Deep in the arid desert of western Queensland where spinifex grasslands, towering mesa plateaus and red dunes stretch uninterrupted for hundreds of kilometres, lies our 56,000 hectare reserve called Pullen Pullen. Here, on sacred Maiawali Country, lives the world’s most elusive bird. Nestled on the ground in old growth spinifex, the Night Parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis) forages by night and is extremely difficult to see or hear, let alone study.
Following the bird’s discovery in 2013, many uniquely positioned conservationists have been working to protect Pullen Pullen - by deepening our understanding of the bird itself and by protecting the birds' habitat and its country.
Maiawali Traditional Owner, Judith Harrison is one of them. Working alongside Bush Heritage in managing the reserve, she is surviving the values and lessons of her culture.
“The Night Parrot is crucial to the Maiawali People to carry on our Story Lines for the up and coming new and emerging generations,” says Judith.
Judith helped to develop strategies for feral cat and fire management.
“One cat alone can eat at least 25 mammals each day, and invasive weeds are choking out native vegetation that in turn causes habitat loss for the breeding of native animals.”
Judith champions the critical juncture between cultural knowledge and technology, working to arm the new generation with a rounded understanding of conservation practices.
“We need to adapt the way that we teach our future generations and modernise the way that we record our customs and data so that it can be preserved…this symbiotic relationship is integral in preserving Pullen Pullen for generations to come,” she says.
Now with Special Wildlife Reserve status and a newly built arid conservation base, more can be done to protect the landscape.
“We have always had a dream of protecting Pullen Pullen for our future generations to come and never in our wildest dreams did we foresee that we would have it listed a Special Wildlife Reserve”, Says Judith.
This level of protection paves the way for future research as well as management. PhD researcher Nick Leseberg is the closest to a Night Parrot expert there is, known by his peers as the ‘Night Parrot Man’. He’s seen the bird a handful of times, as well as monitored its feeding, nesting and breeding patterns for six years.
“How we respond to the rediscovery of the Night Parrot will be a symbol of the place biodiversity conservation has in Australian society,” says Nick
If you're new to this story, here is the background. For almost a century, the Night Parrot was lost. No specimens were collected between 1875 and 1990, and ornithologists feared the worst. It wasn’t until a living population was discovered in 2013, that ongoing protection for the species became possible.
After an initial research program between 2013 and 2016 had been led by Dr Steve Murphy, Nick began researching the species in late 2016. The research Nick was able to on Pullen Pullen has contributed to the detection of new populations in Western Australia, offering the species a much-needed reprieve from the verge of extinction.
“Those detections have almost all been through using that knowledge we’ve built out of Pullen Pullen around how to use acoustic recorders to search for them, how to search the data you collected with an acoustic recorder and how to space them, where to put them in the landscape to try and find night parrots.”
Rob Murphy, Head of Conservation Operations, insists that it is not just the Night Parrots that needs protecting, it is some of the last remaining habitat for species such as the Kowari (Dasyuroides byrnei) and Dusky Hopping-mouse (Notomys fuscus) and critically endangered Plains-Wanderer (Pedionomus torquatus).
“Pullen Pullen is an extremely special reserve, and is a critical part of a much larger interconnected conservation landscape. It also has remarkable cultural sites that the Maiawali People work with Bush Heritage to protect,” says Rob.
It’s this cultural value that Judith Harrison understands as critical to its protection. When she travels to country her connection is unmistakeable.
“The minute that I come home, I feel recharged and revitalised. Returning to country to help preserve the sites and artefacts gives me such a sense of purpose and leaves me smiling,” she says.
“Our ancestors lived on this land for thousands of years… the Night Parrot has been integral in our cultural life for many generations. The feathers were used in headdresses during important ceremonies.”
With temperatures rising each year in an already unforgiving landscape, how Pullen Pullen’s biggest threats are managed in the coming years will determine its suitability as a habitat. Ongoing research, monitoring and the implementation of right-way science will all contribute to these outcomes, paving the way for a brighter future for species like the Night Parrot.
While hopeful, Nick Leseberg begs the question, how much value do we place in the conservation of our most fragile species?
"We know what the threats are to the Night Parrot, we know how to manage them, and we know where to do it. But if we don’t, it will continue its spiral into extinction…we can demand that species like the Night Parrot be recovered, or we can watch their steady decline continue until they’re gone."