Tagged: Birdlife Australia

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

Twitch and shout

For a bird-watching exercise, you don’t see a lot of birds on the Twitchathon. If you’ve never heard of this obscure sporting event, it’s a race: teams of birders pile into their cars and tear around the state, attempting to see or hear as many species as possible within an eight or 24-hour period. Because time is of the essence, once a bird’s call is recognised, actually spotting it becomes redundant. It’s on the list: go!

For this year’s Victorian event on 7-8 November, coordinated by Birdlife Australia as a fundraiser for endangered species, I was in one of the handful of 24-hour teams: the Manky Shearwaters. (It’s a pun on a type of seabird, the Manx Shearwater.) Others were in the more civilised eight-hour race: the Lame Ducks; the Filthy Flockers, the Soft Cockatiels. I’m not sure what lends birders towards this kind of self-deprecation.

There’s a hint of madness about the 24-hour version, though, which has necessitated some safety modifications over the years. Once, teams finished at the offices of what used to be Birds Australia, in the Melbourne suburb of Camberwell. With teams driving around the clock and totals docked by one bird for every five minutes after the appointed time, it was a speed and fatigue-fuelled lawsuit waiting to happen.

Now, with the re-badged and relocated organisation’s offices in the city, teams simply phone in their totals at the Twitchathon’s end from wherever they finish. It all works on an honour system: three members out of a team of four must agree on each species that has been seen or heard. So, too, does the mandatory three hours’ rest and a commitment to rotate drivers.

More than ever, even in the age of digital photography, which can be so easily manipulated, a birder’s reputation is everything. The punishment for those who break the code – such as the observer who confessed to hoaxing a house crow to falsely claim the Victorian “Big Year” record in 2014 – is disqualification, social exclusion, and a lifetime supply of derision.

The trick to the Twitchathon is twofold. The first is covering as many different habitats as possible, for each ecosystem supports its own distinctive array of avifauna (hence the long hours spent behind the wheel). The second is not trying too hard to find rare birds; rather, it’s about not dipping on the common ones. It’s surprisingly easy to miss, say, a rainbow lorikeet when you’re the one on the fly.

Team member Sean Dooley – editor of Birdlife Australia’s quarterly magazine and for over a decade the record-holder for the most number of birds seen within Australia in a calendar year (703, if you must know) – says part of the allure of the ’Thon is the thrill of seeing a plan come together. “I just want that perfect day of birding, where everything falls into place and you don’t miss out on a thing.”

Which, naturally, never happens. But there’s a lot of what’s known in the game as “sussing” in the weeks and months beforehand – checking out locations, finding hot-spots, avoiding dead zones, and crunching numbers: charting distances and times to destinations, working out how many hours (or minutes) to spend in each of them, and calculating how many species can be relied upon to reveal themselves.

The Manky Shearwaters’ quest begins at the Nobbies, which juts into Western Port Bay from the far end of Phillip Island. We’ve got a telescope locked onto a Peregrine Falcon, on its eyrie above Seal Rocks. Behind us, a penguin’s backside sticks half-way out of its wooden box burrow. Cormorants and a lone oystercatcher are visible on the rocks below; around us gulls and terns mill and scream.

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L/R: Chris Watson, Sean Dooley, Steve Davidson

They’re all on the list within seconds of the 4pm start, then we’ve got just a few minutes to scan the ocean. I spot a surprise: the hulking shape of a Giant-Petrel close inshore. Sadly, though, not close enough: where the bill tip of a Southern Giant-Petrel is pale green, a Northern Giant-Petrel’s is reddish. And none of us can confirm which it is before it veers away. Bird identification often rests on such details.

Within an hour, our total is up to 71. But we’re already missing species, too. Observation Point fails to produce either Whimbrel or Eastern Curlew, large shorebirds that can usually be relied upon here. Fisher’s Wetland, which held a pair of Black-tailed Native-hens half an hour before the count, is closed. We won’t see them again. A sick Sulphur-crested Cockatoo sits forlornly on a lump of seaweed in the salt water.

From there it’s off to Bunyip State Park, near Gembrook in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range. It feels more like rally driving: at one point we nearly collect a four-wheel drive head-on. We pull up on blind corners with nary a thought for what’s around the bend. It’s wet forest country, and nearly everything we add is heard rather than seen; calls we have to parse from the expert mimicry of the local lyrebirds.

After listening for night birds (unnerving nearby campers with bad imitations of the falling bomb-like whistle of Sooty Owls), we drive to Terrick Terrick National Park, in the state’s far north, taking our designated rest period between 2.45 and 5.45am. Once, the native grasslands here were the Victorian stronghold for the endangered Plains-wanderer; now they’re down to just a handful of pairs.

DSC01018By the next morning, this sense of loss is becoming a theme. Birds are scarce. As we scour the box-ironbark woodlands of Heathcote, struggling to locate previously common species like Speckled Warblers and Scarlet Robins, Dooley reflects on the silence: “Whenever I come into these forests in particular, no matter what I see, I’m just struck with this overwhelming sense of tragedy that haunts the forest.

“I palpably, viscerally feel the loss of the birds that used to be here. It becomes this really bittersweet exercise. You could go through your notebooks, and you probably wouldn’t notice that much of a difference in terms of what species you’ve logged over the years. You’d probably still manage to find them, but what’s not reflected is the lower numbers, and the extra time and effort it takes to do so.”

We finish at the sewerage treatment works at Werribee. It’s a Mecca for waterfowl and waders but, again, numbers are down. We have to search for a Curlew Sandpiper, a handsome Siberian migrant which once occurred in flocks of thousands here over summer. The population using the east Asian-Australasian flyway is now critically endangered due to habitat loss in the Yellow Sea.

A Freckled Duck (on the wondrously named Lake Borrie) is our 200th species as we approach the finish line; we’ll only add one more. There’s a few tame high-fives on the stroke of four but, mostly, the feeling is anti-climactic, like a drawn AFL grand final: players slumped to the turf, not knowing if they’ve won or lost. The results won’t be announced for another two days. We’ve covered just shy of 1000 kilometres.

As it turns out, we could have knocked off at midnight: our total of 201 beats our less experienced 24-hour campaigners by more than 80, but well short of the record of 225, the sort of total only attainable with a lot of luck in an exceptional year. Still, we’ve raised a fair amount of cash towards the protection of mallee birds, some of which are only a single bad bushfire away from permanent obliteration.

Later, once our bodies have sufficiently uncrinkled themselves from the vehicle, talk will turn to 2016 – the extra time we’ll spend sussing out sites; the mistakes we won’t make; what parts of our route we’ll change to save time or potentially add new species to the list. All in search of that perfect birding day which, like a rainbow, seems to recede further and further away every year.

First published in The Saturday Paper, December 19 2015