Birdwatchers on the mainland have been conducting what can be described as a “mission impossible” this winter to track down the last of the orange-bellied parrots.
The coastlines of Victoria and South Australia have been the subject of the search to locate the mere handful of the parrots that have migrated from their breeding grounds in southern Tasmania to spend the winter on mainland coastal saltmarshes.
There are believed to be fewer than 50 orange-bellied parrots alive in the wild, a number determined from observation of birds at their last significant breeding ground at Melaleuca in Tasmania’s far south-west.
So far only nine orange-bellied parrots have been seen since their arrival in April but one piece of good news is that one of them was a captive-bred bird. This was released in Tasmania last breeding season and clearly has successfully made the winter migration.
Teams of volunteers have all winter been spread out along the coasts of the two states. For two winters I took part in the operation, joining birders monitoring the wetlands surrounding Werribee to the west of Melbourne. I can attest to the magnitude of the task – it really is a needle in a haystack situation. The parrots, after all, are only 20cm long and the entire coastline of the two states where they are likely to turn up covers a range of about 1000 kilometres.
The chances of seeing orange-bellied parrots might be slim but the birders always set off with great optimism. My own searches have always been centred on Werribee and although I have yet to find orange-bellied parrots, I have had some consolation in finding large flocks of a closely-related and similar species, the blue-winged parrot.
My hopes were raised initially when the blue-winged parrots first appeared. Binoculars and telescopes of those in my party were trained on the birds partly obscured in long grass and each one was studied carefully in the hope that it might reveal the distinctive plumage of the orange-bellied parrots, namely a splash of orange on the belly and a less extensive area of bright blue feathers on the wings. Alas, all the tiny parrots turned out to be of the blue-winged variety.
I couldn’t make a trip to Melbourne to coincide with the survey this year but I have since learned that only four birds have been seen in the general area of Werribee in western Port Philip Bay.
Although sightings of the parrots are infrequent, the surveys are important because they identify favoured winter habitat that might be in need of preservation.
The birders specifically are on the look-out for birds that have been ringed so individuals can be identified. The birds carry individual rings, or flags, of bright colour which are usually easy to read through telescopes and binoculars. Identifying individuals also aids the tracking of migration routes from Tasmania to the mainland.
A main reason for the steady decline of the parrots has been vanishing wintering areas of saltmarsh on the mainland, coupled with predation by feral animals like cats and foxes. As the population declines – the bird has the status of being critically endangered – there is the added problem of inbreeding.
Already there is a captive breeding problem at a special facility run by the Tasmanian Government Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment, and at mainland zoos, and birds have been taken from the wild to increase the genetic diversity of these populations. Young birds from these populations are released into the wild each year in the hope they will join the migration to the mainland.
Together with the birders’ winter surveys, a public relations campaign has been mounted on the mainland to draw attention to the plight of the parrot.
Trams rattling along Melbourne streets during my last survey carried advertising which read: “Declare your love for the orange-bellied parrot.” The slogans – with a big red heart and a picture of the parrot – highlight the work of the Melbourne Zoo and other wildlife establishments doing their bit to save the tiny Tassie parrot.