A night parrot has been photographed in Western Australia, adding another twist to the mysterious history of the species that was presumed extinct until it was rediscovered in Queensland four years ago.
It is the first verified sighting of the bird in WA for almost 100 years and follows a history of unverified sightings, disbelieved reports and futile ecological surveys that rivals the hunt for the (presumably still) extinct Thylacine in Tasmania.
The discovery was made by a group of four friends from Broome who have dedicated the better part of seven years to locating the bird, examining detailed maps, trekking into likely habitats, and spending evenings in the state’s arid interior listening for unusual bird calls.
This month, two days into a trip to an undisclosed location near a salt lake somewhere in inland WA, they heard “some really interesting calls”.
“The calls to us were unfamiliar,” one of the group, Bruce Greatwich, told Guardian Australia. “We are quite experienced in these habitats so to hear something new was quite exciting.”
The calls were different to those recorded in the Queensland night parrot population, described by researchers in 2005 as “a ‘ding-ding’ call similar to that of a bell miner” followed by “a short frog-like ‘grieet’,” but were enough to indicate the bird might be present.
The next morning a night parrot darted out in front of one of the group, George Swann, while he was walking through spinifex looking for entirely different birds.
It was green and yellow with black barred feathers. The common description is of a big, dumpy budgerigar, about the same size as a rainbow lorikeet.
Swann, described by Greatwich as an “old-school birder”, called the others over.
“We were able to go down and re-find it and we had our cameras at the ready to get a photo,” Greatwich said.
Ordinarily, he added, they would never disturb a nocturnal bird in the daytime, “but in this instance we knew we had to get a photo”.
“We were elated, as excited as you could be,” he said. “To have something happen that we have worked towards for a long time and lots of people have tried to achieve … we were clearly very, very excited.”
Credit for the discovery is being shared between Swann, Greatwich, Adrian Boyle and Nigel Jackett.
Boyle and Swann are expert consultants to Monash University organisation Research Ecology and Jackett is a warden at the Broome Bird Observatory. All four have experience working in the science and ecology fields but undertook the hunt for the parrot as a passion project, working the trip in around annual leave and family commitments.
Greatwich rattles off acknowledgements like an Academy Award winner, thanking their families for indulging the obsession, fellow WA birdwatchers Neil Hamilton, Tegan Douglas and Aneta Creighton, and ornithologist John Young, who discovered the night parrot population in western Queensland.
The known range of the parrot in Queensland, more than 2,000km away from WA, was expanded last year to include Diamantina national park in the states’s central west.
“It has been many years in the making,” Greatwich said. “It’s very humbling.”
The discovery could have a significant impact on mining development in parts of WA once presumed to be night parrot habitat.
“This is irrefutable evidence,” Rohan Clarke, head of Research Ecology, said. “We know that night parrots do occur in Western Australia now. Mining companies, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Parks and Water … they will have to place a lot more import into reported sightings now or in the future when they are making an assessment around potential developments or habitat destruction in the area.”
The night parrot group won’t say where they saw the bird, lest they be targeted by poachers, simply giving a broad description of “dry inland areas” that covers about a third of the state.
The last recorded sightings of the parrot in WA was in the Pilbara in 1912, when the only known specimen for more than 100 years was collected.
There was also a possible night parrot nest discovered in the Pilbara in 1971, and in 2005 Fortescue Metals Group was required to consider a night parrot management plan for its Pilbara Iron Ore Hub, a large mine located halfway between Pannawonica and Tom Price.
Clarke said the evidence from Queensland, used by the WA parrot watchers to locate the bird, was that it nested in unburned spinifex, often alongside some kind of shelter, such as a salt lake, gypsum plain or rocky outcrop.
That means there could be patches of viable night parrots habitat anywhere from inland WA across the southern Northern Territory and northern South Australia to Queensland and north-west New South Wales. It also suggests parrots are likely to be glued to a tiny pocket of habitat and are extremely vulnerable to localised habitat destruction, Clarke said.
“It wouldn’t take much if there was a development in that area to have a significant impact,” he said.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 23 Mar 2017.