Finding Alwal’s sweet spot

Katy Huett
Published 06 Apr 2021 
about  Olkola Partnership  

With my partner, Olkola Ranger Ashaley Ross and our daughter Xaria on Olkola country.<br/> With my partner, Olkola Ranger Ashaley Ross and our daughter Xaria on Olkola country.
With Ash, Xaria, Bush Heritage’s Queensland Aboriginal Partnerships Program Manager and Olkola Ranger Michael Ross (Junior).<br/> With Ash, Xaria, Bush Heritage’s Queensland Aboriginal Partnerships Program Manager and Olkola Ranger Michael Ross (Junior).
Nest predation by feral predators like cats is a major threat for the ongoing conservation of Alwal.<br/> Nest predation by feral predators like cats is a major threat for the ongoing conservation of Alwal.
Olkola rangers use buggies to do nest counts during breeding season. Photo by Annette Ruzicka<br/> Olkola rangers use buggies to do nest counts during breeding season. Photo by Annette Ruzicka
Olkola Ranger Ashaley Ross checks a nesting mound. Photo by Brian Cassey<br/> Olkola Ranger Ashaley Ross checks a nesting mound. Photo by Brian Cassey
Paul Hackett doing what he loved best – birdwatching. The memorial scholarship was set up by his wife Liz to continue his powerful legacy protecting Australia’s birdlife. <br/> Paul Hackett doing what he loved best – birdwatching. The memorial scholarship was set up by his wife Liz to continue his powerful legacy protecting Australia’s birdlife.

I first learnt about Golden-shouldered Parrots about five years ago, when I went out on country with my partner, Olkola Ranger Ashaley Ross.

It was the second year the rangers were doing surveys for the parrots, which they call Alwal, up on beautiful Olkola country in Cape York, Queensland. We were driving around in buggies looking for little holes in termite mounds (more on that later). After that I was hooked. The more I learnt about the birds and the more I went out on country, the fonder I got of this little turquoise parrot.

When I started my Masters in Tropical Biology and Conservation with James Cook University in January 2020, I knew I wanted to support the conservation of Alwal in some way. My daughter Xaria is four and she loves Alwal — in fact, her language name is Alwal. It’s a totem species for the Olkola people and sadly it's classified as endangered and is facing many threats, including nest predation.

Alwal has to have one of the most peculiar nesting sites of any Australian bird. They lay their eggs in conical termite mounds, excavating their nests just after the wet season when termite mounds are soft.

The mounds insulate the chicks on cold nights, but timing has to be just right – if termites are still active, they can cover over the nest entrances, or kill freshly laid eggs by cementing them to the bottom of the nest.

The birds are very specific about which mounds they choose to nest in, for example, the nesting mounds are always around the same height of 170cm. I really wanted to learn more about what conditions constitute a suitable nesting mound, particularly given climate change predictions for Olkola country, so my project was born.

I plan to install tiny data loggers called iButtons to measure temperature and humidity levels inside and outside the nests. I'll then compare these measurements with some historical temperature and humidity data taken in the 1970s. Through this we will be able gain a clear picture of any changes over time, especially using better technology over a larger study. We will remove the iButtons after fledging.

The buttons will be installed in time for the nesting season, which usually starts in May and runs to the end of June. We’re just waiting for country to dry out as that signals the beginning of the breeding season. 

I’ve also been investigating using FLIR thermal technology - a small thermal imaging device which attaches to your smart phone. From a photo, it can show the heat difference between the inside and the outside of a termite mound. I’m hoping to use the FLIR device to build a more complete data set by recording the temperatures of the mounds Alwal is not using to nest in.

To be awarded the Paul Hackett Memorial Scholarship to undertake this research means a lot. I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to understand more about Alwal’s nesting habits. Paul's legacy will directly improve conservation outcomes for a threatened species, and I think that’s pretty special.

Katy Huett is the second recipient of the Paul Hackett Memorial Scholarship after Aline Gibson Vega was awarded the inaugural scholarship in 2020 to research the ecology of the Western Grasswren. If you would like to contribute further to the Paul Hackett Memorial Scholarship to help research our amazing Australian birds, please contact Bush Heritage by emailing [email protected] or
calling 1300 628 873.

With Ash, Xaria, Bush Heritage’s Queensland Aboriginal Partnerships Program Manager and Olkola Ranger Michael Ross (Junior).<br/> With Ash, Xaria, Bush Heritage’s Queensland Aboriginal Partnerships Program Manager and Olkola Ranger Michael Ross (Junior).
Nest predation by feral predators like cats is a major threat for the ongoing conservation of Alwal.<br/> Nest predation by feral predators like cats is a major threat for the ongoing conservation of Alwal.
Olkola rangers use buggies to do nest counts during breeding season. Photo by Annette Ruzicka<br/> Olkola rangers use buggies to do nest counts during breeding season. Photo by Annette Ruzicka
Olkola Ranger Ashaley Ross checks a nesting mound. Photo by Brian Cassey<br/> Olkola Ranger Ashaley Ross checks a nesting mound. Photo by Brian Cassey
Paul Hackett doing what he loved best – birdwatching. The memorial scholarship was set up by his wife Liz to continue his powerful legacy protecting Australia’s birdlife. <br/> Paul Hackett doing what he loved best – birdwatching. The memorial scholarship was set up by his wife Liz to continue his powerful legacy protecting Australia’s birdlife.