it, too. The difficulty is in identifying these areas. A refuge may be not much more than a dot on the map. It has taken a century, for example, to locate a stable, apparently sedentary population of the Night Parrot, long believed extinct. And refuges vary from species to species.

Dr Diana Fisher, a fellow at the University of Queensland’s school of biological sciences, is trying to map where these areas are. She points out that a species refuge “might not look much different to the rest of the landscape, but there’s something about it that protects them, not just from the dry conditions, but also predators and disease”.

Finding out where feral predators themselves eke out a living during bad times is helpful, too. “Cats are very good at surviving in the desert, but they have some limitations where they don’t do as well with very hot conditions,” Fisher says. “They have to find a refuge themselves, so finding where [they are] might enable us to use that information to control them.”

Non-government organisations such as the Australian Wildlife Conservancy have had some success creating their own wildlife refuges: heavily fenced areas, purged of feral animals, with surviving populations of native fauna such as the Woylie, a species of bettong, reintroduced from other areas, in miniature simulacrums of what the Australian landscape might once have looked like.

“There is now consensus at a policy and scientific level that a network of feral predator-free areas are required,” says Atticus Fleming, chief executive of the conservancy. He points to the Bilby. “The Bilby now lives in less than 5 percent of its original distribution and the population’s estimated at less than 10,000,” he says. “About 15 percent of the world population is on AWC land in feral predator-free areas.”

Again, feral predators are only one part of a more complex picture. While the Bilby needs all the help it can get to survive in Queensland’s Channel Country, it seems to be comfortably outlasting cats in the even more inhospitable Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia.

Different stressors on different species rarely work in isolation. “We’ve already lost a lot of things – [many of] the bandicoots [including the bilby] and that sort of range of animals have gone, but defining what the disturbance would have to be to make those things disappear is the tricky one,” says Alistair Stewart, a fauna scientist with the Northern Territory’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Occasionally, it might be more straightforward. “There is potential for mining to be so selective that it could have a devastating effect – the footprint size of an open-cut mine could encompass one of these entire refuges,” Stewart says. Generally, though, that’s a bigger danger for our microfauna – hidden, less mobile invertebrates such as land snails – than it is for mammals and birds.

Refuges also might not function as well as before. They may be degraded by overstocking. In drought, the better-watered parts of the landscape support livestock as well as wildlife, putting pressure on smaller, less genetically diverse populations. And animals that disperse after rain are more easily wiped out by predators elsewhere. The result is that the booms aren’t as big and the busts are longer lasting.

The Letter-winged Kite is one species that has suffered, undergoing an almost imperceptible decline over the past 30 years. This graceful raptor breeds in colonies mostly in the Strzelecki and Diamantina River systems, dispersing across the continent during boom times. Now it is rarely seen outside its core range: cats have been observed in the bird’s nest trees, wiping out chicks and stifling population growth.

Not all of our fauna operates like this and not all refuges are climatic. Mountains and areas of rocky scree serve the same function. Fire doesn’t spread so quickly and it’s easier to make a quick escape from predators. In the MacDonnell Ranges west of Alice Springs, the Black-footed Rock Wallaby is locally common, whereas a subspecies in the West Australian wheat belt is in dire trouble.

Mark Carter, an Alice Springs-based ecologist and guide, says animals such as the Long-tailed Dunnart – which truly is one of our loveliest marsupial mice, with a jauntily crested tail more than twice its body length, thought to be used as a balancing rod – might once have been far less strict in terms of its habitat requirements, but now survives in only the most rugged parts of the landscape.

Fisher backs this, saying there is evidence that there are few predators in rocky areas. “That’s a protective thing, perhaps, for things like rock wallabies and northern quolls. And also maybe it’s a better fire environment. But we’re not sure yet if it’s just the rugged habitat – there are fewer cats, and it’s easier for the animals to escape – or if there’s more vegetation, because the fire doesn’t get in there as much.”

The key point, Carter says, is that these safe havens are often not in the form we imagine and not where we might imagine them to be. “The one thing they’ve all got in common is that they’re extremely vulnerable. It wouldn’t take much to just completely wreck them for the animals that are so dependent on them.”

First published in The Saturday Paper, 3 December 2016

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