History of Friends of the Western Ground Parrot Friends of the Western Ground Parrot is a community group dedicated to the recovery of an unusual Western Australian bird which could soon become extinct. With Western Ground Parrot numbers down to around 130, this bird clearly needs Friends more than ever before.
The Friends group started in its present form in early 2003. Anne Bondin and I had become extremely concerned about the rapid decline of the Western Ground Parrot (WGP) population in Waychinicup National Park. This population had gone down from 29 birds in April 1998, to seven in September 2002, then dropped to four in April 2003. These alarming numbers were based on surveys, not estimates. Most of the surveys were organised by Birds Australia WA, with funding support from Worldwide Fund for Nature and LotteryWest as well as from the many volunteers.
It is not surprising that we were worried. At that time, as far as we were aware the only population that could be considered viable was in the Fitzgerald River National Park where there were just two sites at which ground parrots could reliably be found.
Back in the early 1980s, Cape Arid National Park had been well-known as one of the WGP strongholds. But after some extensive wildfires, this situation changed and no ground parrots had been recorded there since 1989 despite two dedicated survey trips as well as vigilance by Allan Rose, a Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) park ranger who is very attuned to birds and was well aware of the possibility of ground parrots in his patch.
Very few people were aware of the existence of the Western Ground Parrot: there was no project dedicated to the study of this intriguing bird and no-one was working on them full-time or ever had been. They could die out and there would be little understanding of what exactly had been lost or how it could have been saved. We decided to co-ordinate a community group and offer what information we could about what was known about the WGP and what was being done to effect its recovery. The main goals of the group were to spread awareness of the existence of the bird and to assist with its recovery to a sustainable population level. There was to be no fee to join the Friends group. We would produce a bi-monthly newsletter so that any WGP news could be out while it was still fresh. The WGP would be in at least in a few more peopleâ€™s consciousness. Both
historic and recent information about the bird would be put into public view, often for the first time. The newsletter would also function to recruit volunteers for WGP surveys and maintain interest for past volunteers. We hoped to encourage the search for WGPs and the follow up of any likely records. Most of the newsletters were distributed by email but some were by post. DEC Albany offered support by photocopying and paying for the mail-out, and this has continued ever since. Birds Australia WA agreed to look after the money we obtained from donations and sales.
The first newsletter was distributed in April 2003. The first item in it was a list of four rare Australian mainland parrots with the WGP coming in fourth. Now it would be third, having become more scarce and more vulnerable to extinction than the Orange-bellied Parrot. It is definitely Western Australia’s rarest endemic parrot.
The membership list of about 80 was mostly made up of people who had volunteered for WGP surveys. A goal was to get the membership to be at least equivalent to the total number of parrots which was estimated then to be around 250. It was hoped that this would not happen by the number of parrots decreasing. But it has. The newsletter now goes out to 212 addresses and the parrot numbers are about half that now.
The second newsletter contained some exciting news. In May WGPs were rediscovered in Cape Arid National Park. Two apparently healthy populations were found there and to put icing on the cake, a few additional birds were found further to the east, in Nuytsland Nature Reserve. It was no accident that a search was made at that time. A vast fire in 2002 had greatly diminished the heathland available to WGPs in Cape Arid National Park and the South Coast Threatened Birds Recovery Team recognized the advantage this held for searching for WGPs.
2003 proved to be a big year. In October the first Research Scientist contracted by the state Department of Conservation and Environment to work full time on WGPs arrived. Brent Barrett, fresh from Kakapo work in New Zealand, was very pleased to find that there was a Friends group already. Soon afterwards, the tradition of having a report in each newsletter from someone in the WGP Recovery Project team began.
Since then the Friends’ ‘newsupdate’ has been first to report many of the triumphs and disappointments of the Recovery Program. A major triumph was the obtaining of the first good quality images of a Western Ground Parrot. This was achieved by Brent with the help of David Chemello and Karl Edwards on Brent’s last day in the field in spring 2005, just before his time with the project ran out.
In Brent’s words “……the bird walked straight past me. I got off some great shots. Variously posed bird in vegetation or on the ground, calling from bushes, and peeking over the vegetation. It was all too much to believe. We had smiles the size of watermelon slices and hearts as high as kites. The whole episode lasted an hour but it was two years in the making. ….we were privileged to receive a front row glimpse into the life of a Western Ground Parrot. Details of plumage, method of calling, mode of travel and the extreme camouflage ability of the bird were revealed. ….because it was taken in natural light, the iridescence of the feathers is preserved.”
The next year, in spring, Brent returned to work with his successor, Mike Barth. They obtained hours of video footage of what seemed to be the same bird feeding, resting and moving around in his natural habitat. The reason that the filmstar bird stayed in the same area was that he had a fledgling to care for. The fledgling too was photographed, revealing very different plumage from an Eastern Ground Parrot of the same age. The extremely valuable photographic material has already yielded a lot of information about Western Ground Parrot food choices and behaviour. For example, it was learnt that WGPs show frequent vigilance for aerial predators. The team also had determined that the male feeds the female away from the nest and eventually they managed to film this happening.
New and previously known calls were recorded and it is slowly being unravelled as to which bird – male, female or chick – makes which call and when.
A worrying item in the December 2006 issue of the newsletter was Mike Barth’s description of the ground parrot seen leaving the Short Road fire in November 2006.
I watched a Western Ground Parrot walk out of the heath onto the gravel road approximately 50 m ahead of the flames in a swirling cloud of grey smoke. It hesitated in the centre of the road and turned around as if to walk back to where it had come from, but then turned again and quickly ran across to the eastern side of the road and disappeared into the vegetation. It would have been less worrying if the bird had elected to use its wings in such an emergency situation.
Recent and current locations of Western Ground Parrots, south coast of Western Australia. Waychinicup National Park (No WGPs since 2004) 1. Fitzgerald River National Park (WGPs have suffered a severe decline here since 2003.) 2. Cape Arid National Park 3. Nuytsland Nature Reserve (not recently surveyed.) Map prepared by Abby Berryman, DEC WGP Recovery Project leader.
Western Ground Parrot feeding, Fitzgerald River National Park, 2006. The series of photos taken in the wild has been a major breakthrough in communicating about the bird and also for research. Photo by Brent Barrett.
Wendy Binks beginning her painting of a Western Ground Parrot, Cape Arid National Park, March 2005.
Photo by Arnold Morales.
In 2003, the newly formed Friends group received information about a likely WGP sighting back in 2001 near Jurien Bay north of Perth. There had been several historic records from north of Perth. The dominant low and diverse heathland vegetation in much of the country around Jurien and Badgingarra does appear well-suited to WGPs. Our group was a catalyst for the eventual organizing of a search for WGPs north of Perth. The survey project, in 2007, operated as a partnership between DEC and Birds Australia WA (BAWA) with funding coming from an anonymous donor to BAWA. No WGPs were located but some recent records were uncovered. None could be confirmed but some had a ring of authenticity. I for one was convinced that WGPs had been in the area at least until 2003. As a result of this project, awareness has been raised amongst residents in the northern range of the WGP, of the possibility of WGPs persisting there.
Another aspect of our awareness-building campaign since 2005 has been the production of shirts and cards showing images of WGPs with succinct messages. Three shirt designs have been tried. The first two used a painting by artist Wendy Binks made while she was in the field as a volunteer in Cape Arid National Park. Wendy’s visit to Cape Arid pre-dated Brent’s photos so she had to make do with field guide paintings and description and a head only photo taken by Allan Burbidge in 1988 when, for the first time, some birds were captured for radio-tracking. While out there in Cape Arid National Park, she also painted some vegetation within authentic WGP habitat and designed a postcard. She had it printed and generously donated the thousands of printed cards to the Friends for awareness and fund raising. Our first card was from a painting by artist Jenny Preston. Jenny donated the use of her painting for the cards. She too had to make do with field guide paintings and Allan’s photo. Our third shirt design features one of Brent’s photos.
The Friends group has also been effective in attracting resources to the recovery project. Last spring, Anne Bondin was invited to write an item for a new magazine called ‘Endangered’, which is a ‘Save the Gouldian’ publication about endangered birds. She did so and provided one of Brent’s photos of Charlie the filmstar ground parrot to go with it. It was published in the magazine and Charlie was the centrefold. Early this year she discovered in her ‘spam’ folder, an email from one of the directors of an internet service providing company called Exetel. She realised that it was actually a genuine message. The director had read her item in the magazine and was wondering if their company could offer financial help to the Friends of the Western Ground Parrot. They offered webspace and an email address. He also asked if we could supply details and costings of a project, preferably to do with captive breeding, that would help the WGP but that we would otherwise be unable to afford. The team was not ready to launch into captive management, but thanks to the WGP Recovery Project leader, Abby Berryman, and her supervisor, Allan Burbidge, we were able to provide details of an alternative project with costings. It was the Autonomous Recording Unit project, the idea being to
have some electronic monitoring for calls occurring without the need for a human listener to be present. The recovery program already had two units, which had been provided at cost by Neil Boucher, an engineer who has been volunteering his time to assist with electronic equipment for parrot conservation projects. However, these units had not yet been field tested for this specific use. Exetel agreed to fund the project over four months. Unfortunately, Exetel could only consider working with the Friends if we had a bank account and an ABN, but we didnâ€™t. However, Birds Australia national office agreed to receive the funds into the Australian Bird Fund, and Birds Australia WA to administer them. An agreement between Exetel and Birds Australia was signed. Now, in the short term, one of the three full time people working on the WGP is employed as a direct result of the activity of our group.
Crunch time is here for the Western Ground Parrot and success in preventing their extinction is not guaranteed. We do have the example of the New Zealanders who have managed to coax their Black Robin back after being down to only five birds and the Kakapo population is slowly expanding from a low of 65 birds. The New Zealanders are demonstrating that their native endemic fauna is of inestimable value to them, and a huge effort is now being made to stem the tide of extinction that has seen fifteen species die out since European settlement began. To get a recovery well under way seems to take at least twenty years, a lot of funding, many volunteers and good research.
A major disappointment for the Recovery Team and all of us in the Friends group has been the State and Commonwealth funding shortfall for this year. It has come at a bad time for our perilously endangered bird.
The Western Ground Parrot has one important factor on its side. There is a lot of habitat in reserved land i.e. there is plenty of space for the birds to occupy if the population can recover. Research over less than six years has slowly uncovered quite a lot about their ecology but many mysteries remain. The last time a nest was found was in 1913! How they contribute to the health of their habitat is not known.
At a meeting in Albany on 24 June 2009 members of the Friends of the Western Ground Parrot agreed to adopt a constitution. Our objectives are
To raise awareness about the Western Ground Parrot
To assist with the recovery of the species to a sustainable population level in collaboration with the South Coast Threatened Birds Recovery Team.
For the first time, office bearers were elected. The commitment of Birds Australia WA to support the new association in its endeavours was underlined. The association is now ready to take on the challenges of fulfilling its objectives. The formal structure will give many more people the opportunity to contribute to the Friends with ideas, energies and skills.
We have confidence that our association really could, one way or another, tip the balance in the birdâ€™s favour.
Abby Berryman (DEC WGP Recovery Project leader) answering questions at the meeting that was called to formalise the community group Friends of the Western Ground Parrot, June 2009. Photo by Stephen Fryc
Note: This history of our group was completed in July 2009. Since then the WGP Recovery Project has received sufficient funding to proceed in a new direction, and our Friends of the Western Ground Parrot has now become an incorporated body. BN, January 2010