A sighting of the critically endangered orange-bellied parrot has been reported in an area of South Australia where the bird has not been seen for nearly two decades.
The bird thought to be the rare parrot was spotted by a ranger along the coast of Canunda National Park, near Millicent, in South Australia’s south-east.
The coordinator of the South Australian Orange-Bellied Parrot (OBP) Recovery Team, Bob Green, is investigating the claim and said it would have exciting implications for researchers and conservationists if legitimate.
“It would confirm that we do have birds moving into South Australia,” he said.
“The last orange-bellied parrot known in South Australia was five years ago at Port MacDonnell.
“We need to know if they’re still using habitats on this side of the border … so we can manage for that.”
Mr Green said sightings had to be investigated carefully as members of the public often confused them with the blue-winged parrot, rock parrot or elegant parrot.
“Probably 99 per cent of sightings we can dismiss through certain aspects of what the person’s describing and rule out that it is an orange-bellied parrot,” he said.
“There are a few features — the call, the colour of the primary feathers in the wing, colours around the face — that help [identify them].
“Funny as it might seem, the orange belly isn’t a distinguishing feature because all of the coastal Neophema parrots have orange bellies.
“You have to know what you’re looking for.”
He said it was promising that the ranger had reported a distinctive call, characteristic of orange-bellied parrots when they are flushed from cover.
Winter movements still puzzling
The parrots breed in only one location, in the far south-west of Tasmania, and migrate across the Bass Strait every year.
What puzzles researchers and conservationists like Mr Green is where they spend their winters.
“Winter has always been the problem. Even when there were bigger numbers, we never found the majority of the population,” he said.
“Going back 20-30 years ago, it was thought that about 30 per cent of the population came into South Australia.
“This bird could have been a bird that was migrating southwards back to Tasmania.”
While there have been no recorded sightings of the birds in Canunda National Park since 2001, Mr Green said it was possible they had been using the area unseen.
“It’s one if those areas that we do search but you can’t search it 100 per cent,” he said.
“And it’s a small bird — it’s only slightly larger than a budgie — so it is really a case of looking for a needle in a haystack.”
Only sixteen wild birds, 13 males and three females, have returned to the breeding grounds in Tasmania so far this season.
A further 23 birds released from the captive population are helping to bolster numbers.
Ranger’s report promising
Mr Green said a decision to accept or reject the sighting would be made in the next few days, once he had assessed all details in the report, including the bird’s colour, call and behaviour.
“It may be the case that we can’t rule it out but we can’t 100 per cent accept it because … there may not be quite enough features to say it definitely was one,” he said.
“Hopefully we can. We’ll just wait and see.
“At this stage the report looks extremely promising.”
If confirmed, the sighting will be added to a national database which is being used to map the birds’ habitat at different times of the year.
Birdlife Australia’s Sean Dooley said the sighting highlighted the importance of preserving coastal habitat for the birds to move through.
“They’re copping a death by a thousand cuts right across the country,” he said.
“They’ve got so much going against them that every little bit that we protect is just trying to tip the balance towards them.
“It might not seem like much but every little bit does help.”