Although I had lived in Tasmania for nearly 20 years, I never laid eyes on one of the world’s rarest wild birds, the orange-bellied parrot, until late 2016.
I had often stood on the runway at Cambridge Airport in Hobart waving off 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 of birds spotted, take a photograph and be on my way.
There are two spots at Melaleuca where in the summer months it is guaranteed to see a parrot, either the wild ones or the more abundant released captive ones, 71 birds in total in the 2017/18 season. Another feeding station is on private land.
Instead of flying to Melaleuca, I instead 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.
Then in early 2016, 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 I thought I might be too late and merely have to make do with captive-bred birds which 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, on the Odalisque run by Tasmanian Boat Charters, around Bathurst Harbour. I finally got to see the bird, and I was not disappointed. What’s more, I identified returning birds by their bands.
The orange-bellied parrot breeds at only one known site amid the buttongrass at Melaleuca in one of the remotest places on earth beyond the polar regions. At the start of spring the wild population numbered just 19 birds returning from the mainland – three females and 16 males – and during the Tasmanian summer months frantic and complex efforts were made to boost this population by the introduction of 23 captive-bred birds. During the season 29 young were also produced by Melaleuca breeding pairs.
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 a time in the 1980s when numbers were counted at about 200 to the handfuls that in the past six years have returned from their wintering grounds across Bass Strait to Melaleuca. The reasons for the decline are not fully understood but historical habitat loss of saltmarsh in mainland states where parrots feed in winter certainly is a factor.
When it first became evident parrot numbers were decreasing, the Orange-bellied Parrot Recovery Program was started in 1983 and over three decades there have been costly and time-consuming efforts to halt the decline. These have involved numerous studies, extensive monitoring, and input from federal and state agencies, universities and conservation organisations, plus an extensive captive-breeding program at zoos and private agencies to maintain the genetic diversity of an insurance population.
Despite this effort, numbers have resolutely continued to fall. And some of those involved in the conservation effort now concede the species is functionally extinct.
Meanwhile, the scientists on site are pressing on with releasing birds from captivity, monitoring the occurrence and health of birds. The most dramatic intervention, though, remains nestling transfers from captive-bred stock.
The hands-on approach to parrot survival does not stop once the birds have left Melaleuca in March on their arduous journey along the west coast of Tasmania, across Bass Strait and into the saltmarsh wetlands on the mainland.
In another first, in autumn 2017, captive birds released at Melaleuca at the start of the breeding season were re-captured. A flock of females were held in captivity over the winter and re-released at Melaleuca in the spring. This “ranching” action was to avoid attrition rates of captive-bred females during migration.
Birds born at Melaleuca are also being caught to be ranched. At the end of the 2018 breeding season, half of the 29 juveniles were caught to be held over winter. These were mainly females because there is a male-female imbalance in the population and females were considered too precious to make the migratory journey.
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 Denny King’s hut and another shack, scattered huts serving hikers and staff from the Department of Primary Industry, Water, Parks and Environment, and the white quartzite runway used by the light aircraft bringing in tourists, scientists and increasing numbers of ornithologists wanting to observe and photograph the parrot.
The flight in reveals jagged mountains which 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.
I had the good fortune to join the Odalisque again this season for its position run from Hobart to Bathurst Harbour at the start of the summer season. All the while, rain and shine over the two days I spent in the area, the Par-Avion flights arrived at Melaleuca after navigating a gap between the East and West Arthurs mountain range en route from Hobart, carrying twitchers from all over the world, with 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.
Habitat and distribution: Migratory, breeding only in coastal south-west Tasmania and spending the winter in coastal Victoria and South Australia. In Tasmania it occurs in buttongrass moorland interspersed with patches of forest or tea tree scrub. Diet: Seeds of several sedges and heath plants, including buttongrass. Its main food preferences are found in sedgelands which have not been burned for between 3-15 years. Also included in the diet are seeds of three Boronia species and the everlasting daisy, Helichrysum pumilum. After breeding, migrating birds move gradually northwards up the west coast, through the Hunter Group and King Island in Bass Strait and on to the mainland. On the journey the birds usually feed on beach-front vegetation including salt tolerant species such as sea rocket, Cakile maritima. They also eat various coastal native and introduced grasses. Breeding: Nests in hollows in eucalypt trees that grow adjacent to its feeding plains. In early October the birds arrive in the south west and depart after the breeding season, usually in March and April. Four to six eggs are laid. Song: The alarm call is a harsh, rapidly repeated ‘zit-zit-zit’, also described as a “buzzing”, usually given while the bird is rising from a perch or the ground. In level flight, a single ‘‘tseet’’ note is given each time the bird dips. The call is one of the surest methods of identification as the appearance of the plumage often varies according to the light. Size: 22-25cm.