Princess Parrots, 3 December

Subject: Princess Parrots, 3 December
From: "" <>
Date: Fri, 03 Dec 2010 20:42:23 +0800
Early today five birders (myself, Chris Gladwin, Ian Puckrin, Barbara Harvey and Peter Marsh) were the last group for the immediate future to be accompanied into the traditional lands of Haast's Bluff by Luritja elder Douglas Multa and his wife Kathleen in the hope of seeing Princess Parrots. We were joined also by the CLC's tourism development officer Peter Allsop, his wife Gail and two other traditional owners. I'll start by saying that for me personally seeing this species, which I believe to be the most exquisitely beautiful Australian bird, was close to a lifelong dream, and one I seriously doubted I might ever achieve. To be able to do so in this way - regardless of cost, an issue I have already commented on - was an enormous privilege, and not one any of us took lightly.

The road west of Mereenie Loop gas field passes through extensive Desert Oak country before changing quite abruptly to large and graceful stands of Marbled Gum, with an understorey of mallee and spinifex. The main flowering plant here, and it was flowering in profusion, was the gorgeous Honey Grevillea (it's also quite delicious). It is, as most now know, the Marbled Gums in which these birds have been nesting. However, groups of birders have been reporting progressively fewer numbers as the months have passed, and we are now right at the tail end of this incredible breeding event. The vast majority of the parrots have already dispersed.

So it was with no small amount of anxiety that we began our search at the main site, Douglas leading us as we fanned out across the dunes. The area was still alive with birds, with cockatiels and Budgerigars in abundance. This made for a huge amount of parrot chatter, but no PPs were immediately apparent. After about 20-25 minutes, however, Chris was picking up some harsher calls ahead of us - and then, like a dream, the first few Princess Parrots hove into view, briefly alighting on a high bare branch. They were quickly followed by a group of 10 cartwheeling past at high speed, and it seemed none were keen on staying put. The birds were wary, and our initial elation was tempered by the fact that it appeared they might choose to remain elusive.

Much as reported last week, though, the parrots soon relaxed and we all enjoyed two of the best birding hours of our lives in their company. Maximum numbers were estimated at between 25 and 28 birds, but a completely accurate count was difficult as they were mostly split into separate smaller parties. Almost all were females with fully grown but still dependent juveniles, with females more than once being observed feeding their begging chicks - an amazing sight.

At this point Chris returned to the car to fetch his telescope and was handsomely rewarded, as he approached what he thought were two birds feeding quietly on a Honey Grevillea, only to be stunned when a total of 16 birds exploded from the bush and on the ground in front of him when he took one step too close! For all of us, the sight of the lime-green shoulder panels of the parrots flashing against the bright sky on a warm, still morning as they circled around and over our heads was something never to be forgotten.

Douglas was a pleasure to meet and talk to. He had never seen Princess Parrots on his land, another indication of just what a rare occurrence this is. I couldn't help but ask him about a certain other rare and mysterious parrot which very few people have encountered - and Douglas instantly claimed he had seen one only last month, approaching a waterhole in Desert Oak country at dusk! He said he had only ever seen a couple in his life. I checked with him about Bourke's Parrot and he shook his head firmly, indicating again the image of Night Parrot in Slater's field guide. Make of that what you will, but it makes sense that Night Parrots should also be present and probably breeding in such a spectacular season.

However, I also feel obliged to report that Douglas made his feelings abundantly clear - trespassers on his land had been noted, had caused anger and distress, and were unwelcome. I don't say this to appear in any way holier-than-thou after the fact: I can certainly understand the temptation, and indeed had another earlier opportunity presented itself to go for these birds with or without permits, the birder in me would have been sorely tempted. However, in the end I am extremely grateful to have had this chance to go about all this with the correct permissions, and for me the considerable presence and authority of Douglas and Kathleen added massively to the experience.

Like it or not, the land is private property and Douglas, along with a few others, is regarded as the elder and owner with the authority to permit entry. If you ask the first blackfella you encounter on the road whether it's OK to have a look around, then in his words, "You asking the wrong guys." This entire episode has proven an awkward clash of cultures and competing priorities. In the long run, I believe it will be of benefit to everybody if goodwill can be maintained, so that in the future other arrangements like this are more likely to be made (and, moreover, made more quickly than was the case on this occasion).

In summary, I can only speak for ourselves in saying it was worth every last cent to take advantage of this opportunity. You could spend that sort of money, we noted, on helicopter rides around the local gorges, or whatever takes your fancy, really. This was our fancy, and if it was slightly over the odds, it was worth the gamble on something that might well not happen again in our lifetimes.




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