The home of Australia’s most elusive bird now is permanently protected with the declaration of a secret sanctuary in remote south-west Queensland.
Night parrots were thought extinct until live sightings were confirmed three years ago in a small patch of spinifex-covered land in the state’s Channel Country.
Non-profit nature conservancy group Bush Heritage Australia bought 56,000 hectare from a local grazier and the Pullen Pullen reserve, the local Aboriginal name for the night parrot, was declared by the Queensland government.
The parrot, also known by its scientific name Pezoporus occidentalis, is a ground dweller that nests in spiky spinifex clusters and comes out to forage for food at night.
When the sunsets over the area’s spectacular giant, flat-topped hills known as “jump-ups”, scientists prepare their equipment to stalk one of the world’s rarest birds.
With a microphone in hand, a moonlit hunt begins amongst the spinifex that clings to the side of the “jump-ups” for this secretive parrot.
“About half-an-hour after the sun goes down, the night parrots are still sitting in their spinifex, daytime roosts and they seem to start calling round about then,” said Dr Steve Murphy, an ornithologist and a world leading expert on night parrots.
“So we’ve recorded five main vocalisations now. The main one we hear is a very sweet parrot like ‘ding ding’ and there’s another one we hear quite often that’s like the croak of a frog.”
Last year Dr Murphy and his partner Rachel Barr caught a night parrot, the first live specimen in more than 100 years.
“It was a mix of privilege and excitement and stress,” he recalls.
“All we wanted to do was get this bird back in the bush as quickly as possible.”
Tagged and released, that moment created the impetus for the creation of the reserve and the involvement of Bush Heritage.
So little is known about the night parrot that scientists cannot put a figure on how many would make up a minimum viable breeding population.
First recorded in 1845 but rarely seen, the last living parrot was caught in 1912.
It was considered extinct until dead specimens were found in 1990 and 2006 in south-west Queensland. Finally naturalist John Young captured photographs and a short video in 2013.
Once endemic across central Australia, the number remaining could be just hundreds or even dozens.
Actual recordings of its call, like the location of the colony, is being kept secret.
“There is an element in society that finds things kept in cages highly sought after, there is a trafficking threat, and we know the night parrot responds when they hear a recording of their call,” said Dr Murphy.
“By keeping it secret makes it harder for anyone who might want to do the wrong thing.
“Also we can’t afford to have that research disrupted by people coming out and playing that recording and upsetting what we are trying to find out.”
Poachers and curious birdwatchers are only one of the three main threats to the birds continued existence.
“The location is very confidential, we’ve really put quite a big emphasis on keeping it that way,” said Rob Murphy (no relation), the regional manager for Bush Heritage Australia.
“The secrecy of the site has been one of the best friends of the night parrot. Keeping the site confidential for as long as we can is very important.
“We’re particularly concerned about wild fire, and that could be from people or could also be lighting strike and feral cat control, that’s the key threat.”
After numerous failed attempts to control feral cats, a unique trap is being trialed that sprays the predator with a fast acting poison that kills within an hour of being licked off its fur.
Satellite real-time surveillance cameras are being installed around the site to monitor who comes and goes and a Bush Heritage caretaker will soon take up residence.
Traditional owners spiritual connection to night parrots
One group welcome on the site are the descendants of the Maiawali people, on whose traditional lands the night parrot was rediscovered.
“It’s very emotional and very spiritual to know that they are still here and really it’s good that Bush Heritage is doing that so they will be protected for ever,” said Judith Harrison whose Maiawali grandmother was born near the site.
For years Ms Harrison has been involved with Channel Country land and river management groups and has returned again, bringing for the first time her daughter Tammy Meers and nephew Darryl Lyons.
Their cultural heritage surveys along planned fence Lyons to keep cattle out of the reserve have unearthed a treasure trove of artefacts, stone scatters and bora rings used by their ancestors.
“It’s made us very passionate about our Aboriginality to be involved, to really protect our cultural heritage and find out as much as we can,” said Mr Lyons.
“The Maiawali were known in their main corroboree as the rainmakers and were often summonsed by neighbouring tribes to go to their areas to do the rain dance and the ceremonial dress of that corroboree had the Pullen Pullen feathers in it.”
The region was crossed by Burke and Wills in the 1860s and settled by Europeans in the late 1800s.
Several camps of the notorious native police were in the area and the forced clearing of Aboriginal tribes from the land is thought to be one reason for the night parrot’s disappearance.
“One thing we know for sure is that before Europeans arrived here we had a stable suite of mammals living here in central Australia,” said Dr Murphy.
“The thing about Aboriginal burning (of the landscape) was that when wildfires did occur it left pockets of habitat critical for survival of animals.
“That’s what’s missing today.”
Fortunately for the night parrot, the Pullen Pullen reserve is dotted with isolate patches of spinifex among the “jump-ups” and its immunity to wild fire is thought the reason why it has survived there.
With one site secured, the hunt is on for other remnant night parrot colonies, with an unconfirmed sighting in Western Australia in recent years.
“It’s classified as endangered on the Red List, it’s classified as endangered on the federal legislation, it really does have a high priority,” said Dr Murphy.
“A few years ago it was put at number one on the Smithsonian list of mysterious birds, so it has a really high international profile.”
Dr Murphy is optimistic he may find more.
“Chances of finding others elsewhere in Australia are good if we focus on areas that have similar characteristics as here and a similar fire history,” said Dr Murphy.
“If we use the same survey techniques as we’ve used here, that should work as long as night parrots elsewhere sound the same as in western Queensland.”