Helping Alwal survive through the wet season

about  Olkola 
on 13 Dec 2016 

I’m back in the Cairns office after a fantastic week on Country with the Olkola Land Managers, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, Sue and Tom Shephard from Artemis Station and Professor Stephen Garnett of Charles Darwin University.

We've all been working together to establish predator-proof feeding stations for the Moorehead River population of Golden-shouldered Parrots (Psephotus chrysopterygius) in central Cape York.

The Wet Season is a particularly difficult time for Alwal (the name for Golden-shouldered Parrots in Olkola language) and especially for the juveniles. At the start of The Wet most of the seed that Alwal rely on germinates so food availability is scarce. The parrots depend on seed they can find scattered among the rocks, although by December there is not much of that left, or places where storm burns have killed seed just as it starts to germinate. When the wet season really kicks in Alwal do not feed in heavy rain but prefer to sit quietly hidden in the trees. Several days of continuous rain – as occurs when cyclones are in the region – may prevent the birds from meeting their food requirements and can cause heavy mortality, particularly among young birds that are still learning the best places to forage and how to stay safe from predators.

Olkola, Artemis Station and Bush Heritage are providing supplementary seed in predator-proof feeders to support Alwal through this critical time. We hope that this will allow more juveniles to make it through their first wet season.

Sue and Tom Shephard have had feeders on Artemis Station for several years. It is thought the placement of feeders there has helped to halt the contraction of the population from an eastern portion of their range, and is likely to have enabled the parrots to continue nesting there. We hope to achieve similar success with the feeders on Olkola properties.

To learn whether parrots still occur in certain parts of their range we've placed remote monitoring cameras on the feeders. And we'll also get to see what other species visit the stations.

At this time of year there is a very important association between the parrots and Black-faced Woodswallows (Artamus cinereus), which helped us to decide where we needed to place the feeders. During the woodswallows’ breeding season, from October to January, most young Alwal feed close to woodswallow nests. When woodswallow chicks are hatching, the parents vigorously defend their nest area from predators. Even large or aggressive predatory birds like hawks and butcherbirds are kept away! By making alarm calls when predators approach, the woodswallows act as an effective early warning system for inexperienced parrots. So predatory birds rarely disturb these parrots.

Past research found that Alwal seen associating with woodswallow flocks in the wet were often found nesting the following year. Others disappeared and we think they were probably eaten. For this reason we looked for areas being frequented by woodswallows and placed the feeding stations there. Not only will this keep the parrots safe, but it also mimics their natural dispersal at this time of year.

Many thanks to John Griffith, a good friend of Artemis Station and the parrots, who helped with the feeders and took these fantastic photos of woodswallow chicks. It was also a real privilege to have Professor Stephen Garnett help us with the work this week. As one of the original researchers who wrote the Golden-shouldered Parrot Recovery Plan, and a threatened species expert, his advice and support is very welcome and appreciated.

Providing food for Alwal was a great way to end the year. We’re looking forward to bringing you an update when the feeders and remote cameras come in.

Thank you to our supporters who make this work possible and are providing the means for Olkola Land Managers to keep the feeders topped up during the wet season, before another big year of monitoring and threat abatement in 2017.  

We wish everyone a safe, happy and plentiful festive season – for parrots and humans alike!