Ghost of the outback

Monday 21 September, 2015
Steve Murphey with giant microphoneOrnithologist Dr Stephen Murphy is helping Bush Heritage unlock the secrets of the mysterious Night Parrot. Photo from The Australian.

Bush Heritage is leading the recovery effort to secure one of the world’s rarest birds, the mysterious Night Parrot.

In 2013 Queensland naturalist John Young set the ornithological world atwitter after sighting and photographing a bird that has been the ‘Holy Grail’ for birdwatchers, the enigmatic Night Parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis), a bird so rare and elusive that it's bordered on the mythological. It had been 100 years since anyone had laid eyes on a live specimen of what the Smithsonian Institute had hailed as ‘the world’s most mysterious bird’.

Discovered in 1845 in northern South Australia, the Night Parrot was once widespread across inland Australia, but its population declined sharply from the 1880s after the expansion of pastoralism and the spread of feral cats and foxes. The parrot was feared extinct – a live specimen hadn't been found since the species was last collected in Western Australia in 1912.

Night Parrot among spinifexA rare photo of the elusive Night Parrot. Photo Dr Stephen Murphy.

Despite intense speculation on its continued existence, and extensive searching, there were no further confirmed records until 1990 when a dead bird was discovered by a roadside in western Queensland.

When a second dead specimen was found in 2006, hopes were renewed that the ‘ghost of the outback’ had survived somewhere in Australia’s vast interior. And then came John Young’s revelation in 2013, which confirmed that the Night Parrot was alive.

Just exactly where John made his remarkable discovery of a colony of Night Parrots remains confidential for the foreseeable future. As with the fabled discovery of the Wollemi pine in NSW in 1994, it's crucial to keep the species’ location a secret while the necessary protections are put in place.

Establishing a reliable survey method has been one of Dr Murphy’s highest priorities in researching the Night Parrot. Photo The AustralianEstablishing a reliable survey method has been one of Dr Murphy’s highest priorities in researching the Night Parrot. Photo The Australian.

Dr Stephen Murphy – Australia’s foremost Night Parrot expert – has been researching the newly discovered population, which has remained at the site since 2013.

“I’ve been involved in a lot of threatened species research over the years and from a personal point of view nothing comes close to this in terms of its significance,” Steve says.

Steve’s first priority was to develop a robust and reliable survey method. The most effective means of detecting the birds was to install automated recording units that passively survey for Night Parrot calls.

However, the real breakthrough came on Easter Saturday this year when Steve and his partner Rachel Barr were the first known humans to capture and hold a Night Parrot in more than 100 years. They attached a tiny radio transmitter to the bird. Over three weeks, Steve and Rachel pieced together its nightly movements as the bird emerged from its roost an hour after dusk and flew several kilometres to its foraging grounds before returning as the sun rose the next day. This was valuable information about the species’ behaviour and its use of its habitat.

Dr Jim Radford and Dr Steve Murphy among spinifexDr Steve Murphy and Bush Heritag's Dr Jim Radford among spinifex.

Bush Heritage will continue to work closely with Dr Murphy to map the Night Parrot’s habitat, learn about its life cycle, identify threats and put conservation planning in place to increase the bird’s chances of survival.

Our plan for the rare Night Parrot

Bush Heritage’s immediate priority is to raise the funds needed to establish a 56,000 hectare conservation reserve of national significance to protect the only known population of the Night Parrot. We must then put security measures in place to prevent human interference with the population.

“The eyes and ears of the local community are our first line of defence, so developing rapport and trust with the community is crucial,” says Rob Murphy, Bush Heritage’s Executive Manager North. “Bush Heritage will also establish an on‑site presence, a management team on the ground, that will work to protect the population and address threats to its survival.”

Night Parrot held by Dy Steve MurphyNight parrot held by Dy Steve Murphy. Photo by Rachel Barr.

Bush Heritage will install real‑time surveillance cameras, fixed cameras, fencing and signage at key locations around the property, aimed at preventing human intervention and interaction with the rare bird. We'll also work closely with wildlife authorities to ensure that legislation to protect it is enforced.

“This is a critical time for this special bird that could still be lost forever if we don’t act now,” Rob continues. “Recovery planning is under way to preserve the bird’s pocket of natural habitat in Queensland from threats such as fire and feral cats. The Night Parrot is also vulnerable to poachers and human intervention, so the exact location of this rediscovered population will not be revealed.

It had been 100 years since anyone had laid eyes on a live specimen of what the Smithsonian Institute had hailed as ‘the world’s most mysterious bird

“Bush Heritage is in a unique position to protect the Night Parrot, so that future generations can interact with this species and not just read about it in a book. The Night Parrot is facing extinction, and our role in this project is to bring it back from the brink.”

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