Endangered

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

Plover Diaries: The Tale of a Territory

The Plover Diaries

By Hannah Lethlean

The hooded plover (aka ‘hoodie’) is a local beach-nesting bird, battling to survive on the Mornington Peninsula. Their breeding season coincides with the busiest time of the year (September to April), leaving them struggling to find undisturbed nesting space on the beach during this influx of people. In order to raise a chick they must overcome enormous odds, contending with thousands of beach-goers, dogs, foxes, birds of prey, ravens, gulls, and the harsh and unpredictable weather of Victoria’s coastline.

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

Human-induced disturbance or not, hoodies naturally have low breeding success. After 28 days of incubation, hoodie chicks hatch and leave the nest. They have a further 35 days of foraging and growing on an open beach before they are able to fly. Once able to fly (A.K.A. a ‘fledgling’), their chance of survival soars to over 50% compared to around 3% as a flightless chick. Keeping chicks alive during that time is the ultimate challenge, and is a testing endeavour even in natural conditions.

Throwing beach-goers, dogs off lead, foxes and increased numbers of ravens into the mix is tipping the pressure too far, and Hoodies are struggling to fledge chicks. In order to sustain the population, experts say there needs to be at least 0.47 chicks fledged per nest. Last breeding season, the Mornington Peninsula produced 0.16 fledglings per active nest. This puts us way behind the benchmark, and could mean local extinction within 25 years.

But it’s not all doom and gloom!

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

BirdLife Australia, Parks Victoria and volunteer groups have been working towards fostering a greater coexistence between nesting hoodies and recreational beach-users. By implementing on-ground local action and publicising the threats imposed by humans, we aim to increase community responsibility for the hoodies’ plight, and therefore give them a better chance of survival. This is done by marketing strategies through articles, merchandise and stalls at local markets; applying for grants to provide protective fencing and directional signage; educational programs; research into coastal ecosystems and the threat of introduced weeds; and coordinating and training an army of citizen scientists to collect observed data from their beach monitoring.


The Tale of a Territory: Moana East, January 2016

The Moana East territory is a popular surf break near St Andrews Beach and has been the centre of some serious hoodie drama and heartbreak for quite some time. Originally occupied by female ‘KT’ and an unbanded male, one day ‘KT disappeared, last sighted on her territory with a nest in November 2013. We thought her dead, but to our surprise she located up the coast eight months later… with a new man! Meanwhile, ‘MU’ (banded as a chick at Fingal in February 2012) and her unbanded male partner conquered the Moana East territory in December of 2013. Since then, these new birds on the block have had numerous nesting attempts, but unfortunately no surviving chicks.

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

Tragedy overcame the pair last year with the loss of two chicks only days away from fledging. This was devastating for the parents, as well as the volunteers and rangers who had dedicated days of work to give these chicks a chance at flying. A necropsy conducted later on one of the chick’s bodies showed that the cause of death had been from a dog.

This season, the pair have persevered and successfully hatched four chicks. Volunteers and rangers do regular check-ups on the little fluff-balls in order to monitor their movements, as well as to educate any beach-goers about the detriment of disturbance. The first chick from their first nesting attempt was lost soon after hatching. However, their second clutch of three eggs was far more successful and all hatched. Unfortunately, just as our confidence was beginning to build, we lost two of the chicks at 17-days-old. All hope rested on the final chick, whom at 23 days was starting to look more like a gangly teenager! The awkward transition of fluff to feather was taking place, and everyone was counting down the days until first flight.

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

Unfortunately, January 12th marked the disappearance of the final chick from the Moana East territory. Being much older and wiser, it was hard not to have hoped that it would survive. Not knowing the cause of death is frustrating and shattering for the people who have invested so much time and effort, but conservation of threatened species is rarely dominated by heart-warming stories.

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

Photo: Hannah Lethlean

So I know I said it’s ‘not all doom and gloom’ and followed it by exemplifying a hoodie territory where, this year, all four chicks have perished….. But the success we strive for is measured in increments. Only five years ago this territory was on the verge of being abandoned by scientists. The level of human disturbance was so great that clutches rarely hatched and dog regulations were blatantly ignored by the majority. Now, through various programs there is greater awareness and appreciation of the hoodies, which means that beach regulations regarding dog control and dune invasion are better adhered to. The community is gradually taking ownership of the hoodies’ plight and is joining us in the journey from eggs to chick to fledgling. The greater the community involvement, the closer we come to understanding the fate of the chicks. Before long, we will get those chicks to 35 days so that they can fly away - and we can sleep easy knowing that they made it through.

Optimism is a key ingredient for any successful human endeavour.
— Bob Brown

Note: All photos were taken in accordance with disturbance-minimising protocols using a telephoto lens by a trained individual. In no circumstances were the hooded plovers or chicks deliberately disturbed in order to obtain photographs.



Urban Wildlife and Responsible Cat Ownership

If I were a feral cat, I would steadily be getting more and more concerned about my wellbeing. In order to halt the decimation of our native wildlife, the Federal Government has recently released the Threatened Species Strategy. Part of this strategy is a pledge to humanely remove two million free-living feral cats from wild areas across the nation.

For many, this is a long-awaited development in our fight against extinction. Cats were introduced to Australia with the arrival of European settlement. Since their introduction, Australia has lost 29 native mammal species, with feral cats implicated as one of the main causes for the extinction of 20 of them. Furthermore, the Action Plan for Australian Mammals, released in June 2014, concluded that 55 species of native wildlife are threatened and require urgent conservation action.

If you’re a cat owner like me, you may be thinking: “So what? My cat isn’t feral, she hardly EVER brings anything home, and she is far too lovely to be categorised as a ferocious predator!” But you would be wrong (I’m sorry, I know it hurts to hear it).

Domestic cats ( Felis catus ) are a major threat to Australian mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Photo: Billy Geary

Domestic cats (Felis catus) are a major threat to Australian mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Photo: Billy Geary

While research on the impact of domestic cats on native wildlife is scarce compared to that of feral cats, it suggests that domestic and stray cats do negatively impact many of our native species. For example, domestic cats have been implicated in the decline of the Superb Lyrebird in Sherbrooke Forest, and in the decline of the Eastern Barred Bandicoot in south-western Victoria. In the case of the bandicoot, cats were responsible for at least 42 percent of deaths in juveniles. Other studies have found that 50 to 80 percent of cats partake in hunting activities, but that the cats only brought between one third and one half of their prey items home.

I’ll admit it, I don’t like to think of my moggy as a parrot-eating, spinebill-chasing huntress, but our urban wildlife is too important to ignore this problem any longer.

In recent years, many councils have moved to reduce the impact of pet cats on native wildlife in their municipalities by imposing cat curfews. In the City of Wyndham in Melbourne’s north-west, cats must remain on their owner’s properties between the hours of 10pm and 6am, and between 8pm and 6am in the City of Whitehorse in Melbourne's east. The Yarra Ranges Council has gone a step further, requiring that cats must stay on their owner’s property at all times.

It's hard to believe that my little fluff-ball is contributing to the loss of our urban wildlife, but it is something that I must accept responsibility for. Photo: Emma Walsh 

It's hard to believe that my little fluff-ball is contributing to the loss of our urban wildlife, but it is something that I must accept responsibility for. Photo: Emma Walsh 

So what can you do to limit your feline friend’s impact on our native birds, mammals, reptiles and frogs? For starters, you can have your moggy desexed. This won't stop your cat from hunting, but it will eliminate any chance of it contributing to the proliferation of feral and stray cat populations. This will also help to reduce the number of dumped and unwanted cats that overrun animal shelters every year. If you are looking for a more direct approach, there are things like brightly coloured cat bibs which bring the cat to the prey’s attention, or other apron-like collar attachments which interfere with paw-eye coordination to reduce the wearer’s chance of a successful pounce. Finally, you can keep your cat indoors as much as possible. This is the most effective way of protecting our fauna, and also limits your cat’s chances of being injured in a road accident or catfight.

It’s difficult to acknowledge that your furry friend may be feasting on native animals behind your back, but acceptance is the first step to solving the problem. By making a few calculated commitments towards limiting your felines take-away habits, you can help to halt the decline of our urban wildlife.