It could be Australia’s rarest bird and was only first photographed in 2015, but new evidence collected by native rangers has revealed the country’s largest known nocturnal parrot population. .
- Nocturnal parrot call records from sites in the Great Sandy Desert indicate Australia’s largest nocturnal parrot population
- Despite the new discovery, nocturnal parrots remain critically endangered
- Native rangers will hunt cats and manage fire to protect nocturnal parrots
Rangers from Ngururrpa and Kiwirrkurra have recorded nocturnal parrot calls over the past six months, from sites within 100 kilometers of the Great Sandy Desert in south Kimberley.
The recordings are music to the ears of University of Queensland nocturnal parrot researcher Nick Leseberg.
âThis is probably the largest population we know of right now,â he said.
Much of Mr Leseberg’s research has been carried out on another population in western Queensland where no more than 15 animals have been detected in an area of ââ500,000 hectares.
The rarity of these animals contrasts with the new desert records, which capture two or more nocturnal parrots calling at a time along a chain of sites.
“Getting those five or six detections over that long area tells us that there are probably more birds out there that we don’t know.”
Lost and found
The nocturnal parrot is an almost mythical bird species, known to older generations of traditional indigenous landowners and early European explorers, but considered only by modern science to be a few dead specimens until 2005.
It may look like an overgrown parakeet, but the Night Parrot is extremely difficult to find as it spends the day buried deep in the thorny spinifex grass in the remote deserts of Australia.
The nocturnal parrot is so elusive that Ranger Ngururrpa Clifford Sunfly, who grew up in the wilderness around the isolated community of Balgo, only learned of the species from his work.
âIt was a new breed of bird that I didn’t know about and that lived here,â he says.
The breakthrough came when bird scientists finally connected the bird’s call to the rarely seen animal.
“Ten years ago, no one knew what a night parrot looked like – we could have turned off these recorders and recorded night parrots all night long, but no one would have known what that sound was,” said Mr. Leseberg.
Elders in the Balgo community recall seeing nocturnal parrots decades ago, but Mr Sunfly said they did not connect the nighttime call with the bird for cultural reasons.
“All the old people talk to me about them, they say they heard the noises and didn’t know what it was until the rangers found them,” he said.
“The noise they make is similar to an evil spirit noise, so they couldn’t get any closer.”
With the creation of groups of indigenous guards running their traditional country over the past decade, combined with the latest scientific knowledge and equipment, there has been a flowering of nocturnal parrot finds.
But Mr Leseberg said the species remains exceptionally rare and critically endangered.
âI think we’re only up to eight places in Western Australia and most of those places are just a few birds here, and a few birds there,â he said.
“The key has been to transfer the technical knowledge of how to find them to people who know their country and can get out of the country and look for them.”
In addition to finding new populations of nocturnal parrots, native rangers are essential to protect and even increase their numbers.
Ranger groups hunt cats, which are the most disturbing predator of these largely ground-dwelling birds.
The other essential item that nocturnal parrots need are old mounds of grass, which means keeping the incredibly flammable spinifex weed from burning for many decades.
“You’re talking about 30 or 40 years for it to go from nothing to the kind of structure and density it needs to support nocturnal parrot populations,” Leseberg said.
âThey need this really old spinifex near these more productive rangelands on areas that get a little more water when it rainsâ¦ that creates the grass seeds that the birds feed on.
To avoid being eaten by large lizards, snakes, and feral cats, nocturnal parrots should roost during the day and nest deep in large spiny mounds of spinifex.
It sounds counterintuitive, but the way to ensure that some spinifex can age without burning is to make sure that plenty of strategic fires are lit at the right time of year.
Many groups of native guards are currently carrying out conservation fires in northern Australia resulting in numerous small cold fires that prevent large hot fires from traversing the landscape and destroying potential habitat for nocturnal parrots.
Ngururrpa rangers will use the latest information to better inform their burning program to protect, if not increase, the habitat of nocturnal parrots.
The work shows that the mythical nocturnal parrot has a future as a living Australian species.
“These things are incredibly rare, but we’ve managed to find a way to find them and we’re finding that there are still a few populations that persist.”