Sunshine Coast Birds

Birding and other wildlife experiences from the Sunshine Coast and elsewhere in Australia - and from overseas - with scribblings about travel, environmental issues, kayaking, hiking and camping.

Friday, 16 March 2018

The debacle that is the conservation status of Coxen's Fig-Parrot

While debate continues over the roll of recovery teams in managing the night parrot, the status of another imperilled parrot, Coxen's Fig-Parrot, has bizarrely been downgraded from critically endangered to endangered. This is another example of an endangered species recovery team going off the rails.

The Queensland Government's threatened species unit, which effectively doubles as the fig-parrot's recovery team, has long claimed the Coxen's Fig-Parrot occurs in four disjunct areas in south-east Queensland and north-east New South Wales, with a total population of between 50 and 250. No evidence has been offered to support these numbers; they amount to a wild guess.

The threatened species unit and the recovery team have long insisted the fig-parrot is regularly reported, but no record has been corroborated for a very long time by follow-up observations, a photograph, specimen, or sound-recording. The last corroborated sightings of the bird may have been as long ago as the late-1970s although a handful of these reports, while not confirmed by evidence or follow-up sightings, may be authentic. It's often said fig-parrots are so tiny and obscure they are easily overlooked, but they are not that difficult to locate when they are about. Plenty of good observers in this bird's range have looked long and hard without success for firm evidence of Coxen's Fig-Parrot.

The threatened species unit says now that because its estimate of the population is unchanged in recent years, the bird can no longer be regarded as critically endangered. So the parrot's status was downgraded to endangered by BirdLife International, the reason being that the bird's population "should not be considered as declining and instead could be considered stable". In the absence of evidence of a population decline, the bird does not qualify for listing under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List criteria.

Here is a comment from the threatened species unit head, Ian Gynther, to Rob Morris on Facebook: "The fact that this results in a down-listing to Endangered for a bird so seldom encountered and about which we lack so much basic knowledge is regrettable but it is, nevertheless, unavoidable based on the existing population thresholds."

In other words, unsubstantiated reports keep flowing to Gynther's team at such a rate that they have decided their estimated population of 50-250 is not declining and remains stable. Some observers are unkind enough to think this is scientific silliness writ large. This bird may in fact be extinct in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, but its conservation status is downgraded. Go figure.

In May last year I attended a talk given by two women closely associated with the threatened species unit – Rachael O'Flynn and Llana Kelly from Noosa and District Landcare – to the Noosa Parks Association on the Sunshine Coast. I listened as the pair talked about how the fig-parrots were out and about, how lucky we were to have them in our area, and how we need to plant lots of fig trees to boost their numbers. The audience was given the clear impression that Coxen's Fig-Parrot was doing quite well and had a bright future.

During question time, when I suggested to Ms O'Flynn and Ms Kelly that in fact there had been no corroborated records of the bird anywhere for decades, I was told essentially that I didn't know what I was talking about. Ms Kelly added that anyway, other wildlife will benefit from the good work being done for the fig-parrot; this may be true but is hardly relevant to the issue at hand.

Meanwhile, just like the night parrot recovery team, the threatened species unit is big on secrecy. When somebody reports a sighting of Coxen's Fig-Parrot, they are told by the threatened species unit not to share information with the birding community. No alerts are dispatched; the only people sent to check are Queensland Environment Department personnel. So the chances of corroborating the record with further sightings are seriously limited. Again, go figure.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Pectoral Sandpiper, Broad-billed Sandpiper & other shorebirds Toorbul-Godwin Beach area

Pectoral Sandpiper
A Pectoral Sandpiper was present today at Bishops Marsh near Toorbul. The bird was hanging around with about 12 Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, one of which had pretty well-defined breast markings. The Pec however wasn't difficult to find. Full marks to Stewart Melton for spotting this bird yesterday.

Pectoral Sandpiper

Pectoral Sandpiper

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper
Not too many shorebirds were present at the Toorbul high tide roost nearby but the mix of species below was nice. I've noticed this season that the birds at the roost have been extremely skittish and often they are absent when the tide is particularly high, as it was today. Local birders tell me that numbers using the roost have been affected adversely by cannon-netting by bird banders. People and their dogs are a constant problem. Birders are not blameless, often approaching the birds too closely. I was there recently when contractors for the Moreton Bay Regional Council, which is supposed to safeguard the site, ignored my pleas and mowed the grassy bank just as 3000 shorebirds had settled in; the birds immediately left and had not returned an hour later.

Gull-billed Tern, White-headed Stilt, Great Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit, Black-tailed Godwit
Other shorebirds about Toorbul, Bishops Marsh and a wetland along Freeman Road recently include Red-kneed Dotterel, good numbers of Black-tailed Godwit and Marsh Sandpiper. Brolga has been regular at Bishops Marsh.


Red-kneed Dotterel

Black-tailed Godwit

Marsh Sandpiper
Good numbers of Eastern Curlew were roosting amid mangroves at high tide some distance from the Toorbul roost.

Eastern Curlew
 Just six kilometres away from Toorbul in a straight line is Godwin Beach. This is a good spot during short windows of time before and after high tide. Last week I found three Broad-billed Sandpipers here on an incoming tide.

Broad-billed Sandpiper
Great Knots are common and this one was banded at Toorbul in 2012, so it has presumably undergone annual migrations amounting to many tens of thousands of kilometres. It would make the regular short journey to feed at Godwin Beach from its high tide roost. This could be Toorbul or on Bribie Island at Kakadu or Red Beach; the birds seem to move between the three main roosting sites quite a bit.

Great Knot
Godwin Beach is a good spot for Terek Sandpiper.

Terek Sandpiper
Bribie Island is close by and what follows is a selection of shorebirds seen over the past couple of weeks at Red Beach, Pacific Harbour and the Kakadu roost.

Greater Sand-Plover 

Bar-tailed Godwit

Lesser Sand-Plover

Pacific Golden Plover

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Second Night Parrot disappears

Night Parrot - Pic by John Young
The following is the transcript of my story in The Weekend Australian of 10-11 March, 2018.

A second critically endangered night parrot disappeared after its mate vanished when it was caught and fitted with a radio transmitter by a team of experts charged with saving the birds from extinction.

The revelation prompted calls for the federal government to sack the night parrot recovery team and appoint a senior public servant to oversee the conservation program.

The night parrot is one of the rarest birds in the world. It had scarcely been reported for more than a century before naturalist John Young photographed one in western Queensland in 2013.

A pair of night parrots were discovered in the East Murchison area of Western Australia in March 2017. The Weekend Australian reported two weeks ago that recovery team chief Allan Burbidge led an expedition to the site five months later. The team caught one of the parrots in a net and fitted it with a transmitter, but no trace of the bird was found subsequently.

Recovery team sources said for the next three nights, a second parrot called frequently at the site during the night as it tried to find its missing mate. The second bird then evidently vanished.

Dr Burbidge says the transmitter failed, and there is no evidence the bird fled the area because it was traumatised, or fell victim to a predator because it was injured or encumbered by the device.

But one of Dr Burbidge's team, Tasmanian zoologist Mark Holdsworth, said it was possible the parrot perished. “That couldn't be ruled out,” he said.

Dr Burbidge agreed a second parrot was calling at the site when the bird was caught. “Steps were taken to specifically avoid flushing or catching this bird,” he said. “The signal from the transmitter was lost on the first night but... one bird was roosting at the capture site for at least two nights after the capture. It later appeared to roost elsewhere.”

Zoologists Mark Carter and Chris Watson recorded the calls of what was believed to be a night parrot in the Northern Territory in January 2017. Night parrot recovery team guidelines warn birds should not be flushed from daytime roosts: “Doing so will expose them to diurnal predators and potential heat stress.”

But Mr Carter said the team urged him to flush birds to photograph them. He was told this was standard practice on Pullen Pullen, the Queensland reserve where Mr Young photographed his birds.

Referring to the WA capture, Mr Carter said: “Now we learn... the “experts” undertook extremely risky interventions.” Mr Carter said the team should be replaced by a senior statutory officer.

End of story.

What follows are expanded comments from Mark Carter, a well-regarded Alice Springs birding guide.

Commenting on an approach by the recovery team about the NT bird: "The idea was that I would flush the bird in daylight to get photographs to ‘confirm’ the presence of the species. I was assured that this was a common occurrence at Pullen Pullen and that it did no harm to the birds. They also made this request to the NT Government. I was against taking any such action as I felt the risk of flushed birds being injured or killed by predators or of disturbing any nests was too high just to further confirm what we already knew from sound recordings and observers hearing the birds call at the site."  

Elaborating on the possible fate of the two WA birds: “Now we learn that in one case at least ’the experts’ have been undertaking extremely risky interventions which are not justified by the possible outcomes. Currently we know of very few sites for this species and each individual bird has to be considered to be extremely valuable and precious. We know very little about their capacity to tolerate disturbance but the early indications are not promising- deliberate disturbance to the birds has huge potential to do harm."

One of Burbidge's expedition members, Mark Holdsworth, Tasmanian zoologist of orange-bellied parrot fame, begs to differ. Holdsworth took to Twitter to dismiss my first report as "bullshit". When I asked him to indicate errors in the story, Holdsworth responded by blocking me. I thought this was ironic given it was Holdsworth who had confirmed to me rumours about the capture before the story was published. Moreover, as indicated above, Holdsworth agreed it is not possible to say that the captured night parrot is dead or alive. "We have no way of knowing what happened to that bird,” he said.

It's worth noting that most of the 15 people on the night parrot recovery team were not aware of the plan to capture and tag a bird in WA. Asked if there was any obligation on him to consult the whole team, Burbidge told me: "Tracking of night parrots was identified as an action in the Night Parrot  Research Plan. Since 2014, there have been discussions in the recovery team regarding potential tracking projects." 

Burbidge says the netting and capture was approved by the Animal Ethics Committee of the WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Sunshine Coast Pelagic March 2018

Flesh-footed Shearwater

We departed Mooloolaba Marina on Sunday March 4, 2018 at 6.35am. A steady 10-12 knot westerly (a far from desirable direction), a swell of 1-1.5m, and partially cloudy skies were the order of the day, with the temperature reaching 30.  About half way out to the shelf we encountered a single Fluttering Shearwater – a species we don't often see - posing nicely.

A few Hutton's Shearwaters and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters were the only other birds we encountered before cutting the engine off the shelf at 9.30am, 33 nautical miles offshore in 300 metres: 26.3865 S, 153.52436 E. We began laying a berley trail and were soon joined by a couple of Flesh-footed Shearwaters; a few of these birds were about the boat the whole time we were on the shelf.

Flesh-footed Shearwater
We'd not been out there long when we saw a distant Buller's Shearwater on the horizon which unfortunately didn't come close. Later in the morning a female Lesser Frigatebird flew over.

Lesser Frigatebird
A couple of Pomarine Jaegers put in appearances, as did a single Tahiti Petrel. However, with that gentle westerly, it was pretty dead out there so we turned around at 12pm after drifting south-west for 5 nautical miles.  We stopped in 160 metres to try our luck with another berley trail and saw a second Lesser Frigatebird and more Pomarine Jaegers. We arrived back at the marina at 3.35pm, seeing a few more Hutton's Shearwaters and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters on the way back.

Hutton's Shearwater
PARTICIPANTS: Greg Roberts (organiser), Toby Imhoff (skipper), Zoe Williams (deckhand),
Eric Anderson, Margie Baker, Tony Baker, Sarah Beavis, Phil Cross, Jo Culican, Alex Ferguson, John Gunning, Nikolas Haass, Bob James, Elliot Leach, Sue Lee, James Martin, Rob Kernot, Andrew Naumann, Karen Rose, Raja Stephenson, Carolyn Stewart. Ebird list.

SPECIES: Total (Maximum number at one time)

Tahiti Petrel 1 (1),
Flesh-footed Shearwater 12 (5),
Wedge-tailed Shearwater 25 (6),
Hutton's Shearwater 8 (2),
Fluttering Shearwater 1 (1),
Buller's Shearwater 1 (1),
Lesser Frigatebird 2 (1),
Pomarine Jaeger 6 (2),
Crested Tern 15 (15),
Silver Gull 3 (3).

Offshore Bottle-nosed Dolphin 15 (6)

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Rainforest Bulldozed on Sunshine Coast

Rainforest bulldozed along Sippy Creek, Sunshine Coast - Pic Ted Fensom
The clearing of rainforest and other native vegetation on the Sunshine Coast is accelerating as the Queensland Government pushes ahead with a massive $1 billion program to expand and upgrade the Bruce Highway. At the same time, landholders on the coast are making the most of the absence of meaningful state land-clearing laws, with the rampant destruction of native forest being documented on at least nine properties.

What is happening on the Sunshine Coast is indicative of what is happening across the state as the recently re-elected Labor government stalls on its pledge to restrict land-clearing.

Forest converted to mulch piles, Steve Irwin Way, Sunshine Coas - Pic  Ted Fensom
Of particular concern on the Sunshine Coast is the fact that the government has sliced into the Palmview Conservation Park, Mooloolah River National Park, Beerwah State Forest and other reserves to make way for its roadworks. National parks are supposed to be sacrosanct and there is little point in protecting land as reserves if they can be carved up at the stroke of a pen.

Environmentalist activist Ted Fensom has documented the extent and nature of the clearing across a large swathe of the southern Sunshine Coast. He says critical habitat for koalas and numerous plant and animal species have been devastated without meaningful environmental assessment studies being conducted, and with little consideration for far-reaching ecological consequences and the loss of biodiversity.

Old growth trees felled at Palmwoods, Sunshine Coast - Pic Ted Fensom
According to Fensom, the highway works are particularly devastating. “The area affected by the huge clearing for works associated with the Bruce Highway is beyond comprehension and stretches many kilometres north to south,” he says. “Koala habitat and precious rainforest has been turned into giant mulch piles. These pockets of biodiversity are disappearing every week around the Sunshine Coast.”

According to the federal Department of Environment and Energy, the roadworks are affecting populations of koala, listed as a threatened species under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, as well as subtropical lowland rainforest, listed as a threatened ecological community. However, the department approved the development with conditions.

Rainforest logging and clearing at Sippy Creek, Sunshine Coast. Circled sign says: "Environmental Protection Zone"
Fenson says the rate of tree-clearing elsewhere around the Sunshine Coast is “going beserk”. Native vegetation has recently been - or is in the process of being - bulldozed or logged at four sites around Palmwoods; two properties near Woombye; and two areas around Caloundra, including a koala habitat corridor at Little Mountain; and a 60-hectare holding in Yandina. Areas where further clearing is planned include Tanawah North, Coolum West, Nambour Heights, Buderim, Bli Bli, Mooloolah and Beerwah East.
Activist Ted Fensom
The state Liberal National Party Government in 2012 gutted the Beattie Labor Government's 2004 laws controlling land-clearing. In 2016, the minority Palaszczuk Labor Government failed in its bid to again tighten up land-clearing laws when crossbenchers joined the LNP – ever the slave to the old school Bjelke-Petersen Nationals - to defeat the move. An estimated 300,000 hectares of Queensland bushland are being bulldozed annually as a consequence.

Clearing for a Bruce Highway on ramp, Sippy Downs, Sunshine Coast
Labor was returned to government in the November 2017 election, this time with a majority.
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk pledged to reintroduce the tree-clearing restrictions but no time-frame was set, and the state's new Environment Minister, Leeanne Enoch, has had little to say about the matter. Her office declined to respond to requests for comment. The Queensland Department of Main Roads and Transport also declined to comment.

Land-clearing at Woombye, Sunshine Coast - Pic Ted Fensom
It is a matter of considerable regret that the Greens and some in the environmental movement pay little attention to the land-clearing scandal. Their focus in Queensland has for some time centred on the proposed Adani coal mine at the expense of just about everything else. One leading figure in the birding community dismissed concerns about land-clearing as “spin” designed to divert attention from Adani.

On Twitter: Paul Sullivan is BirdLife Australia CEO
Adani is a very important issue, to be sure, but it is a proposal and one that may well not fly as its proponents struggle to secure finance. Uncontrolled land-clearing is happening right now. Ted Fensom's photographs on this post, all taken recently across the southern Sunshine Coast, speak for themselves. They reflect what is happening across Queensland.

Forest destruction at Tanawah, Sunshine Coast - Pic Ted Fensom

Bulldozer at work at Palmwoods, Sunshine Coast - Pic Ted Fensom

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Captured Night Parrot Disappears in WA

A Night Parrot at the WA site where a bird was captured: Pic by Bruce Greatwich 
The following news story written by me was published in The Weekend Australian of 24-25 February, 2018.

Rare night parrot vanishes after intervention by recovery team

A critically endangered night parrot disappeared after being caught and fitted with a radio transmitter in Western Australia by the team of experts charged with saving the birds from extinction.

No surveys were undertaken to determine how many parrots survived in the remote East Murchison site before the night parrot recovery team netted the bird.

The news emerged as it was revealed that almost half the nests of the night parrot found in Queensland were deserted after being discovered by scientists. Critics say misdirected, if well-meaning, interference in managing the species may contribute to its demise.

Researcher Neil Hamilton with the captured Night Parrot: Pic from Twitter
The parrot once was widespread across inland Australia, but numbers plummeted from the late-1800s. The first photograph of a night parrot was taken only in 2013, by naturalist John Young.

As few as 20 night parrots survive in a small area on and near Pullen Pullen Reserve where Mr Young took his photographs. Three nests uncovered by scientists working for Bush Heritage Australia, which owns Pullen Pullen, subsequently failed to produce offspring. BHA says one nest failed due to heat stress; a snake is believed to have eaten the eggs in another nest; and it is not known why a single chick in the third nest died. A BHA spokeswoman said five other nests successfully produced birds.

In March last year, the night parrot was discovered at the Each Murchison site in WA by four ornithologists. Details of the site were sent to recovery team head Allan Burbidge, who led an expedition to the area last August.

Dr Burbidge and his team strung fine nets in an area of spinifex where ornithologist Bruce Greatwich has photographed a night parrot. Researchers walked through the spinifex in a line, hoping to drive parrots from their day roosts into the nets.

A parrot was caught and fitted with a GPS and radio tracking antenna.

Researcher Neil Hamilton was photographed handling the bird soon after its capture. No trace of the bird was found subsequently despite extensive land and aerial searches; its fate is unknown.

The antenna was intended to allow researchers to track the movements of night parrots. Two parrots were captured and tagged in Queensland - one in 2015 and one in 2016. Some experts believe no more birds should be caught until comprehensive surveys are undertaken to determine population numbers.

WA site where the Night Parrot was found: Pic by Bruce Greatwich 
Ornithologist Ian May, an authority on arid zone parrots, said the role of recovery teams for endangered species should be restricted to the management of habitat, predators and disease control.

“They should not be handling wild birds except for the purpose of disease control and only then in the most extreme circumstances if an obvious problem exists,” he said. “Handling critically endangered birds in the wild should cease and shouldn't be permitted until all other management options are exhausted and then considered only if numbers... have substantially increased."

Dr Burbidge, principal research scientist with the WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, said the radio-tracking antenna was “presumed to have failed”.

Dr Burbidge said monitoring a parrot in WA was necessary because its habitat differed from where the tagged Queensland birds were studied.

“Our understanding of foraging habitat is limited. A sound understanding of feeding habitat preferences is required in order to inform management decisions,” he said.

While government sources confirmed no surveys were undertaken before the capture to determine parrot numbers in the area, Dr Burbidge said “various levels of monitoring” were under way at four WA sites.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Rainbow Beach & Cooloola February 2018

Beach Stone-Curlew
We camped for three nights this week at Pt Carlos, outside Rainbow Beach. There was no sign of the Large-tailed Nightjars that were so evident here in September 2016. A family of Bush Stone-Curlews in the camping ground were the first birds we saw.

Bush Stone-Curlew
Shorebirds on the sandflats at low tide included good numbers of Red-necked Stint, Grey-tailed Tattler, Pacific Golden Plover, Lesser Sand-Plover and Bar-tailed Godwits in breeding plumage (elist).

Bar-tailed Godwit

Grey-tailed Tattler

Lesser Sand-Plover

Pacific Golden-Plover
A Squirrel Glider was spotted above our camp and a Common Ringtail emerged from its hiding place in a bunch of mistletoe after being harassed by miners.

Common Ringtail

Squirrel Glider
I visited the spit at Inskip Point several times in the hope of more interesting shorebird fare but exceptionally high tides didn't help. There were very large numbers of Little Tern, with Common Tern in smaller numbers. Three Double-banded Plovers in non-breeding plumage - suggesting they had oversummered - were of interest, as was a trio of Beach Stone-Curlews, including a fledged youngster.

Double-banded Plover

Little Tern
A Frilled Lizard along the road was nice; the Great Sandy World Heritage Area is one of the most southerly known sites for this iconic species. There was no sign at all of Black-breasted Buttonquail at Inskip Point - not even old platelets; clearly they are gone from this site. Nobody is sure why as they had been there for many years and disappeared relatively quickly. It could be that a feral cat learned the art of catching them, in which case the entire population would be doomed. 

Frilled Lizard

Frilled Lizard
At Bullocks Head a female Shining Flycatcher showed nicely in the mangroves, as did a pair of Torresian Kingfishers (elist).

Shining Flycatcher

Torresian Kingfisher
I visited the Noosa Plain of Cooloola in the early morning. I heard three Eastern Ground Parrots calling just before dawn and flushed a male King Quail from the track. Then I saw a Brush Bronzewing on the track, about half-way between the pump station and the area of damp heath. As usual it was extremely skittish and this distant image was all I managed.  A recently fledged Channel-billed Cuckoo flew overhead (elist).

Channel-billed Cuckoo

Brush Bronzewing

I visited the rainforest at Bymien - where plenty of Rose-crowned Fruit-Doves and a few Wompoo Fruit-Doves were calling - and Lake Poona.

Lake Poona
 Some more of the birds seen in the area generally follow.

Little Egret

Scarlet Honeyeater

Striated Heron

Wompoo Fruit-Dove