Chasing the ‘ghost bird’ of Australia’s outback

So when naturalist John Young produced
evidence of the near-mythic bird in a remote corner of Australia’s Outback in
2013, it was one of the greatest stories of species rediscovery in recent

It was “the bird-watching equivalent of
finding Elvis flipping burgers in an Outback roadhouse,” Sean Dooley of
BirdLife Australia, told the country’s national broadcaster at the time.

It got stranger from there, when the
discovery became tainted.

Over the next eight years, the find set off
a series of breakthroughs in tracking the “ghost bird,” as it is described in
some Aboriginal storytelling. But it would take teams of Indigenous rangers,
working with scientists in Australia’s most unforgiving and remote landscapes,
to accelerate the discovery of more night parrot populations in recent months —
a feat that may ultimately help to save the species.

The night parrot was long considered the
holy grail of Australian birding. Young captured photographic proof at a cattle
station in the Australian state of Queensland that the parrot still lived. When
he presented his pictures at the Queensland Museum, his discovery elicited
“collective gasps and murmurs,” according to Australian Geographic magazine.

Young had a history of making questionable
claims. In 1980, he claimed to have rediscovered the extinct paradise parrot
but could not produce evidence. In 2006, he announced the discovery of a new
species, the blue-fronted fig parrot, but the authenticity of his photographs
was questioned. Asked later about his history of making unproven claims, Young
once said, “I didn’t know it was a crime to get excited about a find and
slightly exaggerate.” (He declined to be interviewed for this article.)

His night parrot triumph brought a measure
of redemption — for a while. News reports heralded Young’s find. In 2016, he
became a senior field ecologist at the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

But scandal was never far away. In 2018,
Young supplied his night parrot photograph to Audubon magazine, which was
profiling him; the photo had been published before, but this version was
uncropped. The magazine’s readers noticed aviary mesh in the corner of the
photo, and accusations followed that he had illegally and excessively detained
the bird, and possibly even injured it. He denied the accusations.

Young had truly found the night parrot. But
an independent review found that he had faked audio recordings of the birds and
that one of his photographs of a possible night parrot nest contained fake
eggs. Young resigned from his post.

While the disputes of Young’s methods
played out, other investigators were conducting their own search for the night


It’s hard to imagine a more elusive bird to
track than the night parrot. The nocturnal, ground-dwelling birds shelter amid
thick clumps of dry, spiky grass in Australia’s most isolated and harshest
regions — some more than 1,000 miles from the closest city.

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Until Young’s discovery, almost everything
scientists knew about the night parrot came from amateur ornithologists’
19th-century diary entries and a small number of museum specimens.

English explorer Charles Sturt, on an 1845
expedition in southwestern Queensland to find a mythic inland sea in the centre
of Australia, “flushed a ground parrot,” that was, he wrote, “dark green
speckled black. It rose and fell like a quail.” John Gould, an English
ornithologist, formally described the night parrot in 1861.

Expeditions sought the bird, but few were
successful. In the 1870s, Frederick Andrews, who worked for the South
Australian Museum, collected more than a dozen specimens across the arid north
of the state.

Then the trail went cold. There were
sightings, but none confirmed. A night parrot carcass was found in western
Queensland in 1990, and another in 2006. In 2012, Smithsonian Magazine placed
the night parrot at the top of its list of the world’s most mysterious bird

In the two years after Young’s initial
discovery, scientists had recorded calls by night parrots, but “we only knew
about a pair of birds,” said Nick Leseberg, a night parrot researcher and a
doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland. “Seriously — two night
parrots in the universe.”

That changed in 2015. A group of scientists
on an expedition — funded by a mining company and led by Steve Murphy, an
ecologist and night parrot expert — found a small number of night parrots close
to the site of Young’s discovery. The next year, Murphy managed to attach a GPS
tag to one of the birds; the battery lasted just over 11 minutes, but it was
enough to briefly capture the movements of one of the world’s rarest birds.

It revealed that prime night parrot habitat
in Queensland consisted of areas of tussock grass called triodia that had been
long untouched by fire, and close to water sources and seed-rich flood plains.
(Triodia is commonly called spinifex in Australia, but it comes from a
different family of grasses.)

Night parrots are extremely vocal,
particularly just after sunset when they forage for food and water, and just
before sunrise. In 2016, Leseberg, working with Murphy, stationed audio
recording equipment in areas of western Queensland where night parrots might be
present. Using these and earlier recordings, Leseberg programmed software to
recognize night parrot calls — the haunting, two or three whistles that the
parrots use when leaving their roosts, the froglike croak as they fly — from
thousands of hours of recordings.

While these scientists were making progress
identifying small night parrot populations, other groups were gaining ground,

In 2017, Indigenous rangers in Paruku, a
protected area in Western Australia, photographed a night parrot using a camera
trap. Their discovery sparked new interest in night parrots among Aboriginal
ranger groups across the state.

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Australia has vast swaths of Indigenous
protected areas: land and sea preserved for conservation and cultural purposes,
which are owned and managed by a variety of Aboriginal groups. Indigenous
ranger programs aim to protect these areas’ biodiversity, and rely on cultural
knowledge of the land — much of which is passed down from community elders.

Clifford Sunfly is a 27-year-old ranger
from Ngururrpa, an 11,500-square-mile area of protected Indigenous land in the
Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia. It is due south of Paruku, where
camera traps had captured photos of a night parrot.

The youngest ranger in his community,
Sunfly grew up watching nature documentaries by Sir David Attenborough. He was
the first person from Ngururrpa to graduate from high school. And he just
became the first ranger in his community to see a night parrot.

Ngururrpa is 600 miles from the nearest
town. But if the number of bird calls recorded there is any indication, it may
contain the largest known population of night parrots.

After the Paruku discovery in 2017, the
number of known night parrot populations grew incrementally at first — a
handful in the desert’s south, a few more hundreds of miles away in the north.

But in 2018, a new collaborative approach
changed everything. Western Australian ranger groups invited Leseberg and
Murphy to a gathering in Balgo, a community on the northern edge of the Great
Sandy Desert, to help the rangers’ expeditions. The scientists explained the
sort of habitat where the rangers might find night parrots, and taught them how
to set up the audio recorders.

After that, the number of newly discovered
populations has increased drastically. The first night parrot calls were
detected on Ngururrpa in 2019; there are now 14 known night parrot populations
in Western Australia.

In August, Neil Lane, a ranger on Martu
country, hundreds of miles southwest of Ngururrpa, became the first Indigenous
ranger to see a night parrot after searching in a site that his community
elders had identified. “They know the country,” said Lane, 36.

Surrounded by red sandhills, he got down
from the vehicle and a night parrot flew up from a clump of spinifex. Other
rangers arrived, formed a line and walked through the grass. They flushed the
bird again, and everyone saw it.

In November, a team of Ngururrpa rangers,
including Sunfly, mounted a night parrot expedition after the audio recorders
detected thousands of calls. The rangers braved wildfires and floods to reach
their destination.

Shortly after sunset on the second night,
Sunfly became the first Ngururrpa ranger to see a night parrot. “It flew across
me,” he said. “It was flying real quiet. But I heard the flapping of the wings.
Then I saw its outline in the stars.”

Although the rangers are not scientists,
they are “highly attuned to, and acutely aware of, all aspects of the
environment” that their people were living in over millenniums, Murphy said.
“The observational-based science that they built up was incredibly detailed.”

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It’s time to recognize that there are other
experts, such as the community elders and the rangers, said Malcolm Lindsay, a
program manager at Environs Kimberley, a nonprofit working with ranger groups
in the Great Sandy Desert. “Their approach is more holistic,” he said. “Yes,
they want to conserve the night parrot, but also protect their cultural
knowledge, practice, communities and landscapes that sustain the birds.”

Despite recent breakthroughs, night parrots
remain critically endangered. As few as 15 birds survive in Queensland,
Leseberg said.

Most of these are in the 217-square-mile
Pullen Pullen Reserve, which is run by the nonprofit Bush Heritage Australia,
in the state’s west. “Every time I go out there, I go to the hill where they
were last time, I wait for sunset, and I hold my breath,” Leseberg said. “We
always find them in the end, but your heart is always in your mouth.”

The situation is more promising in Western
Australia, but even there, the birds’ future is uncertain; there may be fewer
than 250 night parrots spread across an area larger than Minnesota. On
Ngururrpa, Sunfly and his fellow rangers found not just night parrots, but also
tracks left by cats. Feral cats kill an estimated 272 million Australian birds
each year, and Leseberg believes that cats kill most young night parrots.

“When there’s a big distance between small
populations, stochastic events” — such as a wildfire, or a rise in the number
of feral cats — “can knock them out really quickly,” he said.

In the meantime, ranger involvement is not
just helping the night parrot. The programs are also reconnecting remote desert
communities to traditional lands such as Ngururrpa.

As more rangers became involved,
traditional stories about the night parrot are emerging. “They used to say to
us: ‘You hear that? Someone’s whistling for you.’ They did it to scare us when
we were naughty,” Kathryn Njamme, a Ngururrpa ranger widely respected for her
traditional knowledge, said of the night parrot stories she used to hear.

“We feel happy to be back out on country,”
said Njamme, 48. “Our spirits belong to this country and our work out here is
looking after the land. We want to get all the young people out on country so
that the next generation can take over.”

In the ongoing search for the night parrot,
Sunfly has learned from both the scientists and his own community. “We use
technology to help pinpoint where the night parrots might be,” he said. “But we
ask the old people everything. Everything comes from the old people.”

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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