Plight of the Orange-Bellied Parrot

This is a guest post by Lauren Hall

Did you know that one of the rarest parrots in the world can be found right here in Victoria? The orange-bellied parrot (OBP) is a small, beautifully coloured ground-feeding parrot slightly larger than a budgerigar. Named for the characteristic bright orange patch on their bellies, these rare parrots are endemic to south-eastern Australia. They are also particularly unique, being one of only two parrot species in the world known to migrate long distances over open ocean.

A captive orange-bellied parrot from Healesville Sanctuary. Photo: Lauren Hall

A captive orange-bellied parrot from Healesville Sanctuary. Photo: Lauren Hall

Wild populations of OBPs breed in Tasmania during the summer seasons (November to March) and fly hundreds of kilometres across rough seas to spend the winter months in the coastal saltmarsh habitats of Victoria and South Australia (April to October). During their northward migration they are also known to visit the saltmarsh coast of King Island.

Although populations are considered stable despite low numbers in Tasmania, they are listed as critically endangered in Victoria, with populations experiencing a severe decline between 2000 and 2008. There is estimated to be as few as 40 to 50 birds left in the wild, with captive breeding programs being the only back-up plan to bolster numbers. The captive breeding populations are estimated to number approximately 320 birds, with the largest located in Taroona, Tasmania and in Healesville Sanctuary, Victoria.

The major cause of their decline is still largely unknown; however, the extreme difficulty of crossing Bass Straight and the major drought of 2007 are thought to be key contributors. Additionally, degradation and loss of saltmarsh winter habitat, and higher prevalence of predators on the mainland are further decreasing wild populations. The birds prefer to stay well away from human disturbances, and are losing more and more habitat due to urban expansion, farming, and grazing by invasive species, such as rabbits. Higher concentrations of feral cats and foxes on the mainland also mean that the non-breeding winter populations are particularly vulnerable to predation. As they are ground-feeding, the birds can be easily targeted whilst feeding on open grassland, seeds and low-lying shrubs.

The stunning array of colours present on the orange-bellied parrot. Photo: Lauren Hall

The stunning array of colours present on the orange-bellied parrot. Photo: Lauren Hall

Although wild populations are continuing to decline, there is still hope for the orange-bellied parrot. The Captive Management Group for the OBP has released captive birds into the wild for the last three years in a row, once every year. The last release of 13 birds occurred in November 2015, just in time for the southward migration back to Tasmania for the breeding season. The biggest challenge of re-stocking the wild population is a loss of genetic diversity and risk of inbreeding. Currently there are geneticists from the Zoo and Aquarium Association keeping records of all captive bird genomes to help determine which birds are to be released.

What can you do to help?

Daniel Gowland, Chairman of the Captive Breeding Management Group, urges the public of Victoria to keep a vigilant eye out for orange-bellied parrots. He emphasises the importance of regular sightings for the success of the Captive Breeding Management Program. As we are now approaching April, the birds should be completing their treacherous journey across Bass Straight and will be currently landing in locations surrounding Melbourne. Now up until November is therefore the prime time for everyone in Victoria to search for these small, elusive parrots.

The orange-bellied parrot. Photo: Lauren Hall

The orange-bellied parrot. Photo: Lauren Hall

The blue-winged parrot. Photo: Jan Wegener

The blue-winged parrot. Photo: Jan Wegener

The places that they are most likely to be sighted seem to be at the Water Treatment Plant just outside of Melbourne, or other coastal Victorian saltmarsh and farmland habitats, particularly around Gippsland. Gowland also advises that blue-winged parrots are often seen in conjunction with the orange-bellied parrots, so sightings of these birds may be an indication that the OBP is in the area. For more information on how you can help sight the OBP and report your findings, please visit Birdlife Australia's website or contact your local National Park Authority. You can also help by keeping your dogs and cats indoors during winter, especially if you live in coastal country areas.

To lose such a rare and beautiful parrot species would be devastating. On many levels, the current plight of this species unfortunately seems to be a consequence of human expansion and urban development. If we want to continue to enjoy the variety of wildlife within and surrounding the city of Melbourne, we must work together as a community to do anything we can to help save the orange-bellied parrot from the brink of extinction.

Will you be lucky enough to spot one this winter? 

Cover image taken by Lauren Hall

Eye in the sky: drones as tools for conservation biologists

Monitoring wildlife populations is not a straightforward task. Individuals can be dispersed over wide areas of inaccessible terrain and can move across the landscape and avoid detection. However, a new era in wildlife biology appears to be dawning as research scientists are increasingly turning to small, un-manned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) to aid data collection. These devices can be fitted with an array of sensors including cameras for capturing images or video, thermal imaging devices and multispectral sensors that are able to measure the health of vegetation. By flying lower and slower than conventional aircraft, UAVs allow the collection of data at very fine spatial scales. This makes monitoring achievable for many species that would be impossible to monitor using aeroplanes or satellites. These advantages have seen UAVs used for a range of conservation applications including surveying for orangutan nests (see video footage here), as a rhinoceros anti-poaching tool in Africa, and marine applications such as counting sea turtles in waters surrounding nesting beaches.

Some of the seabirds monitored by UAVs. Photo: Rowan Mott

Some of the seabirds monitored by UAVs. Photo: Rowan Mott

The remarkable footage obtained by UAVs and the relative ease with which data are obtained has led many to predict big things to come for the use of UAVs for research and conservation. These predictions are based on the assumptions that data quality from UAV surveys is higher than traditional methods or that benefits to cost effectiveness and collection efficiency outweigh any drawbacks. Despite rapidly increasing use, the quality of UAV-collected data compared to data from traditional methods remained un-tested.

Our research group is involved in the monitoring of several large seabird colonies. This typically involves a team of counters making twice-a-year boat voyages to remote islands where upwards of 100, 000 seabirds breed. Using binoculars, spotting scopes, and a notepad and pencil we undertake the daunting task of counting every last bird. But this could be about to change. On recent visits to these breeding colonies we took along a new tool – a small, remote controlled quadcopter. We flew this UAV over a number of colonies collecting aerial images of the seabirds below. At the same time we had ground counters count the seabirds as we normally would. Back in the laboratory a dedicated team of volunteers counted the birds in the images and then we compared the counts made from UAV-imagery with those made by our team of expert ground counters.

An image of the seabird colony taken by the team's UAVs. Image: Jarrod Hodgson

An image of the seabird colony taken by the team's UAVs. Image: Jarrod Hodgson

The results were astounding. Counts of the imaged birds made by volunteers were consistently closer to each other than those made by ground counters. What is even more remarkable is that some of the volunteers that counted UAV-imagery had never seen the species they were counting, whereas the team of ground counters each had years of bird-counting experience. We don’t know for certain which count method resulted in an estimate of colony size closest to the true number of birds in each colony. For all we know both methods could be under- or over-estimating how many birds were breeding. So why then is this result important?

When monitoring a wildlife population, biologists are hoping to be able to detect population trends that could indicate the population is at risk of being wiped out or is recovering if a threat has been alleviated. If, when the same colony is counted by two different people, the different counts vary widely from each other there can be little certainty as to what the true number of individuals is. By minimising the variance between separate counts the confidence in those estimates increases and population fluctuations of smaller magnitude are more likely to be recognised. This will have a big advantage in situations where early intervention can achieve the desired conservation outcome more easily than if action is delayed.

Our research shows that the predictions of big things to come for UAV technology are not unfounded. The quality of data collected using UAVs can be higher than that collected using traditional methods. Yet there remain many important questions relating to the use of UAVs in wildlife monitoring. Not least of these is the question of how close counts made from UAV-imagery are to the true number and we hope to have an answer to this in the near future.

Photo: Rowan Mott

Photo: Rowan Mott

Also, there are ethical considerations that need to be addressed. Do UAVs result in greater disturbance levels to the wildlife populations that are being monitored than traditional methods? Although seabirds rarely fall victim to aerial predators, the same cannot be said for many ducks and shorebirds that otherwise seem ideal candidates to be monitored using UAVs. If the unfamiliar silhouette of an UAV is perceived to pose a threat similar to a fast-approaching falcon or eagle then the use of UAVs in the survey of these species is likely to be inappropriate. Currently, in the United States, it is illegal to fly UAVs over protected species, so until issues relating to the ethics of UAV use are fully explored, their full potential will not be met. These factors aside, the surge in uptake of UAVs for conservation looks set to continue and biologists across the world will be finding new ways in which this exciting new tool can further their research.

Check out the latest paper by Rowan and his colleagues here, and at the citation below. 

Hodgson, J., Baylis, S.M., Mott, R.M., Herrod, A. and Clarke, R.H. (2016). Precision wildlife monitoring using unmanned aerial vehicles. Scientific Reports doi:10.1038/srep22574

Cover image taken by Shane Baylis

Counting our backyard birds

This week, don’t miss out on The Aussie Backyard Bird Count! Combine nationwide citizen science with an excuse to take time out of your busy week to re-connect with nature!

I’ve always had an interest in birds. Call it a combination of my birding heritage and a UK childhood. Most of my family road trip memories (those that don’t involve fighting with my brothers) are of reading from cover to cover whichever field guide was sitting in the car seat back pocket. Because so many are conspicuously active all around us, even in the suburbs, birds are just so easy to become interested in. This makes birding a great way to get kids interested in the diversity and splendour of nature.

This week, Birdlife Australia is running its second Aussie Backyard Bird Count: a nationwide census of Australian birds, collected by the Australian public. The count provides Birdlife Australia with vital distribution and abundance data, which can be compared with previous surveys. Such a grand scale snapshot is only possible with the help of thousands of interested Aussies.  Already this year, over 17,000 checklists have been submitted and nearly 600,000 birds sighted! You can hop onto for more statistics, to see a national map of sightings and get involved.

It is really easy to take part in the count. All you need is 20 free minutes outdoors and the awesome Aussie Backyard Bird Count app (available on both Google Play and the App Store). Over the last 24 hours, I’ve completed 4 of the 20 minute surveys, at home, work and the local lake - and I’ve enjoyed the experience far more than I expected! It is rare that I give myself 20 minutes of downtime during the week, but scheduling these surveys meant I got to relax AND contribute to conservation science! I was truly connected with nature, all my senses attuned to the sights and sounds around me. I felt seriously relaxed and happy after each survey, and was really interested to see how the diversity of species differed at each site. Here is what I managed to turn up….


My Backyard...

This is my fairly sterile and exotic backyard. I didn’t expect to see much of interest, but all sightings are important in surveys like this. I took tea and nutella crumpets with me for company. It took a while to see anything more interesting than a Magpie, but I was pleased to spot some White-browed Scrubwrens and New Holland Honeyeaters! In the last minute I was rewarded with the awesome sight of at least 60 Straw-necked Ibis flying in formation overhead! Why don’t you give your front or back garden a go, you’ll be surprised at what you can see!



My field site...

I am lucky to work within the gorgeous Nobbies area of Phillip Island. After my fieldwork this morning, I decided to see what I could turn up for the Bird Count. I forgot to save this list, but I can tell you that I saw a wonderful mix of seabirds (Silver, Pacific and Kelp Gulls and Sooty Oystercatchers), terrestrial natives (Swamp Harriers, Magpies, Little Ravens, Welcome Swallows, Magpie-larks, Straw-necked Ibis, Cape Barren Geese) and common introduced species (Common Starlings and Songlarks). I was kept pretty busy making sure I could discern the difference between Kelp and Pacific Gulls in flight, as well as keeping an eye on a pair of marauding ravens out hunting for unsuspecting Little Penguin chicks.

The work carpark...

The carpark at work is actually pretty awesome for spotting wildlife.  During this survey, I enjoyed sharing my lunch break with a young family of Purple Swamphens (the adults look like feathered dinosaurs and the chicks look like black puffballs on stilts). Also entertaining was the Swamp Harrier that kept swooping down to terrorise the grazing geese, swamphens and Masked Plovers.





The local reserve... 

This is the survey I had been looking forward to all day. After work, I headed to nearby Swan Lake, a sizeable lake and floodplain with a couple of well-placed bird hides. Afternoon bliss! I was treated to families of Black-fronted Dotterels and Red-capped Plovers scurrying along the waterline, Hoary-headed and Australasian Grebes diving in one place and resurfacing in another, and even a Musk Duck! But I was most delighted to watch a large group of White-fronted Chats, both adult and juvenile, foraging on the flats and perching in the trees. Counting all those Eurasian Coots was a bit of a nightmare though!  




Get involved!

So why not get involved? Grab a mate, get the kids together or chill on your own and enjoy getting to know the local birdlife. You don’t have to be an expert to take part because there are plenty of resources and prompts on the website and app to guide you. The count runs until this Sunday, the 25th of October, and you can take part literally anywhere in Australia. There are also some great prizes to be won (as if contributing to nationwide science wasn’t reward enough in itself!). Check out the to find out more! And don’t forget to share your sightings with us on Facebook, Twitter (@WildMelbourne) and Instagram via the #wildmelbourne hashtag.