Special features

Racing to save the Orange-bellied Parrot

With time running out for one of Earth’s rarest wild birds, conservationists take a hands-on approach to assist in the nesting process
By Donald Knowler | Published: 4/19/2018

Orange-bellied Parrot at Melaleuca Southwest Conservation Area, Tasmania. Photo by JJ Harrison ([email protected]) / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The young bird, fresh out of the nest, was like any fledgling of any species. A slightly comic air, ungainly, unbalanced, unwary at the feeding station.

The gentle, warm rain had given its new and growing feathers a spiky appearance, and decorating its beak and head were dots of bird seed.

A young bird in summer, the new breed of the season, but this Orange-bellied Parrot carried a greater significance here at the end of the earth, in the southwest wilderness of Tasmania, next stop Antarctica. This young bird, along with 28 others, might well carry on its growing, developing wings the survival of its species.

The Orange-bellied Parrot (Neophema chrysogaster) is one of the most endangered wild birds on Earth. It breeds at only one known place — amid the buttongrass at Melaleuca, within Southwest National Park — in one of the planet’s remotest places. (A captive-breeding program is home to more than 300 parrots, which are kept in several facilities throughout Australia.)

At the start of September 2017, the wild population numbered just 19 birds returning from their wintering grounds on the Australian mainland to Tasmania — three females and 16 males — and during the 2017-18 breeding season that concluded in March, frantic and complex efforts had been made to boost the population with the introduction of 23 captive-bred birds.

To describe the population of the Orange-bellied Parrot as in freefall would be an understatement. The “freefall” in the calculation happened during the past three decades from the 1980s, when numbers were counted at about 200, to the handfuls that have returned to Melaleuca in the past six years.

Numbers continue to fall

Orange-bellied Parrot at Melaleuca, Tasmania. Photo by Ron Knight (CC BY 2.0)

The reasons for the decline are not fully understood but historical habitat loss of saltmarsh in mainland states certainly is a factor.

In the early 1980s, when it first became evident parrot numbers were decreasing, the Orange-bellied Parrot recovery program was started, and since then, costly and time-consuming efforts to halt the decline have been tried. These have involved numerous studies, frequent monitoring, and input from federal and state agencies, universities and conservation organizations, plus an extensive captive-breeding program at zoos and private agencies to maintain the genetic diversity of an insurance population.

Despite the efforts, numbers have resolutely continued to fall. And some of those involved in the conservation work now concede the species is functionally extinct.

“We’re down to the last of the wild birds, and time is running out,” says Mark Holdsworth, who headed the state government recovery program for 22 years and is now part of the wider initiative to save the species.

“What we really need is several good years of breeding success, for the species to ultimately avoid extinction.”

Two decades ago, the state government’s threatened species unit within the Department of Primary Industry, Parks, Water, and Environment (DPIPWE) established a captive-breeding program to augment numbers at Melaleuca. It was hoped translocating adult captive-bred birds to Melaleuca in spring would boost the wild population by increasing breeding opportunities. However, over the years this has not produced a viable population of birds.

Of 64 captive-bred parrots released at Melaleuca between 2013 and 2015, 39 migrated north to mainland Australia and only a handful returned the following breeding season.

Orange-bellied Parrot range map. Breeding range is shown in yellow; migration range in teal; non-breeding range in blue; and possibly extinct areas in pink. Source: BirdLife International (2018) Species factsheet: Neophema chrysogaster. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 18/04/2018.

Over time, it became evident that captive-reared birds were not migrating at the same rate as wild birds. It also became apparent that the survival rate of juveniles had also drastically declined. Somewhere between release at Melaleuca and the journey to and from saltmarshes in the states of Victoria and South Australia, parrots were being lost. Young birds and naïve captive-released ones needed the mentoring of older, more experienced parrots to learn survival skills and identify areas of suitable winter food.

At this point, the expertise of a group of researchers from Australia National University (ANU), which had had success with another Tasmanian species on the critically endangered list, the Swift Parrot (Lathamus discolor), was brought into play to work alongside DPIPWE.

The ANU’s Difficult Bird Research Group, with its network of supporters, mobilized a crowd-funding campaign to raise money for urgent intervention during the breeding season in Tasmania. The funds made it possible to take tiny captive-bred nestlings from a breeding facility in the state capital of Hobart to Melaleuca to be fostered in wild nests and to rescue struggling nestlings. The crowd-funding augmented funds provided over the years by the Tasmanian and Victorian governments.

Dejan Stojanovic, heading the ANU effort, said decisions had to be made on drastic action to save the parrot, including a hands-on approach to assist in the nesting process.

“We have to face cold, hard facts,” he says. “The time for business as usual is over. There’s nothing left to lose.”

The nestling transfers from captive to wild nests possibly proved the most dramatic intervention, an exciting but high-stress venture, according to Shannon Troy, wildlife biologist for the DPIPWE Orange-bellied Parrot Tasmanian Program. In 2016, five nestlings, weighing only three grams, were taken by helicopter from Hobart to Melaleuca to be placed in nests alongside wild nestlings or in nests where eggs had failed. Of the five nestlings transferred, two died within 24 hours (after being rejected by their foster mother), the third died of unknown causes within days of transfer, and the fourth died from a bacterial infection resulting from seed contamination at feed tables. The fifth nestling, Matilda, famously survived and made it to overwinter in Victoria in 2017, but she did not return to Melaleuca for breeding and is presumed to have not survived.

After reviewing results from 2016, Stojanovic decided that the transfer of captive eggs or older nestlings to be fostered by wild parents could improve survival rates. DPIPWE supported the allocation of captive eggs for transfer to the wild, but only to nests that did not already contain fertile eggs or nestlings, to minimize the risks of disease transfer. Fortunately for the Orange-bellied Parrots, fertility rates were high and all nests produced fertile eggs. As a result, no nest egg intervention was required to produce the 29 wild-born fledglings this past season.

The transfers also allowed researchers to gauge how much tolerance to nest disturbance the parrots would allow. Luckily, the breeding parrots have proven robust and not unduly troubled by the high levels of human disturbance in and out of nest boxes during the two seasons ANU researchers have been on the ground. The brief intrusions have included egg candling to determine fertility and regular nestling handling. The parrots’ ability to tolerate nest disturbance means that fostering of eggs and nestlings remain options if required in future years.

Grassland burns important

A trip to Melaleuca reveals not just nest boxes in the sparse clumps of trees amid the buttongrass. The area was once the domain of famous bushman and tin miner Deny King, who lived in a Nissen hut on the banks of Moth Creek for 55 years. He was not just a tin miner but a naturalist and ornithologist who took great delight in the annual visits of the parrots from the mainland.

With foresight, he put up nesting boxes near his home and also burned the buttongrass to create conditions for new and low-growth favored by the ground-feeding birds. They prefer seeds, fruits, flowers and berries of sedges, herbaceous plants, and plants that grow in salty or alkaline conditions such as saltmarshes. The plants at Melaleuca also thrived on nutrients released by the fires.

The periodic, natural burning of the buttongrass helped maintain parrot breeding rates, in turn attracting the parrots to return to the area year after year. It is now the only known place where Orange-bellied Parrots breed.

King unfortunately took the knowledge of his parrot-friendly burning to his grave, a ritual and routine carried out for thousands of years before him by the Aborigines in the region, the Needwonnee people.

The importance of ecological burning to benefit the parrots has long been on the agenda of the Parks and Wildlife Service, and it was included in the first recovery plan in 1984. Since then, implementation of fires has been hampered by inadequate resources, the logistical difficulties of accessing the remote southwest, and the need to create strong fire boundaries to prevent a catastrophic wildfire over a larger area. A burning exercise would also have to be timed to take advantage of suitable weather conditions occurring in autumn, in the narrow time period following the parrots’ departure from the area and before heavy rain made burning unfeasible. It was exactly these difficulties that prevented a planned fire, for which all of the preparation work had been done, from being implemented in autumn 2017. Finally, this fire was successfully completed in March 2018.

Creating more ideal feeding conditions might also allow researchers to concentrate less on the feeding stations to support parrots, further encouraging parrots to seek out food themselves.

This Orange-bellied Parrot is at a zoo in Adelaide, Australia, as part of a captive breeding program. Photo by Puffin’s Pictures/Shutterstock

A hands-on approach

Meanwhile, the scientists on site are already planning future releases of birds from captivity.

Together with a new flock of birds coming of age at breeding facilities, the 23 captive birds released at Melaleuca were recaptured at the end of the most recent breeding season, to be released again at Melaleuca next September. This so-called “ranching” action was to avoid attrition rates of captive-bred birds during their arduous migration. (When they leave Melaleuca, the parrots fly along the west coast of Tasmania, across Bass Strait, and into the saltmarsh wetlands on the mainland.)

Half of the 29 juvenile birds born at Melaleuca were also caught, to spend the winter in captivity at the Werribee Open Range Zoo and the Healesville Sanctuary in Victoria. They were mostly females, considered too precious to make the high-risk migratory journey because of the male-female imbalance in the population. They will be released again in spring.

Along with ranching, some captive-bred adult males have also been released as a flock in areas of known productive habitat at the Werribee wetlands, on the western outskirts of the Victorian capital of Melbourne. This “assisted migration” is aimed not only at replicating the flocking behavior of wild adult parrots but also to produce a flock to act as a beacon for wild birds arriving from Tasmania.

Monitoring of parrots on the mainland in winter revealed captive-bred birds completing their northern migratory journeys did not always make good habitat choices. This was considered to be a limiting factor in their survival.

The most dramatic intervention, though, remains the nestling transfers from captive-bred stock and the rearing of young at Melaleuca.

As Shannon Troy explains it: “We have to increase the survival rate of young birds. We are losing too many during their first migration, so the population isn’t growing. We can rely on the captive birds to breed, but not to migrate. These juveniles have learned from parents how to live at Melaleuca and how to survive at Melaleuca. The important thing is these birds are born in the wild. We hope this knowledge gained when young will mean that they are more capable of migrating than captive-bred birds and outweigh any potential costs of being in captivity for a few months over the winter.

“There’s no silver bullet. The decline won’t be reversed this year or next. We are aiming for small gains every year.”

Land of the Orange-bellied Parrot: A meadow in Southwest National Park. Photo by Maksym Gorpenyuk/Shutterstock

A wild, pristine setting

Melaleuca and the wider Bathurst Harbour on which it nestles provide a fitting setting for the rarest migratory bird in the world. It’s truly wild and pristine, save for the site of Deny King’s hut and another shack, scattered huts serving hikers and DPIPWE staff, and the white quartzite runway used by the light aircraft bringing in tourists, scientists, and increasing numbers of birders wanting to observe and photograph the parrot.

The flight in reveals jagged mountains that on frequent rainy days appear sketched in charcoal. The waters of Bathurst Harbour below and the adjoining Port Davey are stained maroon by tannin.

It is breathtakingly beautiful, and so is the parrot. Male and females are bright green on their backs, pastel yellow below. The forehead above an ebony beak has a splash of bright blue and further down their bodies is, of course, the splash of orange that gives the species its common name.

Although I had lived in Tasmania for nearly 20 years, writing the weekly “On the Wing” column in the Hobart Mercury newspaper, I had never seen an Orange-bellied Parrot until late 2016.

I had often stood on the runway at Cambridge Airport in Hobart waving goodbye to birding friends on their jaunt to see the parrot, but I’d never been tempted to join them. I had not wanted to be a classed as a twitcher, flying in to the well-established feeding stations to see the parrot without any effort, to tick it off on my life list, take a photograph, and be on my way.

Where to see Orange-bellied Parrots

There are two spots at Melaleuca where from September to March it is guaranteed to see a parrot, either the wild ones or the more abundant released captive ones, 71 birds in total this season. Another feeding station is on private land.

All the birds carry rings (or bands), and each of the two hides open to the public have telescopes to identify the colors and numbers on the rings easily.

Instead of flying to Melaleuca, I sought out the parrots the hard way – searching for them in their vast wintering grounds.

Over several seasons, I joined volunteers from BirdLife Australia on their annual Orange-bellied Parrot surveys, without success in my case.

My own hunt was centered on the Werribee wetlands, an area of marshland and reed-fringed lakes that was once part of a vast sewage treatment plant. It’s one of Australia’s major birding attractions. The wetlands are home to such spectacular species as Banded Stilt, Red-necked Avocet, and myriad other waders and waterfowl, but the sight of so many exotic species not found in Tasmania was not enough to mitigate my disappointment at missing the parrot.

My regret was exacerbated one chilly winter’s day, on a lagoon fronting a gray ocean, when I started chatting with another birder, who carried a camera with a telephoto lens. When I mentioned the Orange-bellied Parrot, his eyes lit up. He had seen and photographed one not more than 20 minutes beforehand at that very spot, and he gleefully showed me the photograph.

Two years on, when a wildlife biologist friend with experience of parrot monitoring warned me that the species was speeding rapidly to extinction, I made the decision to take the flight to Melaleuca after another unsuccessful hunt on the mainland. Even at that stage, in winter 2016, I thought I might be too late and merely have to make do with captive-bred birds that were still being released.

Into spring, I had the good fortune to be offered a facility trip for travel writers from the mainland to sample a luxury cruise experience around Bathurst Harbour. The vessel, the Odalisque, remains the best way to not only be delivered to the parrot breeding grounds in style but to explore the surrounding buttongrass lowlands for rare Ground Parrots and two other specialities of this region: Southern Emu-wren and Azure Kingfisher.

Without flying in, or taking a voyage from Hobart, the only other way to reach Melaleuca and the wider Bathurst Harbour region is to walk the South Coast Track, a hike taking six or seven days.

This year, I was invited to sail on the vessel again, on its delivery run from Hobart to Bathurst Harbour for the start of the operator’s cruising season. Thanks to a little more time this trip, the operators provided the chance to spend two days observing the rings on the Orange-bellied Parrots, identifying truly wild ones and, of course, the first fledglings learning flight and discovering the feeding stations. Frenzied activity, some adult birds still in mating rituals, fights over nest sites: an avian opera to the music of the parrot’s squeaky, chattering call.

All the while, rain and shine over the two days, flights chartered by Par-Avion Wilderness Tours arrived from Hobart, carrying twitchers from all over the world and their massive telephoto lenses.

But It’s not just the eyes of the international jet-setting birders focused on these bundles of sinew and feather at their last outpost, the birds chattering from tea-tree perches in the cold winds. The world is watching this tiny little parrot that refuses to die.

Donald Knowler is an author and journalist living in Tasmania. He writes a weekly column on birds for the Hobart Mercury, and this, along with his other work, can be viewed on his website.

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