Critically endangered swift parrots spotted in Port Macquarie spark hope, excitement

July 11, 2021
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A large flock of critically endangered swift parrots has been spotted in northern New South Wales, sparking a ripple of excitement, and hope, among birdwatchers.

Swift parrots breed in Tasmania in the summer before migrating to the mainland in the colder months.

There’s only around 750 estimated to be left in the wild.

A flock of almost 60 was recently spotted at Port Macquarie on the NSW mid-north coast.

They were first seen by local school principal and passionate birdwatcher Catherine Oehlman who spotted them on her school grounds.

“I’m a bit of a bird nerd … it’s so exciting,” she said.

“We talk to students about endangered species, but to have a critically endangered species right here on site is really special and unique.

“It means it’s not just a species they are looking at on a website or in a book, it’s one that they can see and hear in their own school grounds.

“They are citizen scientists in this as well and they can contribute the data they are collecting.”

The NSW Woodland Bird Program manager at Birdlife Australia, Mick Roderick, said the large flock represented a significant proportion of the swift parrot population.

“It’s very encouraging,” he said.

“You are pushing five to 10 per cent of the entire population of swift parrots at that site, so it is very exciting news.”

Sighting attracts birdwatchers

Ms Oehlman said after the first sighting, the flock of swift parrots had appeared each afternoon at The Nature School.

“We have had at least 25 different birders from the area coming to see this species while they can because a species that is critically endangered might not be here for many more winters,” she said.

Ken Monson from Hastings Birdwatchers said they were helping survey bird numbers.

“I get hooked like everybody else. When a bird is endangered and you can actually see them now, it’s contagious, but also very important,” he said.

Retired biologist Les Mitchell has also been keenly watching the swift parrots in Port Macquarie.

“Very exciting. The last time we recorded them here was three years ago,” he said.

“They appear to be feeding on lerps, which is the covering of a psyllid insect … and a lot of birds love that because it’s full of sugar.”

Good year for sightings so far

Mr Roderick said the Port Macquarie sighting came after a year of low swift parrot reports in 2020.

“Last year we saw very few flocks. Most of the reports that came into Birdlife Australia were of one, two, maybe five birds,” he said.

“So far this year — not just Port Macquarie, but also in Canberra, Melbourne, and other parts of the swift parrot’s wintering range — we have had reports of flocks of 40-60 birds, so it’s really encouraging that we are seeing bigger numbers.

“We have noticed that when people have been taking photos and sending them to us there are quite a few young birds in these flocks, which is probably a sign they have had a pretty good breeding season.”

Mr Roderick said swift parrots often travelled a significant distance north on their winter migration.

“Some years, if conditions are really good, they won’t go much further north than Victoria. But probably most years quite a few birds do make it into NSW, particularly along the south coast,” he said.

“We have had up to 10 birds reported to us already from south-east Queensland, so some birds have already made the migration that far.”

Species on brink of extinction

Mr Roderick said despite the recent sightings there were strong concerns for the future of the swift parrot species and conservation programs were underway.

“The swift parrot recovery team have updated the [population] estimate to be around 750 individual birds, it’s difficult to say, but it’s less than 1000 birds,” he said.

“In the last recovery plan it was 2,000 birds, so the population continues to decrease.”

Mr Roderick said predation and habitat loss were both issues.

“We have the emerging threat of the sugar gliders predating nests down in Tasmania … which is really threatening the bird with extinction if things don’t turn around down there,” he said.

“Where there are not sugar gliders, that is where the most important habitat is. Those areas are on some of the inshore islands, Maria Island, and Bruny Island off Tasmania.

“There are some issues occurring there because there are some forestry interests in some of the swift parrot habitat.”

Conservationists have also recently raised the alarm over planned logging in a patch of forest on the NSW south coast that is home to the swift parrot during its winter migration.

Where do swift parrots go?

Port Macquarie birdwatchers are continuing to observe the swift parrots and their latest question is ‘where do they go during the day?’

It is a challenge Ms Oehlman has put to her young students.

“All the best birdwatchers have already looked. They’ve been to all the places they normally go and nobody can find them,” she told a class.

“They turn up at the school at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and in the morning they are gone again … so I said that years 3 and 4 were coming into the bush and that you guys would look.”

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