For the past six years, the Orange-bellied Parrot (Neophema chrysogaster) or OBP Recovery Program has been releasing captive bred birds at Birch's Inlet. Birch's Inlet is located at the southern end of Macquarie Harbour in the South-west Wilderness; this is in the Franklin Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. Orange-bellied Parrots were known to have bred at this site up until the mid 1980's. The decline of the species was probably caused by the absence of fire, which in turn created older age vegetation that was not suited to the OBP.
With less than 200 OBP's left in the wild and one primary breeding site at Melaleuca (further south of Birch' Inlet), establishing a breeding colony in a historical site has been a high priority for the Recovery Program. Releases have taken place in October every year since 1999, with a total of 176 captive bred birds being released. The continued release enables the population to get an annual boost to numbers continuing the aim of firmly establishing this breeding colony. Last October saw three of six captive bred birds, released in August at Point Wilson on the mainland, turn up at Birch's Inlet. This was an exciting development considering that the birds had not previously been part of the OBP annual migration. The migration is a feat in itself, taking place annually between South-west Tasmania and mainland Australia. The migration journey begins in March when the adults move north along the west coast of Tasmania, island hopping across Bass Strait to mainland Australia, the journey can take up to several weeks involving long feeding stops. Juveniles follow a few weeks later in April. Once on the mainland, they disperse as far west as Coorong in SA and east as far as coastal southern NSW. The southern migration is far more rapid with observations of transit times between Victoria and Melaleuca of less than two days, taking place between September and November.
The Birch's Inlet release is an exciting time for Healesville Sanctuary, not only because it is great to be a part of breeding programs with a release purpose, but also one of our keeping staff gets the opportunity to travel with the birds and be involved with the post release monitoring.
A prerequisite of enjoying living in isolation is a must for the South-west Wilderness area, but accommodation is way above camping, with solar power (a must for digital camera batteries) for lights, phone and radio operations and gas for heating, cooking and hot water needs. Tables, chairs, couch and beds make it much like the beach batches I used to pay to stay in during my younger days in northern New Zealand.
This year, it was my privilege to travel with the OBP's from Healesville Sanctuary. After being intensively involved with their captive husbandry over the past three and a half years, this was the final step in my involvement experience. I left Melbourne airport on the 17th of October with seven boxes containing 1 OBP from Adelaide Zoo and 19 from Healesville Sanctuary, meeting up with Mark Holdsworth and other staff from DPIWE (Department of Primary Industries Water and Environment) in Hobart, along with 15 OBP's bred in the DPIWE aviaries at Taroona. I also gained an hour since Tasmania is ahead of the Mainland, starting daylight saving at the beginning of October. Mark is the Project Manager for Threatened Fauna and the Coordinator for the Orange-bellied Parrot Recovery Program. With all the release birds in hand, we boarded a 10 seater light aircraft and flew to Strahan airport on the south-west coast. Mark had organized a photographer and journalist from The Australian to cover the release story and they accompanied us the whole way, taking photos and interviewing Mark about the OBP Program.
The flight into Hobart over Tasmania had been mostly clear giving great views of the mountains passing below. It closed in near Hobart, so I was relieved to see the clouds were still fairly sparse over the South-western side of the Island. It was a fantastic experience seeing this wilderness area from the air. Until I saw Macquarie Harbour I had no idea that Australia had a peat coloured harbour, it was like seeing a great delta in South America.
From Strahan, we had a 3 hour boat trip the length of Macquarie Harbour to the larger of Birch's Inlet landing jetties arriving at 4pm. Fortunately the trip was smooth due to the unusually calm sunny day. The last part of the trip was longer than usual owing to one of the engines losing oil pressure and having to be turned off.
Unloading at Birch's Inlet involved transferring everything from the boat to a dingy, going up stream 200m then loading a wheelbarrow for the final 200m transfer. The Healesville and Adelaide OBP's were then banded with their release leg bands, these seasonal colours and letter coding enables individual parrots to be identified. By this time it was 5.30 pm but still warm and sunny with a great forecast for the next few days. So it was decided to release all the birds by the feed station, some 300m from "Frog Lodge" along a boardwalk meandering over the button grass plain (a lot of peat bog between the Button grass) a similar boardwalk joins the Lodge to the dingy jetty (only the jetty boardwalk goes under water periodically).
All 35 birds took to the air with some landing close by where we were able to observe them feeding on the native grasses within a few minutes of release. It was an amazing feeling watching these small parrots take to the open air for the first time with their speed and agility immediately displayed something I continued to enjoy seeing daily while undertaking my duties as a post release observer. With the departure of the release team at about 6pm my immediate task was to move everything from the small jetty and set up the bird hide near the feeder before it got dark.
After 8pm, I met the starling "control" team, returning from a successful shoot, comprising of DPIWE Wildlife Rangers, Glenn and Jason. They had arrived a couple of days earlier and had effectively "controlled" the starling population by 20 odd birds with only a few to still get. Their days started by watching starling activity over the button grass plain and selecting the target trees to stake out come evening very effective method judging by their results.
My responsibilities were to monitor the Orange-bellied Parrot numbers and identities, keeping daily records of sightings, set up and monitor the Weather Station (temperatures and rainfall), and place seed on a pre-cleaned feed table twice per day in front of the hide. The hardest part of this task was getting up at 5.30am every day for the ten days I monitored the birds.
I was extremely fortunate to have exceptional weather and did not have any notably cold or exceptionally wet mornings to walk across the Button grass plain. Sitting for a couple of hours in the bird hide twice a day with my eye glued to the spotting scope trying to read leg bands as quickly as possible actually has an exciting aspect since I never knew which bird I was going to see next.
The first morning was clear with low fog hiding the hills, as I walked along the boardwalk there was a lot of OBP's calling and flying in and out of the button grass by 8am no release birds had come to the feeder, but I did see 3 returnee OBP's (two previous Taroona releasees and one offspring from 2002) and it was much more rewarding to observe this years release birds feeding in the button grass. Nevertheless it was very encouraging that evening to see 2005 birds with the previously released OBP's at the feeder. This has the advantage of more experienced birds showing the new birds the ropes, how and when to crouch or to flee.
My period at Birch's saw these behaviours develop with the releasees not always to my benefit when another OBP passing over the feed table spooked the lot into the air and I am still trying to get the last leg band identification. Most days I saw and identified 19 to 20 OBP's at the feed station but there were birds that flew in and landed amongst the button grass off to the side of the feed table, never returning to the table to expose a leg band, and many other OBP's were active in the Button grass. Some OBP's I was able to identify away from the feed table through the day, but this was always an exception.
The fourth OBP returnee (another 2002 offspring) showed up two days before I left and the first Blue-winged Parrots (Neophema chrysostoma) turned up the day before I left. These arrivals followed a wind change blowing down from the north.
On my fourth day at Birch's, Jason and Glenn departed, having totalled a bag of 30 starlings I saw no other starlings after they left. Shooting as a method of control is very important as it removes this introduced pest from competing with the OBP's for nest sites. There have also been at least two cases of starlings nesting on top of an OBP in a nest box. The OBP's were found dead under the starling nest' presumed killed.
The boat Glenn and Jason left on also brought their replacements Matt Webb, Matt Holden and Leanne Clark (arrived to check and replace old nest boxes) and Matt Pauza who was looking at the distribution of cytrid fungus in remote frog populations of Tasmania. Suddenly Frog lodge was full, but it was not until a day later that the first bit of rain started that the reason for the Lodges name became really apparent much to Matt Pauza's and my enjoyment, there was suddenly lots of frog calls and activity. The weather change made the nest box checking harder work since neither bog crossing or tree climbing are enjoyable in heavy shower conditions. It was amazing how fast the local water levels increased with a little rain.
In five days 40 nest boxes, including many new ones (double walled and insulated against heat) were checked and installed. This was an incredible job in some very heavy rain conditions and also covered many km's of swamp walking. On the 23rd, after the first 4mm of rain the river was up 6 feet and part of a track they had to use ended up 4 feet under water. The river was back to nearly normal the next morning. This same day the nest box team found the feather remains of an OBP from a possible Goshawk kill (indicated by the circular area of plucked feathers). The feathers were dry, so a fresh kill (since it had rained), but there was no sign of a body or bands.
The second known death was found in the early afternoon of the 24th in the old forest 1.8 km south west of the feed table. We had been admiring a pair of Sugar Gliders (Petaurus breviceps) that were disturbed from the OBP nest boxes (two in this particular tree), and even got to watch them glide 30m or so. The first indication of a problem was feathers amongst the nest material. Once the box was down, we found the bare bones (literally) and feather remains also the bands, one still attached to a chewed leg of a Healesville bred female that I had last seen on the morning of the 21st. Nothing else remained of its body no blood, guts etc. All nest boxes in Sugar Glider habitat have now been removed. Last year, three suspected cases of Sugar Glider predation had been found. The encouraging aspect of the find is that she must have been checking out a nest site, sadly not a good one.
One afternoon saw some tourists arrive to check out the OBP site (on a four day cruise out of Hobart). This highlighted the necessity for the boardwalk out to the feed station. It was great to be able to pass on the message of the OBP Recovery Program actually at Birch's with released OBP's flying around and calling.
Over my first few days, the puddles along the Lower Rocky Point walking Track, the one track out of Birch's Inlet (extending into the Franklin Gordon Wild Rivers National Park) were drying up with hundreds of tadpoles looking more desperate as the temperatures reached 26 °C so when the rain did come, it was welcome. With the showers also came renewed frog activity and I was able to observe Matt Pauza taking swab samples from tadpoles and frogs. (He got samples from 350 tadpoles and a number of frogs such as the Tasmanian tree Frog (Litoria burrowsae). We had some great photo sessions in a pond next to Frog Lodge which had two males and a female Tasmanian Tree frog active (only 6 males were calling over a distance of 3 km). Another endemic species I was able to get a good look at was the Tasmanian Froglet (Crinia tasmaniensis).
I also managed to see some amazing birds such as Ground Parrots (Pezoporus wallicus), Southern Emu Wrens (Stipiturus malachurus), Beautiful Firetail Finch (Stagonopleura bella) and Pink Robins (Petroica rodinogaster), over 30 species of birds. Last but not least, the company I shared was fantastic and a great credit to DPIWE and the OBP program.
Our last morning on the 27th came around far too quickly, but then the weather was closing in. Our return trip to Strahan on the DPIWE boat the Devil Cat was fast and fun jumping the wave troughs. Even the plane flight back to Hobart was fast at 200km/hr and only took 35 minutes. Mark Holdsworth and his partner Sally Bryant (Manager of the Threatened Fauna Unit of DPIWE) put me up for the night with great hospitality and a much welcomed hot water shower. After a 4.30am rise, I was on my way back to Melbourne for a rest.
As this season continues, I look forward to hearing how the released parrots pair up and the breeding successes they have. October 2005 could not have been better for a release with such favorable weather and native grasses heavy with seed. It was not surprising the released Orange-bellied Parrots settled in so quickly. With more OBP's still to return to Birch's Inlet from the Mainland, and those already there starting to breed, there will be plenty of observation work for the volunteers over the coming months in what is definitely one of Australia's remarkable and stunning habitats.