Swift Response for a Swift Parrot

This is a guest post by Jordan Crook.

It all started with the line ‘You wanna go to Tassie soon?...’, as we were jumping out of the truck following a hard day of work.  The answer was a unanimous ‘Yes!’, even though we hadn’t heard why we were going yet.

A few weeks earlier, illegal firewood cutters had cut down hollow-bearing trees in bushland around Buckland in Southern Tasmania. I had been following the story on Twitter and felt that very common feeling of loss and grief that most conservationists feel on an almost daily basis, due to headlines of habitat loss and dwindling biodiversity regularly filling our newsfeeds.

The felling of the hollow-bearing trees in Buckland had another sting in the tail - they were vital nesting hollows for the swift parrot (Lathamus discolor). This species is known as the world’s fastest parrot that undertakes an annual journey from south-eastern Australia to the forests of Tasmania where it lays its eggs and rears its young.

This incredible bird relies on tree hollows to breed, like many Australian animals do. It takes between 120 to 150 years for a tree to form hollows and with large old tree populations declining in our landscapes, the loss of the Buckland hollow-bearing trees will put many swift parrots out of a home for more than 100 years.

The swift parrot was upgraded to Critically Endangered by the Federal Government in 2016 due to their dwindling numbers, estimated to be around 1000 individuals. The birds are declining due to predation by invasive sugar gliders that were introduced to Tasmania in the 19th Century. The other large risk is the disturbance and continued loss of habitat through illegal firewood harvesting and clear-fell logging operations.

But, back to the work shed where we were unloading chainsaws and wondering why we were heading to Tasmania, my boss Andrew McKernan explained his idea. Andrew had heard about the loss of the hollow-bearing trees via an interview with Dr Dejan Stojanovic of the ANU on ABC Radio National, and had the idea of contacting the scientist to offer our assistance in carving artificial hollows into live trees to help the birds get through the loss of such vital hollows in Buckland.

Andrew has been working on hollow-carving techniques for the past 10 years and knew a fellow arborist Grant Harris who had studied Environmental Science (Wildlife and Conservation Biology) at Deakin University and conducted hollow-carving works in Victoria for the Major Mitchell’s cockatoo. If anyone could help carve some new homes for these birds, these guys could sort it out. Stojanovic was excited by the idea of artificial hollows for the parrots and agreed for us to go ahead with the idea, so the planning began.

The idea of sending a group of arborists down to Tassie to carve hollows was put to the members of the Victorian Tree Industry Organisation: the body for Victorian arborists who would be leading the operation and funding part of the costs for the trip. The numbers of volunteer arborists started growing day by day as the news spread around the industry, with a total of 32 volunteers signing up and ready to head down to Tassie. 

We met up with the other volunteers one evening at our work shed on the outskirts of Melbourne. After a short introduction to the swift parrot and its ecology by Stojanovic and some discussion on hollow-carving techniques, the idea was dubbed Operation Swift Response. In early October, the 32 volunteers from New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania headed across Bass Strait and converged on Lanuawanna-alonaha, Bruny Island off the south-west coast of Tasmania. Bruny Island was chosen as the place to test out the idea, as it is free of sugar gliders and seen as the last safe stronghold for the swift parrot.

In a whirlwind of buzzing chainsaws, flying tree limbs, and a soundtrack of Taylor Swift (which we were using to call in the swift parrots), we were off and carving. Day One was a learning day led by Pat Kenyon, a pioneer in the habitat hollow-carving techniques. Pat presented a hollow-carving lesson on a fallen tree for those who hadn’t carved hollows before. As hollows started to appear in trees across the hilltops of Bruny Island, the calls of the odd swift parrot rang out over the work site.

By Day Two, the only thing stopping us from carving every tree on the island was the need for more cordless drills to screw the face plates of the hollows on. It was great to see so many people from so many walks of life coming together on a small island to help save this amazing little Aussie character from extinction!

The added bonus of working on Bruny Island was the chance to help not just the swift parrot but also the forty-spotted pardalote, another endangered species that calls the island home. Our volunteer climbers also installed many prefabricated nest boxes that were designed specifically for this species. Through an unlikely alliance of chainsaw-wielding arborists and dedicated scientists we made conservation history, combining skilled trade and conservation science in the hope of keeping one of our natural treasures, the swift parrot, away from the lurching threat of extinction.  

More than 60 hollows were carved and over 100 prefabricated timber nest boxes installed by volunteer arborists on private land held by the local indigenous community.  Stojanovic and the wonderful scientists of the Swift Parrot Project collected data on the hollows and set to work monitoring the take-up rate. Within three days, Stojanovic had contacted us to explain that the birds had been spotted using the carved hollows!  On Day Ten, the big news came in – ‘Eggs Found!’  It was an amazing achievement and shows just how real the hollow crisis is.

These carved hollows are a bridge from this potential extinction crisis to a time when more natural hollows will be available if we allow old trees to grow older and form natural hollows. These carved hollows are only a bandaid fix and the quick take-up by these birds shows that preserving natural hollows is imperative to the swift parrot surviving into the future.

Fingers and wings crossed that more birds take up residence in their new hollows and nest boxes as soon as possible!

A note from the author

It was an honour to work on such an amazing project, with so many top people! Well done to Andrew McKernan and Grant Harris for spearheading the operation and thank you to the VTIO and their sponsors for helping fund part of the trip.

A massive thank you to all the arborists who paid their own way down to Tassie and gave up their time and used their skills to help carve hollows.

And a huge thank you to Dr. Dejan Stojanovic and the Swift Parrot Project team for showing us around the beautiful Bruny Island and sharing their passion for this special little bird, as well as to the land holders who allowed us to carve hollows on their property.

The VTIO is already organising the next trip to Tassie to help our swifty mates! So keep your eyes peeled for how you can help out with Operation Swift Response 2017! If you would like to learn more about the VTIO, please follow this link.

Protect the Spirit Of Bruny Island; protect forests needed by swift parrots here

We would like to acknowledge that we spent time on the traditional lands of the Neunone people.  Weetapoona Aboriginal Corporation Chairman Rodney Dillon welcomed us to this land on Bruny Island.  He told us how much the word ‘endangered’ means to his people and thanked us for our work to preserve yet another threatened species. Visit http://www.murrayfield.com.au/ for more information.

Jordan Crook is the Manager of Conservation and Biodiversity at Melbourne Tree Care. He has a Diploma of Conservation and Land Management from Swinburne University and can be found on Twitter at @JCrooka.