Hey Night Parrot Nick – Wassup!?

about  Pullen Pullen 
on 26 Jun 2017 

In this article, Bush Heritage ecologist Alex Kutt, interviewed PhD student Nick Leseberg to find out a little more about Nick’s latest field trip and some of the great data he's collecting to contribute to the management of Pullen Pullen Reserve in western Queensland and the long term conservation and security of the Night Parrot.

Hi Nick, you’ve just come back from a mammoth 6-week field trip, how did it go, and what were the highlights?

It was a huge field trip, but a productive one. I spent the first few weeks working closely with Jen Silcock and Russell Fairfax. Jen and Russ are both extraordinary arid land botanists, and together we were developing some methodologies for quantifying the resources that are available to the Night Parrot.

We know some of the habitats the tracked bird visited last year, so we visited those and began, quite literally, counting the seeds and volume of succulent plants available at these sites. It will be interesting to see how this changes over time and in response to different conditions, and whether this change affects what areas the parrot visits.

The second half of the trip was spent searching for more Night Parrots. It's very likely there are more Night Parrots in the wider landscape, and the time has come to start searching farther afield to try and find some more of these populations.

This will be important later in my research as we increase the sample size, and try to draw any statistical conclusions around habitat preferences. I do this mainly by placing acoustic recorders in likely habitat, and spending lots of time listening at dusk for parrots. We didn’t have any luck listening for birds, although I now have hundreds of hours of recordings I’ll have to put through our acoustic recogniser software to see if we can find any Night Parrot calls.  

Did you observe any successful breeding and are you starting to get a handle on the population size?

We did get lucky this trip and find one nest that had a well-developed nestling in it. After placing a recorder near the nest, we left it alone, returning a couple of weeks later to find the chick gone (good news!) and an infertile egg still in the nest chamber.

We collected the abandoned egg, and some scats from the nest which will be sent to Adelaide for analysis of what the parrots were eating. The egg is now lodged at the Queensland Museum, and is the only complete Night Parrot egg in a museum anywhere in the world.

As to population size, it’s the question I’m most often asked, and my answer is always, ‘I don’t know’! Certainly, we searched plenty of likely habitat, but didn’t find birds in any new locations. It will be a long time before we can say with certainty, but I think the answer is likely to be that the Night Parrot population in western Queensland at least, is very small, and thinly spread over a wide area.

How are the song meters performing, and are they giving you more insights?

Song meters are the weapon of choice when it comes to Night Parrot research! Detecting birds calling is the only reliable way of finding them in the landscape, and the song meters effectively allow me to sit in a bunch of places every night listening for those bell-like calls and whistles. They increase my rate of coverage more than tenfold, so they're critical to my research. One thing we're finding out from the song meter deployments is that we're not finding many more sites with Night Parrots, which is reinforcing the suspicion that these birds are out there, but in very low numbers.

You have another major trip in July and August, what are you planning to do in that trip?

The August trip is a big one, as that’s when we’re planning our next round of tracking. The landscape will be much drier than when the last bird was tracked in 2016, and it will be interesting to see whether the bird we tag visits the same sites, or different ones, searching for the same or different resources. If all goes to plan (fingers crossed!) it will be the next big step in understanding the mystery that is the Night Parrot.

And finally, can I say once again, thanks to Bush Heritage, and especially all the supporters and donors that help fund my research. Having access to vehicles, the reserve, song meters, accommodation, hot showers, all provided by Bush Heritage is invaluable! I couldn’t do my work without generous assistance of the Bush Heritage community.