Newsletter of Land for Wildlife and Garden for Wildlife in Central Australia
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G'day LFWers, GFWers,

The Alice Springs Show has come and gone for another year and it was great to see so many of you out and about. Many thanks to the generous folks of the Australian Plants Society for once again hosting the LFW/GFW stall within their beautiful display.

Next cab off the ranks is the Desert Smart Eco Fair, which will be at the Olive Pink Botanic Garden from 9th-11th of August and you can find more details at the Eco Fair website here: http://ecofair.org.au/. LFW/GFW will again be attending and we will be running a workshop on conservation property planning. All are welcome and it'd be great to have a few familiar faces there to tell us about the progress you've made on your block since we last saw it.

Continuing good news has arrived from across the Tasman Sea this week with NZ Land for Wildlife partner Alan Fleming reporting in from the North Island offices of Forest & Bird. Alan informs us their Land for Wildlife program is progressing well and already has 12 properties signed up.  A recent addition was a beautiful block owned by NZ’s best known jockey who has a remnant stand of Kahikatea Dacrycarpus dacrydioides, in the Waikato (this is NZ’s tallest tree which was largely taken out during land drainage days - more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dacrycarpus_dacrydioides).
 
Forest & Bird have also launched Garden for Wildlife in Auckland and a website will be up and running soon, so we'll keep you informed.

The other activity that has kept the LFW coordinators busy recently was our annual biodiversity survey, this year conducted at the Dead Centre Bowhunters Club on the western fringe of Conlons Lagoon. The coordinators were ably assisted by more than 20 volunteers who turned up as part of ALEC's Biodiversity Matters program. The surveys all went well, and we'll feature a summary of what we found in a later edition of Irrante.
The Night Parrot Revealed
by Chris Watson


Night Parrot Pezoporus occidentalis. Reproduction of painting by Melbourne artist Steve Davidson used with permission - http://themelbournebirder.com.

In 2005 the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology published its report of the rediscovery of the iconic Ivory-billed Woodpecker Campephilus principalis, rightful claimant to the title of Grailbird in US ornithology, and presumed extinct since the 1920s. Exhaustive searches of the Cache and White River systems ultimately produced no further evidence and the "rediscovery" is now widely discredited. The similarly mythical Pink-headed Duck Rhodonessa caryophyllacea, may have been sighted in 1988 on the banks of the Brahmaputra (northeastern India), by Rory Nugent and Shankar Barua - but we can't be sure. The only known photographs of this species alive are from 1925, and the last specimen was shot in India, in 1935. That much of its habitat lies in remote and poorly surveyed parts of Myanmar is a cause for some optimism and its official classification is Critically Endangered, rather than Extinct, but despite a few reports in the last decade, no evidence of its continued existence has ever been produced. Here in Australia there still remains one living species that, despite being seen and identified by a few determined birders in its difficult north Queensland home in most years, no photographs of a live specimen have ever been produced - the Buff-breasted Button-quail Turnix olivii.

The world of birds offers many tantalising mysteries to the intrepid adventurer, but pre-eminent among these has always been the Night Parrot - a bird tailor-made for controversy. A real-life enigma. The Ghost Who Squawks.

The Night Parrot has laboured under many unfortunate monikers for a long time now; The Loch Ness Monster of birds, The Tasmanian Tiger of birds, The Holy Grail of Birding, The Fat Budgie, or simply, The Ex-Parrot. If you have been following recent reports in the press however, you will understand that none of these epithets is now fitting, if indeed they ever were... well, it may still be the Holy Grail for some birdos. But enough wallowing in fanciful fiction - a good deal of the mystery surrounding the species has recently been banished forever.

The myth is dead, but the enigma lives on. On Wednesday the 3rd of July 2013, Queensland naturalist John Young revealed at an exclusive, invitation only, private function at the Queensland Museum, irrefutable evidence of the species' continued existence at an undisclosed site in the southwest of the state. Marking the culmination of many years of fieldwork and study including 17000 hours at the one site, John managed to capture 600 high quality digital photographs and 17 seconds of high definition video footage of the species, very much alive, in its native habitat of thick spinifex. Only a few photographs were displayed at the strict no-cameras and no-recorders event, and only 6 seconds of the video footage, but the images have been studied by several independent forensic photographic and ornithological experts and all are in agreement - it is the real deal.

One of the photographs, albeit heavily watermarked to protect copyright, appeared on the front page of The Weekend Australian accompanying an article by Tony Koch on June 29th. The following link will direct you to the historic online edition which is no longer subject to the pay-per-view conditions imposed on the weekend of release - it's old news now: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/health-science/tweets-in-the-night-a-flash-of-green-is-this-our-most-elusive-bird/story-e6frg8y6-1226671683508

 Since this first appearance in the media, the story has done the rounds and an online search will take you to any number of articles that have summarised the find with wildly varying degrees of accuracy. The best of these is one that appeared on the blog of Greg Roberts, a freelance science journalist with an excellent knowledge of Australian fauna, and a history of covering John Young's more doubtful claims in the past. You can read Greg's blog post here; 

http://sunshinecoastbirds.blogspot.com.au/2013/07/john-young-and-paradise-parrot.html 

This is some of the best media coverage that the story has received, with many other reports perpetuating some old myths and starting up a few new ones. Chief among these is the fallacy that the species was presumed extinct. Very few, if any, people with any interest in the subject thought that the species had already gone extinct. This would be a difficult assumption to maintain in the face of much evidence to the contrary. Although the last specimen was actively acquired in 1912, two dead specimens were recently found within 200 kilometres of each other in western Queensland; one in 1990 and the second in 2006. Dead birds have to come from living populations. Other news reports have claimed this to be the first time the bird has been seen alive in over 100 years. This is another clear falsehood - the excitement in the ornithological community is over the first photographs of a live specimen, ever. Barely a year passes in the outback without one or two reports surfacing of observations of the species. While many of these reports have common and questionable characteristics (they occur in poor light, observers had fleeting glimpses, observers were not bird experts or even practised bird-watchers) and are rightly treated with some skepticism, not all of them are likely to be apocryphal. Some observations have been by highly respected, experienced field ornithologists, and some have been ratified by peer review as recently as 2005 in Western Australia.  Add to this the fact that anyone seeking or claiming to have seen the Night Parrot has always been treated to raised eyebrows and often some level of derision and labels like "Yowie Hunter", and it's easy to understand that there are probably other sightings that have gone unreported due to the fear of ridicule or the loss of professional credibility.

So where to from here? As Greg's article outlines, John Young arrives with plenty of baggage. His pursuit of rare and endangered wildlife over the last few decades has frequently landed him at the centre of controversy. While no-one can deny John's extraordinary achievement in this most recent instance, many have voiced concerns over whether he is the best person to have as sole custodian of an entire species. By not sharing the knowledge gained from his discovery publicly, this is essentially how John has set himself up.

He has known about this population of the bird for at least 5 years and has told no-one about them, raising the question of whether he has the best interests of the birds in mind or his own reputation and "first finder" status. While he claims it has taken him until May of this year to finally capture a photograph of a live bird, he has been in possession of a recording of their call since as early as 2008. While the photographs are spectacular in themselves, and provide satisfying evidence of the bird's existence, they don't really provide any advantages to other field ornithologists looking for the species; we already know what the bird looks like and have 24 museum specimens to study at close quarters.

It is a recording of the call of the bird that field ornithologists and professional ecologists have been waiting for. This will provide an immeasurable advantage in any attempts to re-locate populations of the bird elsewhere. As, by John's own accounts, the bird is so difficult to observe, knowing what it sounds like will be the crucial tool for professional scientists hoping to identify remnant populations in other locations, and prevent the destruction or disturbance of their habitat. The importance of this recording is difficult to overstate. One person, John Young, is in possession of the only one in existence. To hold back such a crucial tool for field surveys of the species is highly questionable, hampers further attempts to advance our understanding of the species, and has raised suspicions in some quarters as to John's motivations. That he has been in possession of this critical piece of knowledge for some years, while potential Night Parrot habitat has been going under the dozer blade for developments of all types across the outback, has some in the ornithological community expressing pessimism that the call will ever be released. Certainly John Young has stated in several interviews that he never intends to release his recording of the bird's call, and in some interviews he has said that he never intends to play it again in the field himself (a technique known as playback or broadcast survey in which playing a recording of the call is intended to elicit a territorial or investigative response from the bird). Neither was the call played for the privileged few who gained an invitation to the auditorium on that historic Wednesday.   

This story has a long way to run yet, and there is much that we don't know about John's discovery. How has he funded such extensive periods of remote and expensive fieldwork? How does he plan to recoup these costs? What more of his discovery will be released for the benefit of other field ornithologists and the wider community? Will ongoing research at the (rightly) undisclosed site be by allowed by independent experts in the field, or conducted by John Young's team? Will his ongoing work be sanctioned and supervised by wildlife authorities considering John's unwillingness (so far) to share his discoveries more openly? All this and more remains to be seen.

One thing we can be sure of is that John's skills and admirable tenacity as a field ornithologist have certainly borne fruit by dispelling the long standing "myth" of the Night Parrot. It need no longer be discussed in hushed tones, or dismissed as an impossibility at any given site. John claims, "this is the most difficult bird I have ever worked on". For a man who has worked so successfully on as many famously difficult species as John Young, this one statement provides ample explanation for why the birds have been so hard to find. He has finally shown us what has been there all along, and perhaps his find will inspire the rest of us to redouble our efforts at looking for this fascinating species elsewhere.

This is 9 year old Ziggy Solczaniuk from Ross River Homestead with the pelt of the feral moggy he caught around the chook shed. The Ross River Resort is a Land for Wildlife member, and home to one of the the few breeding populations of Bush Stone-curlews anywhere near Alice Springs. Ziggy and his dad Shane have been busily removing feral cats from the wildlife habitat surrounding the homestead (and the chook shed) since the start of the year. Shane estimates that in the most recent 6 week block they have caught close to 80 cats. If you've read any of the recent studies on the amount of native wildlife that can be despatched by a single cat (see the link below), then you'll understand why we think Shane and Ziggy are to be congratulated for their efforts. With every cat removed they are ensuring that the Ross River property remains a Land for Wildlife

http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/journal/natural-born-killers-the-problem-with-cats.htm
Books and more...
 
Feralscan Pest Animals Phone App
Invasive Animals CRC


This smart phone application has been available for a few months now, and the LFW coordinators have been using it on their phones to test it out. The app allows you to view species profiles and acts as a pocket field guide to invasive animal species in Australia. The distribution maps are clear and the images are useful, but one of the best features is the inclusion of audio files for most of the species, allowing you to hear what the animals sound like - very useful for birds. The only criticisms we have, is that there are only four invasive bird species listed with two important NT pests missing from the list, Spotted Dove and House Sparrow. Also, it would be good if future updates allowed greater interactivity between users and the feralscan database; it seems feasible that users of the app could be able to log observations in the field and contribute directly to the database through their phones.

The app is available for iPads as well and can be downloaded for free from the IACRC website at the following link; 
http://www.feral.org.au/mobile-phone-apps/


Webwatch...
The Weed News Digest - a page devoted to the latest news in the world of weeds

http://weedsnetwork.com/traction?type=digest_html&proj=WeedsNews&sdate=20130715&edate=20130725

An in-depth look at the world of illegal egg collecting - perhaps relevant to the protection of the Night Parrot discovery site
http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/07/22/130722fa_fact_rubinstein?currentPage=all

ALEC video footage of LFW biodiversity surveys at Alice Springs Archery Complex
http://vimeo.com/69926756


Photo Competition...
The entries for the LFW/GFM photographic competition have been assessed and we are happy to announce that we have decided on the winners.

Moses Waring submitted his engaging series of photos depicting Western Bowerbirds at the Olive Pink Botanic Garden (the first three images below) to take out the junior division. Moses is a young man who is rapidly earning himself a reputation as something of a natural history videographer as well as a photographer. You can view some of his wildlife video clips from up and down the NT at his own website here; 
http://mwvoab.blogspot.com.au/

For the open section, we couldn't decide between Barb Gilfedder's monitor pictures and Moses' dad Richard's stunning bird pictures - see some of them below - so we've managed to find a camera for each of them.

Thanks for participating and sharing these stunning images. We wish you all many more happy days of tracking and snapping our local wildlife. We'd love to feature some pictures taken with your new cameras when you get the chance to send some in.

Thanks finally to the people at Canon Australia for the chance to run a competition with such great prizes. It looks like everyone's a winner.
A stunning portrait of an adult male Orange Chat Epthianura aurifrons, at the sewage ponds by Richard Waring.
Another great submission from Richard Waring. This time a male Variegated Fairy-wren Malurus lamberti, in glorious technicolour breeding plumage. Richard has captured the bird engaged in territorial posturing that few get to see. Fairy-wrens will puff themselves up like this in the face of a perceived threat, and flare their cheek patches to make themselves look as impressive as possible. It's certainly impressive when seen this close up.
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That's your lot for this month

We hope to see some of you at the Eco Fair in August, and our ears (and email inboxes) are always open for more interesting LFW/GFW stories from your patch, so don't hesitate to send us your photos and stories.

Cheers,

Jesse, Chris, Matt & Bill
July 2013.
 

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