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Looking for a night parrot in a haystack? Found one

Steve Murphy holds the worlds only ever captured Night Parrot. Picture: Rachel Barr Somewhere beneath the spinifex, nestled amid seemingly unending gibber rock plains and red soil, lies the holy grail of bird watching.

The critically endangered night parrot has been sighted by a rare few since it was thought to be extinct in the 1960s, and never before­ in recorded history has it been held by human hand. But after 18 months of long nights spent using camera traps and following the bird’s calls into the arid landscape, researchers from Queensland have made a significant breakthrough. They have captured and electronically tagged the diminutive night parrot for the first time.

Already, the resulting data on the bird’s hitherto unknown foraging behaviour is offering hope that the creature can be saved.

The Australian has secured exclusive­ footage of the capture and release of a night parrot and travelled to the secret location where a conservation site is being established to try to protect the only known population.

Nocturnal and nomadic, the ground-dwelling bird has famously avoided detection. There have been a few accepted records of the bird since 1935, with a handful of sightings and two carcasses the only evidence of its existence.

In 2013, The Australian revealed a night parrot popul­ation had been discovered by naturalist John Young, who had dedicated more than a decade to finding the bird. Having amassed 17,000 hours covering 325,000sq km of desert, Mr Young finally found and photographed the night parrot­ in cattle-grazing country far west of Longreach in central Queensland.

The discovery was not without controversy — claims of photo ­retouching continue to hover over some of Mr Young’s images — but experts were convinced the bird-watching devotee had found the night parrot’s core habitat.

The location was kept secret to protect the population from poachers — the bird is so rare it could fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars on the black market — and to avoid an onslaught of obsessive bird watchers who, without realising, could present equal danger to the fragile habitat.

Ornithologist Steve Murphy was commissioned to investigate the habitat further under a contract from Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group, which was required by the Department of Environment to fund a research­ program into night parrot ecology as an offset for a mine development in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

Steve Murphy, with field assistant Rachel Barr, records calls among the spinifex in the secret Queensland location where a rare night parrot was eventually captured and tagged. Picture: Lyndon MechielsenAfter 18 months of searching, Dr Murphy and his partner, Rach­el Barr, finally netted a night parrot on Easter Saturday this year. Under unimaginable pressure not to harm the bird, the pair quickly placed it in a cloth bag, exposing a section just big enough to take a few feather samples and place a small, battery-operated tracker on its back.

There was no time then to enjoy the moment but Dr Murphy and Ms Barr have since been able to celebrate being the first people to hold a bird some spend their whole lives trying to find.

“When we had the bird … it was terrible to be honest … there was an enormous responsibility, being the first people to touch one,” Dr Murphy said. “But since then we have looked at each other and gone: ‘Wow, we really did it!’ ’’

To add to the mystery, the first DNA sample was unable to determine whether the parrot the pair dubbed “Pedro” was a male or femal­e. Another is under way.

Pedro has been spotted only once since the capture — Dr Murphy believes the glued-on tracker has likely fallen off — and despite 15,000 hours of camera trapping that has managed to capture footage of “just about every other species­ in this landscape”, no more parrots have been filmed.

With the small amount of retrieved data already providing promising glimpses at the benefits of tagging, Dr Murphy hopes the next round of netting will attract new members of the population which could be made up of anywhere between 50 and 250 birds. He is looking at new technology to track the birds via Bluetooth.

Non-government organisation Bush Heritage is negotiating a deal with a cattle farmer under which a small corner of the property would be bought and guarded from prying eyes.

Just releasedThe farmer, who bought the land just a week and a half before the night parrot population was discovered, told The Australian that when he first heard the news, his heart sank. “I don’t mind telling you, I thought we were going to lose the lot,” he said. “Here we were moving in only to be told, ‘you’ve got this rare bird here’, and I thought, ‘oh God!’.”

Adamant that he did not want the government involved because “they muck up everything”, the farmer requested that Bush Heritage lead the conservation efforts because of its existing relationship with landholders across central Queensland. The offer on the table would see Bush Heritage take over a small portion of the farmer’s least-productive land for an undisclosed but apparently “very generous” sum.

“I am thrilled … if I can just keep chasing cows and they do their thing, then it works out for all of us,” the farmer said. “If it (the night parrot) is still here in 100 years to come because of this, then I’m happy.”

Hours from the nearest neighbouring property, the land space is so vast, it’s hard to imagine anyone being so lucky as to find the bird without expert knowledge but Dr Murphy said it would not stop obsessive bird watchers and poachers from trying.

Feral cats continue to be the biggest threat to survival. While no night parrot carcasses have ever been found on the property, The Australian reported in February that a large clump of feathers had been discovered, causing researchers to fear that a least one cat was on the prowl.

Shooters were sent there earlier this year and will return ahead of the wet season, when cats are known to follow mammals and other prey into the region.

It is hoped further research of the parrot’s core habitat will not only shed light on how to protect the bird but also provide insight into what could have led to the decline of thousands of native species in regions with little or no human interference.

Bush Heritage Australia’s science­ and research manager Jim Radford said the night parrot was the “holy grail” in the bird-watching world, not because it was the rarest but because it was near impossible to trace.

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