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Nick Leseberg looking out over Pullen Pullen. Photo Lachlan Gardiner.
Nick Leseberg looking out over Pullen Pullen. Photo Lachlan Gardiner.

Called to the night

Published 25 Mar 2022 by Bron Willis

Nick Leseberg took an unconventional path to one of the nation’s most high-profile ecological rescue projects: the conservation of the elusive Night Parrot.

In October 2016 Nick Leseberg sat on a hillside on Maiawali country, central western Queensland, watching the last rays of the sun fade. A red tinge hung over the mostly flat, red landscape, punctuated by spinifex clumps and tabletop mesas like the one beneath him.

Nick listened intently for a sound he had dreamed of hearing since he was a boy. And then it came: the gentle but unmistakable, bell-like call emerging from the dusk: ding, ding, ding.

“I’d known the story of the Night Parrot my whole life – since I was eight years old, when I’d pored over it for a school project,” says Nick. “And there I was, straining my ears as I heard its bell-like call, just thinking, ‘I am sitting here listening to a Night Parrot.’ I had to pinch myself.”

In the five years since that magical moment, which Nick still recounts in a way that evokes goose bumps, Nick has dedicated his career to a singular purpose: saving one of the planet’s most elusive bird species from disappearing forever.

For those who haven’t heard the Night Parrot’s famed story, it is a fascinating one. After virtually vanishing off the face of the earth for over 100 years, the nocturnal, ground-dwelling parrot, made international headlines when it was found alive by ornithologist John Young in 2013.

Dr Steve Murphy was carrying out ground-breaking research on this species when he approached Bush Heritage to carry out management of the Night Parrot’s key threat, feral cats, and to protect the parrot’s crucial habitat, purchased with the help of Bush Heritage supporters in 2016 and now known as Pullen Pullen Reserve.

Nick had meanwhile been busy laying the foundations of a scientific career after an unconventional segue from the Royal Australian Air Force to ecology. Nick had served in warzones such as Iraq and the Middle East. He was, perhaps, a less conventional airman than some – during his posting at one particular air base near the Euphrates River, he was often found birdwatching at the nearby oasis.

“I got picked up for looking suspicious roaming around with my binoculars, on more than one occasion,” laughs Nick.

PhD researchers Nick Leseberg and Al Healy (background) listening for Night Parrots. Photo Lachlan Gardiner.

And although the combination of Air Force officer and ecologist might be surprising, Dr Steve Murphy says Nick’s life experience had given him the skills to perform well under pressure.

“Nick is a steady pair of hands behind the wheel. He doesn’t get giddy about things. He just mucks in – he’s got a job to do and he does it. His work developing an acoustic recording system specifically suited to the Night Parrot is a huge contribution to the preservation of the species.”

That system has since become pivotal in searching for and studying new populations of Night Parrot, including in the Great Sandy Desert where Nick taught Aboriginal ranger groups the acoustic techniques that have enabled them to locate and protect new populations.

The Night Parrot is now found in more than 10 locations although the known population is still likely less than 100 birds. Pullen Pullen remains the only location dedicated to undertaking critical research that will help protect the bird.

Nick’s life experience set him up perfectly as a candidate to lead the Night Parrot research when Steve approached him in 2015 through his supervisor, James Watson.

“I’ve got a few more grey hairs than most PhD students,” laughs Nick. “But I think that probably helped me get the job. I was used to assessing risk and making decisions that I sometimes felt ill-prepared to make. Researching the Night Parrot can be like that at times.”

Bush Heritage Executive Manager Rob Murphy says Nick’s drive and his ability to deal with hardships has allowed him to serve the enigmatic Night Parrot well.

“He has this enthusiasm about the Night Parrot that’s infectious,” says Rob. “He’s also meticulous and rigorous with the science, which is so important for this species.”

Photo Nick Leseberg tests out a night vision scope. Photo Lachlan Gardiner.
Photo Nick Leseberg tests out a night vision scope. Photo Lachlan Gardiner.

“Pullen Pullen is such a long way from anywhere. He’s had to work in such harsh conditions, with high temperatures and so many discomforts.”

During the research phase in 2016, Nick was away from his young family often. It wasn’t easy, but when he returned from each trip, the shining eyes of his two young children reminded him of the future he wanted for them: a future in which the Night Parrot’s call could still be heard.

“My generation has recognised the damage done to our environment and we have an important role in reversing it. We won’t be able to finish the job, but we can give the next generation – my kids – the foundation to do just that.”

Nick has been a leading role in a story of hope, one that now inspires his children as they grow older and begin drawing pictures of the famous Night Parrot. They’re only just beginning to understand the legacy their father is leaving behind and the power they have, the power we all have, in continuing that legacy.

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